The co-op where I work in Bloomington, Indiana, is 30 years old this year, so we’ve been going through old boxes unearthing archival materials. A weathered photo of the band that played that hot July day when we first opened our doors. Pictures from a bulk department where you scooped oats out of a big plastic bucket. Our first letterhead, created by a person on staff who happened to love calligraphy.
In those early days the Bloomingfoods newsletter was put together by volunteers. It evokes that genre known as “underground newsletter,” before such a thing as “zines.” It is peppered with clip art and homegrown cartoons, engravings of onions, woodcuts of plows.
In one issue, a handwritten compilation of answers to a survey shows that 49 readers out of 120 believe the co-op should sell products to members at a 20 percent discount “even if that is well below our cost.” A chart explaining various complex levels of membership indicates that $4 secures the 20 percent discount for four months, provided you work the required number of membership hours.
Yes, we may laugh—yet many of the underlying issues remain the same today. How do we communicate the benefits of membership, surveying customers to get their thoughts? Who designs the letterhead and logo? A look at our history throws light on the relative sophistication and complexity of the communications challenges we face now.
The job of coordinating messages has never been more demanding than at the present time, when it involves working within multiple media. While we used to focus only on print publications (or just hand-written signs for the “Board Election Potluck Boogie”), today we compose stories on laptops and send them over websites across the globe. That early workshop on making hummus has evolved into a regular schedule of classes requiring listings in various media, a tri-fold brochure, partnerships with other organizations, ads in the newspaper, an interview on the radio, and branding elements in the classroom space.
Most of us know by now that “branding happens,” whether you plan it or not. Your brand is a sum of all those experiences creating your culture. It is larger than your current physical footprint or mailing list and bears various identifying marks: a logo that evokes something metaphoric, the language used when conveying your values and vision. Your brand is your décor, the publications at the entrance to your store, the question of where those still-smoking employees light up out back. It all adds up.
Brand management works best when integrated into a culture that holds conversations about its values. It flourishes under capable leadership, where employees and customers alike are given messages that are both inspiring and consistent. If your co-op has a strong objective—a mission statement that both derives from and drives a positive shopping experience—your communications in any media can more easily develop from that.
But how do you translate this into job descriptions and tasks? Communications involve a lot of translation, in the sense of moving something as elusive as meaning from one place to another, converting an idea to position it in another context, medium, place, or condition. What begins as a visioning retreat by the board becomes a revised mission statement with specific ends policies. The job of communications is to translate that into messages powerful and appealing enough to reach customers, members, the general public, and staff.
The marketing communications team
We all work in co-ops. We work better and more safely in teams. Yet when it comes to crafting a product, whether it’s a sourdough bread recipe or a direct mail piece, someone decisive with recognized authority has got to make the call. Attitude, skill, organizational structure, and talent all come into play.
The labor of designing messages is often controversial and confrontational. It’s like the test at the optometrist, where you have to select one image over another: one version is crisper, cleaner, and easier to read—yet different people see different things. Everything is open to interpretation.
At Bloomingfoods, the job of brand management belongs in some way to everyone. We work more and more deliberately to put excellent customer service (a longtime catchphrase of our mission) at the heart of our brand experience: the sensory dimensions of our stores, restaurant, and coffeehouse café.
Acute awareness of the brand lives with the marketing and member services team. We are the keepers of the brand who keep obsessing about it, tweaking the tagline for the latest ad, the color scheme, the membership packet. We are the communications hub, deciding what goes best where, when, and how. If the media calls, we need to be prepared to answer well. We maintain a broad perspective in which op- portunities are assessed and a balance between marketing costs and benefits is achieved.
It sometimes happens that someone on your board, staff, or within your customer base wants to take your co-op’s message in a direction that seems unwise. Many people have strong feelings about the co-op, literally investing in this particular brand. If we invite members to “walk in like you own the place,” they are likely to feel entitled to broadcast their opinions: maybe no one should be allowed to buy or sell Halloween candy, or the newsletter ought to privilege a certain healing modality. One communications job is to invite honest participation while developing gracious strategies for dealing with difference, disagreement, and poor judgment calls.
*Communications channels and planning *
It is important to build channels for communications that are in alignment with your co-op’s governance and organizational structure. Does your board operate according to policy governance, with particular monitoring reports related to member services and marketing? If so, use this reporting schedule to work with your general manager and communications team to design a marketing and member services plan, making sure its elements support board policies. If you have a board committee with a charter for linkage with marketing, owner services, and education, recognize its significance as a focus group and planning tool.
Planning involves regular auditing and assessment, in which you look at your current marketing mix and consider a shuffle. At Bloomingfoods we were able to increase the size of our marketing and member services team in the past couple of years, giving us the internal capacity to develop in two key areas.
