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Oystercatchers at the Festival of Marketing

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The Co-op has broken its 10 billion barrier for the first time. Meanwhile, its ecommerce business grew faster than Amazon’s food business in 2020.

With 4.3 million members, 2,700 food stores, 900 funeral stores and 55,000 colleagues all committed to serving the community, the Co-op story is a remarkable story of shrewd marketing investment anchored in purpose.

At this year’s Festival of Marketing, Oystercatchers’ Suki Thompson met up with Co-op’s marketing power team: Matt Atkinson, Co-op Chief Customer and Membership Officer; Grant Burke, Client Managing Director Carat UK and Alice McGinn, Strategy Director, Lucky Generals.

A few insights to share…

Pandemic focus: adapting to the changing reality of demand

Matt: We’ve all been in the same boat… entered 2020 with a set of plans and had rewrite these to adapt to the changing reality of demand.  At Co-op, we saw a massive shift from high levels of frequency in food shopping to low levels in frequency in bigger baskets. We saw a massive shift to online – almost seven years of growth in online in seven weeks. We sadly had to adapt in funeral care – seeing an enormous disruption in demand, tethered with digital transformation.  From a Co-op perspective, the diversity of portfolio meant having to adapt to change even more keenly.

David vs Goliath: the added factor

A significant company, yet, in comparison to other groups, the Co-op owns about 7% of the market.  From a marketing perspective, it’s packing a big punch.

Matt: This is a challenge but an opportunity. We have an extraordinary purpose yet lack the budgets others enjoy. Compare us in share of market vs share of spend, we’re way off the pace - Tesco, Aldi Lidl would spend a factor of three, four, five times the amount we do. It forces us to think very, very smartly on how to deploy spend and what we want it to do for us. Our unique proposition is a powerful marketing driver.

Alice: Co-op is a remarkable propositionally rich business. It’s a business set up to make a profit by doing good things and, to do good things with the profit it makes. From a marcomms perspective we need to help people see how Co-op makes a difference beyond just what it sells. 

Co-op founded the cooperative global movement. It’s the original socially driven business – so no reverse engineering purpose into the marketing strategy.

The realisation that this is a business taking action, doing things differently, and doing things better day in and day out led to our strategic idea and our line: “it’s what we do”. It speaks to long term brand-building, it’s a thought that stretches to promotions and deals, daily offers that drive sales short-term.

Art vs data: balancing long term brand building with daily strategic action

Grant: Our role is to dig deeply into our audience and unpack the consumer journey – the solution to food is very different to the solution to funeral care and very different to solutions for insurance.  So, we have different strategies and approaches to brand and activation and budgets and how we balance the short and the long term against each different category. Half is data and half is art –we have brilliant learnings and model everything to understand ROI –from short to long term contribution within that modelling.

Working with Alice we also measure the brand, and that art in how two things come together – but we flex very differently from approach to food to funeral to insurance.  We adapt – I don’t think there’s an answer that’s right today that will definitely be correct tomorrow.

Profit vs Purpose –difficult internal conversations?

Matt: We have less challenges here than you would imagine because the purpose is so clear. The issue for us is between short term and long term and the balance? The tension between tomorrow’s sales and the sales you know you’re going to get the year after.

The main issue is that we’re propositionally rich, we have so many things that we’re doing and not enough money to bring them to life. So, our main challenge: what do we talk about most? Do we shine a light on Co-op Academy, or, that we’re the largest Fairtrade producer, or, on our community platform?

When you only have so much money you have to do a careful filtering process of which part of the business is more important in the moment.

Our proposition, cooperate, Is quite inclusive – so part of what we’ve tried to do is to go back to what the Co-op does, and make sense of all that the Co-op does rather than trying to trade off different parts of the organisation.

If you have a Festival of Marketing pass, you can see the full interview on-demand here.


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