Collaborative Strategies for Brand Management

Marketing Matters 2013
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"There are no marketing emergencies,” Jeanne Lakso announced decisively at Marketing Matters 2013, the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association (NCGA) conference she helps design on topics relevant to co-op marketing and communications. Her calm observation sent a ripple of knowing laughter through the crowd gathered in the grand ballroom of the historic Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta in mid-May 2013.

No marketing emergencies? Let’s talk about handwritten signs, conflicting deadlines, limited capacity, mixed messages, font chaos in the grocery aisle. All of these and more may indeed be serious, but they can, with the right tools, teamwork, and insights, become manageable challenges and opportunities for success.

Marketing Matters provides time to focus intently on brand development. It offers two days of workshops and panels, with an optional full-day Boot Camp designed for new marketers and those seeking a refresher.

“We try to focus content on ways that co-ops’ marketing staff can help support sustainable growth for their organizations and communities,” Lakso explains. “I always look for speakers and peer presenters who can provide a nice balance of inspiration and practical tools for our attendees.”

Boot camp basics

Marketing Boot Camp opened with a session on the fundamentals of co-op ownership, with Shannon Szymkowiak of Whole Foods Co-op (Duluth, Minn.), and Joann Tomasulo of Lexington Food Co-op (Buffalo, N.Y.). Both offered examples of how to communicate regarding owner benefits.    

Ben Nauman, NCGA director of purchasing, offered “Priced to Compete,” a workshop designed to help marketers support merchandisers and buyers. He stressed the value of building a collaborative strategy to publicize about price in relation to co-op differentiators and the competitive landscape.

NCGA graphic designer Serina Sulentic focused on “Elements of Good Graphic Design.” She emphasized the importance of selecting fonts and colors that support the evolution of durable brand assets, sharing essential technical tips to provide a foundation for visual messaging.   

A session by Ric Tedford addressed advertising, with advice about various media. Both Tedford and NCGA’s Kelly Smith emphasized the need for regular customer surveys.

Brand management

Marketing Matters reflects the diversity of tasks required to fulfill promotions, merchandising, marketing, advertising, outreach, owner services, public relations, social media and education. While large co-ops may have numerous people in these roles, smaller stores often have only one or two people representing key areas of responsibility. A brand management approach helps communicate the importance of a marketing strategy owned by everyone throughout the co-op. Messages must be decided upon, designed, and then directed both internally and externally.

To compare approaches, conference attendees shared printed examples of communication pieces: newsletters, posters, ownership materials, coupons, shelf tags, and swag. They requested a chance to pool data regarding web design, a top-of-mind topic for many.

Field trips to area co-ops (Life Grocery and Sevananda Natural Foods Market) and competitors such as Harry’s Farmers Market (owned by Whole Foods) offered time to gather ideas for displays, signage, and sampling. Meals provided a further opportunity to network around specific topics.

Keynotes and conversations

As food co-ops adjust to an increasingly sophisticated retail landscape, new modes of communication compete for attention. Two keynote addresses considered these challenges in different ways: Joey Sargent of Brand Sprout Advisors reviewed the rapidly expanding world of social media.

Kaihan Krippendorff, Wired contributor and author of Out Think the Competition, engaged the audience in generating ideas at high speed. Arguing that a “fourth option” opens space to outpace and outlive competitors, Krippendorff unpacked stratagems such as “Coordinate the Uncoordinated” and “Create Something Out of Nothing” with reference to inventive business ideas.

Member presentations provided insight into very specific co-op projects. In a session on “Proven Strategies for Growth” Adrienne Battis shared rebranded materials from Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Wa. Mari Niescior, from Outpost Natural Foods (Milwaukee, Wis.), talked about “Points, Patronage, and Owner Perks.”

John Bryant of Roanoke Natural Foods (Va.) shared the circuitous route by which his co-op bought a farm and then opened a second location, guided by the decision to grow with both integrity and intention. Toni Tunge and Tom Vogel of Seward Co-op (Minneapolis) shared examples of how to “Tear Down the Silos” between merchandising and marketing.

Other member contributions came from Janae Lloyd, who integrated affordable recycling systems into operations at Chico Natural Foods (Calif.), broadcasting the value of a commitment to sustainability. Alexa McGriff reported on a popular weight loss challenge at Ozark Natural Foods (Fayetteville, Ark.), and Kate Scanlan of Ever’man Natural Foods (Pensacola, Fla.) shared ways to cultivate outstanding relationships with local media.

Joy Rust of Common Ground Co-op (Champaign, Ill.) charted the opening of a new store. Lisa Smith of Neighborhood Food Co-op  (Carbondale, Ill.) gave a popular practicum about how to write an annual marketing plan. Annie Hoy of Ashland Food Co-op (Ore.) and Margaret Mittelstadt of Outpost Natural Foods discussed public relations preparedness in “How to Keep Fire on Our Side When the News Isn’t Good.” The fact that their session came the day after the fire at Organic Valley’s headquarters in La Farge, Wis., wasn’t lost on the crowd.

NCGA program updates

Director of Marketing Communications Kelly Smith announced that NCGA will launch an online campaign called “Try This” in the second half of 2013. Aimed at millennials, the campaign features modules designed to resonate with tech-savvy, food-curious, socially conscious customers between the ages of 19 and 30.

An optional free-fruit program for kids called “Co+op Explorers” will launch in late June, with an array of support materials, including guidelines for stores that wish to implement the program.

Thematically driven Co+op Deals coupon books will be issued six times a year, beginning in 2014, with tear-off pads for shelf placement. Two direct mailings to all co-op members nationwide will be paid for by NCGA.

Smith also announced the creation of new store resources, an interior design catalog and a store-branding system.

Attendees were reminded of NCGA’s promo playbooks, designed to boost product awareness and sales. Playbooks highlight forthcoming Co+op Deals promotions and recipes, link to other resources such as Co+op Kitchen videos, and offer ways to conduct cross-departmental planning around seasonal bestsellers, holidays, cause promotions, and endcaps.

Taking it back to the store

The conference concluded with a number of awards based on data provided by attendees. Co-ops were recognized for such milestones as the highest percentage of overall sales growth (Mariposa Food Co-op, Philadelphia); the timely completion of a successful loan drive (Common Ground Co-op); the largest increase in membership (Chico Natural Foods, with 52 percent growth); and the greatest number of members overall (New Pioneer Co-op, Iowa City, with 26,000 members in a city of 69,000 people).

Raquel Dadomo received a “Get Right to Work” award for taking Wheatsville Co-op (Austin, Texas) through a complete rebranding process during her first year on the job, in time for the 2013 CCMA conference in Austin.

Marketing Matters earned high marks from attendees, whether relatively new to the job or veterans of the conference. Described by Michael Fritz of Common Market Co-op (Frederick,  Md.) as “truly the best career-oriented experience I’ve ever had,” the gathering delivered on its promise of skillfully averting or completely disavowing marketing emergencies. It also offered ideas for integrating promotional resources while reinforcing the need for collaboration with operational staff.

The phone is ringing again, and the fires are burning. Coordinate the uncoordinated, make something out of everything, keep calm, and market on.

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