We decided to create an e-newsletter that complements our print newsletter, appearing mid-month and emphasizing topics having to do with food safety, environmental issues, and the broader world of cooperative development [see sidebar]. This enables us to maintain a more local focus in Bloomingnews, with its emphasis on events, community connections, product information, and photos from our locations.
We also worked with a local producer to develop our own weekly radio show, with our member-owner services coordinator as host. Healthstyles with Jean Kautt broadcasts twice each weekend, featuring interviews with medical professionals and wellness practitioners. Co-sponsored by Bloomington Hospital, it helps position us as wellness experts while reinforcing a relationship with a vital local institution, one that has decided to make more food purchases with local growers and the co-op while also communicating its openness to complementary medicine.
These media developments would not have been possible if the staff members involved had not had an aptitude and interest in their assignments. The editor of our e-newsletter has an academic background as a research zealot. Our member services manager has always enjoyed talk radio and took to the medium with ease. When our team did an honest assessment of our skills and the co-op’s communications needs, we were able to direct our energies in a way that takes advantage of these passionate enthusiasms.
Shaping and sending content
It’s clear that there is more than enough content for us to work with: the Internet alone abounds with both high quality material and misinformation. We have product brochures, magazines that allow for reprints or recipes, and resources from other co-ops.
What is harder to find is the talent and time to sift through this content and transform it, sending it to the right audience at the right time. We need strategies for inviting ideas, identifying good writers and photographers, and building appealing regular features into our publications.
An archival approach can be helpful. Each time you work on generating content, consider it part of a flexible archive in which brand elements are constantly being added and updated.
For example, a relationship with a local farmer may result in an invitation to her land, where photos can be taken for ads, articles, and your website. Your conversation will generate quotes that she can approve or correct, and these will help you write a grower profile. An in-depth article in your print newsletter (which can be posted to your website as a PDF file) can be reshaped into a web teaser, with links to both the newsletter and the farmer’s own website.
It’s important to reinforce these efforts with store staff. A version of the grower profile can be directed to your staff newsletter, with a reminder to check out the longer piece. Additional notes from your produce manager might communicate operational details about the grower’s wares and when they are delivered.
A link in your e-newsletter might call attention to the grower again, with an announcement that her sunflowers are now available in the store. Maybe there is an interview on radio, or a short television ad emphasizing local. Visual merchandising elements result in a display near the product, and a poster or handout is available for outreach. Over time, a meaningful relationship is forged that enriches both your and the vendor’s brand.
*National support for marketing
and member services *
National marketing and member services support in the past few years has included the creation of a CoCoMaMas (Common Cooperative Membership and Marketing Association) peer group that helped develop a specific listserv. A “Marketing Matters” conference held in 2005 in both New York City and Portland, Oregon offered crucial professional development around topics of brand management, direct marketing, leadership, price perception, and public relations.
Elements of the national co-op brand serve now as support to individual stores. We have a Co-oop Advantage Program with flyers and an annual thematic calendar that can help us coordinate individual store promotions and editorial content. An online Creative Toolkit is available with ad builder ads and images that can be customized for individual stores. New packaging emphasizes the “Co-op Advantage,” bringing a level of visual integration to our presentation of prepared foods. Sample press releases, redesigned product information brochures, banners, and a Brand Readiness Kit are all available to form a supportive core of internal marketing.
As the national brand gains visibility, its creation offers us further opportunities to consider what makes our stores unique. One element of the cooperative difference is the degree to which marketing grows from the inside out: co-ops are identified with the authenticity of our business model. Owner services and education are key features of our brand, differentiating us from competitors.
Communications and “coopetition”
Increased competition looms as mainstream grocery stores respond to customer demand for natural and organic foods. We see more attractive stores-within-stores, competitive pricing, and publications promoting (at last!) the value of “real food.”
The concept of coopetition can be helpful here. A word coined by the rapidly evolving computer industry and theorized by economists in relation to game theory, coopetition suggests that businesses gain advantage by means of a judicious mixture of competition and cooperation. Cooperation with suppliers, customers, and businesses producing complementary or related products can lead to an expansion of the market and the formation of new business relationships, perhaps even to the creation of new forms of enterprise.
Coopetition is at the heart of our industry niche, another indication of the cooperative advantage. As we cooperate with other co-ops, we build our national brand. When we cultivate meaningful relationships within our communities, we forge marketing networks that widen our reach. Relationships with vendors grow our demo programs and our ability to share products and information at affordable cost. Within our stores, where there may be competition for resources between departments, cooperation stretches our imaginations and opens our eyes to communications strategies we can share.
Ellen Michel is marketing communications manager at Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana ([email protected]).