Advertising: Taking the Alternate Route

The very nature of the cooperative grocery business is far from the mainstream, as can be noted in the cooperative principles that guide the operation of our stores. But the strength of our businesses are being tested as natural foods store chains move into our neighborhoods and as local commercial grocers install natural foods sections within their stores. The time has come to incorporate alternative ideals into creative marketing programs. Below I outline ele-ments of successful advertising strategies that will help to grow your store's market position.

A true sense of self. In mid-1999, six months before Willy Street Co-op (Madison, WI) opened its new store, general manager Anya Firszt invited a small group of advertising-related professionals to a series of meetings to discuss how best to market the new, expanded location. The focus group, made of members and nonmembers alike, met once a month. The group was quite demographically diverse, and some very interesting conversations ensued. Some of the many topics discussed were: What are the store's strengths and weaknesses? Who are the competition and what are their best and worst points? How strong are the co-op's community ties? What partnerships have the co-op staff formed with the local media?

For their efforts, the Willy St. Co-op staff was rewarded with insights ranging from the effective use and timing of the public relations campaign for the new store opening to overall advertising concepts and strategies. So whether you conduct a focus group, have the local college marketing class put together a survey of customers, or get down to the investigative work yourself, it's essential to get a thorough understanding of the store's current situation before moving forward with actual advertising.

A case of unmistakable identity. I'm sure you've all heard figures concerning the number of images a person is bombarded with every day. But how many of those images actually stick? I'm willing to bet the concept-driven images are the ones that usually get noticed. They make you think -- they take you down a road and instill a message.

Take the Lakewinds Natural Foods (Minnetonka, MN) logo project for example. Kris Nelson and Patricia Cumbie from Lakewinds got in touch with me a few years back looking to update their existing logo. It was apparent that the logo was graphically stuck somewhere in the early 1980s, which is a common problem when designers jump on existing graphic trends rather than incorporate timeless conceptual designs. After presenting four initial logos, we evolved through to the final logo identity. The design focuses on the word "Lakewinds" and the conceptual image that the word offers. A non-stylized typeface was chosen and a "wind" graphic was incorporated as the dot of the i. The final image was designed to work well in black and white applications as well as in color.

Give them a sign. Oak Street Market (an independent natural foods store formerly of Evanston, IL) was in dire straits back in 1994. They had enjoyed years of healthy sales growth until a Fresh Fields moved in a few blocks away. After having already made some tough management decisions, cutting payroll and tightening up on margins, store manager Dave Goetz contacted me. Store sales had dipped 25% and were still on a downward trend. We decided to start with a newspaper advertising campaign focusing on the store's strengths. The rallying cry: "Natural foods experts don't sprout overnight." The tagline pointed out Fresh Fields' major weakness.

With the help of Allen Seidner (then Oak Street deli manager), a very straightforward monthly newsletter program was put in place. The newsletter included a few insightful articles and/or recipes on the front and monthly market specials from the various store departments inside the 11x17 inch format. The ink color changed monthly to denote new sale items, and we also color correlated point-of-purchase signage to match the ink of the newsletter. The newsletter was mailed to a current shopper database each month.

It became apparent very quickly that customers were finding the sale items easily, as the average sale per customer grew. After eight months of the advertising program, Oak Street's store sales were back to pre-Fresh Fields levels, and the store had gotten the attention of the other major natural foods player in town, Whole Foods Market. As you all know, natural foods experts don't sprout overnight. Whole Foods merged with Oak Street Market in 1995, gaining not only an experienced staff but a strong foothold in the Evanston market.

(In a bizarre twist of fate after the Whole Foods buyout of Fresh Fields a few months after that, the Oak Street Market store was closed and the employees were shipped over to the Fresh Fields location down the street -- talk about full circle!)

The right place at the right time. During the last seven years, general manager Pam Mehnert and marketing manager Lisa Malmarowski at Outpost Natural Foods (Milwaukee, WI) and I have been fine tuning the co-op's community targeted advertising. The city's alternative weekly newspaper was great for starters, but Milwaukee is very demographically diverse. Brats and beer still prevail, but a more evolved diet is definitely spreading. To really get the job done we dug deeper and started to advertise regularly in the local college paper, the gay and lesbian weekly, the Jewish paper and the food section of the Sunday paper (zoned for very specific areas of the city), to name but a few. These special interest publications are far less expensive than buying space in the mainstream Sunday paper, where a small space advertisement will more than likely get lost among the other ads. Plus, by including these grassroots publications in the media plan, Outpost is supporting people who in turn support the store.

Outpost also fortifies a strong print advertising base with radio placements and the underwriting of local public radio broadcasts. An excellent demographic mix has been found between the jazz, classical, and adult contemporary broadcast formats. The radio campaigns target prospective customers twice a year, once in April (Outpost's birthday and Earth Day) and in October (Co-op Month). Ongoing underwriting of vegetarian cooking shows on public television are also part of the media mix during the winter months. One final strategy we've strived to maintain over the years is making sure that all of Outpost's marketing materials have a cohesive look. From the web site and brochure line to signage and owner coupon books, everything from Outpost fits together.

Getting to know you. When considering advertising approaches for your store, I suggest you start by representing what it is that your store does best. Be creative, be clever and don't follow the pack. It's better to take chances than to look like everyone else. After all, an advertisement that doesn't get noticed won't do your store a bit of good. A recent Bloomingfoods Market (Bloomington, IN) print campaign is a good example. As with many food co-ops, Bloomingfoods has been an integral part of the Bloomington scene ever since the 1970s. Striving to fortifying the co-op's community presence, a series of advertisements were created to remind the targeted demographic of the co-op's history and to position Bloomingfoods for the future. The resulting four quarter-page tabloid size ads utilize a photographic border comprised of pictures that George Huntington, the general manager, provided from the store's archives. The images depict people at various store gatherings, salsa contest winners, and other flashback photos. One or two sentences of headline size copy bring each ad together. One states, "At Bloomingfoods, our sense of community isn't trend setting. It's more like old friends coming together to share insights about local events, the environment, and who has the best salsa!"

Customer education should be a cornerstone in natural foods advertising. Breaking down the stereotypes of natural foods can be a long and painstaking process, but if you stick with a concise, creative marketing program and utilize some or all of the strategies discussed here, your store will benefit greatly.

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