Marketing Matters 2010

Telling your co-op story

people making speach
Julie Huffaker and Brad Robertson of On Your Feet described the power of story telling to convey a store brand.

Marketing Matters 2010 took place in New York City, May 11–13, bringing together 75 co-op marketing and member services attendees, plus presenters and National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) staff. The list of the 56 co-ops represented (from Abundance to Weaver Street, by way of Hunger Mountain, Roanoke, Tidal Creek and Viroqua) hints at the local flavor of individual stores. The new “Co+op, stronger together” brand underscored the common ground among us.

The first afternoon was spent exploring Manhattan and its retail food suppliers, with treks to Brooklyn for visits to Flatbush and Park Slope Co-ops. Sessions during the two full conference days included presentations by Kelly Smith, NCGA director of marketing and communications; Chris Ryding, NCGA national perishables program manager; Charli Mills of Valley Natural Foods; and Allie Mentzer of Linden Hills Co-op. Co-op representatives on two member panels explored kids’ programs and strategies for teambuilding.

Keynote speakers opened and closed the conference. The project of effectively telling the co-op story to a wide range of consumers and constituents emerged as a unifying theme. We talk about building a story-telling platform for our stores: What might that look like? And who are we talking to?

Toward a more holistic notion of wellness

June Jo-Lee, director of strategic insights with the Hartman Group, opened the two days of presentations. In a talk called “Beyond Natural/Organic: Emerging Health and Wellness Trends,” Jo-Lee visited the Hartman consumer segmentation model food co-ops use to better understand customers. She discussed updated research involving consumer classifications, describing varying levels of intensity and involvement with the health and wellness market segment: core shoppers (13 percent), mid-levels (62 percent), and periphery (25 percent).

Researchers with The Hartman Group have backgrounds in ethnography, anthropology, sociology and psychology, as well as traditional marketing. They study food and beverage consumers in the environments of their homes, stores, and lives, drawing conclusions based on relationships between food and culture. (And they take photos of the inside of people’s fridges.)

“Culture goes beyond trends,” said Jo-Lee. “We look at how consumers really live, and at the differences between what they say and what they do, and what they aspire to. Core, mid-level, and periphery shoppers are drawn to different attributes of products, settings and services. Knowing about the differences among them can help you think about communicating more effectively with them all.”

Food co-ops are often a home base for core shoppers, people who are incubators of food trends and who have developed a holistic understanding of wellness. Mid-level consumers, while less focused on the broad connections between food choices and the public good, take smaller steps in the direction of local, organic, and sustainable products. Periphery consumers may discover the co-op when they begin to search for fewer “bad” foods, reacting to an allergy or newly diagnosed medical condition.

Jo-Lee emphasized the goal of communicating effectively with each consumer segment, becoming aware of those occasions that speak to their particular needs. Directing most of your marketing
to one particular group (such as the core) may signal exclusivity and make other customers (including some staff members) feel less than welcome in our stores.

“Sustainability awareness works from the inside out,” said Jo-Lee. “Consumers begin by paying attention to their personal heath, to what they put into their bodies. Now there are key non-food categories that represent gateways to greater health and wellness, as the evolving consumer makes decisions to use nontoxic body care, pet, and household products.”

Jo-Lee offered a list of retail audit touchpoints that communicate authenticity and emotional connectivity across consumer groups. Her advice to co-ops? “One recommendation would be to be inclusive rather than exclusive. You can partner with consumers on their health and wellness journey, no matter where they may be.”

Authenticity, emotional connectivity, and story

“Food is part of a broad cultural conversation,” summarized Jo-Lee, drawing a thematic link to the final keynote session. An interactive workshop called “Walking Your Talk: Branding Through Story,” it was led by Julie Huffaker and Brad Robertson, brand consulting experts with On Your Feet who have backgrounds in experiential marketing, organizational behavior, and improvisational theater.

“Every consultant needs a four-quadrant grid,” quipped Robertson, using their four-quadrant Story Plotter as a structure for eliciting anecdotes from the group. “The Story Plotter is meant to be a simple, sensible way to organize and classify stories, helping businesses live their brand and find alignment.”

Huffaker described the “fat words” that organizations use to define themselves: abstractions like leadership, customer service, and quality.

While often based on real beliefs and a foundational vision, these words tend to describe what an entity wishes to be rather than what it currently or consistently is. Such aspirational language sounds alike from company to company, diluting its meaning. “Because we all interpret these words differently, the language of ‘fat words’ often fails to help employees think about how they make decisions, respond, or act,” said Huffaker. “When customers have experiences that contradict the language of the brand, they are quick to see the gaps between talk and walk.”

Using the Story Plotter, Huffaker and Robertson first asked attendees to tell Stories of Fact. These are positive stories that unpack moments when abstract values come alive: the time someone went back to the kitchen to add ingredients to a packaged salad for a newly wowed customer, or when a synchronized shopping cart team made a parade crowd scream with joy. (“They weren’t yelling, they were screaming.”) The way a co-op member-owner thanked the staff for creating a place where, even during a time of uncertainty, she felt happy and safe.

Stories of Contradiction gave us a chance to capture and examine moments when actions fall short of aspirations— a staff person comments: “You’ll never catch me doing that for a customer!” or a guest picks up on a muttered insult. “Stories of contradiction help you identify guardrails for your company, places where you may draw the line,” Huffaker said. “They also help you think about how to bring actions into better alignment with your values. How can you turn your actions into a great Story of Fact?”

Two other kinds of stories— Stories of Possibility and Stories of Fear and Anxiety, provide structure for imagining both positive and negative futures. “Stories of Possibility can help you envision the next dimension of your business, or capture ingenious ideas and solutions,” ­Robertson explained. “Stories of Fear and Anxiety give you a way to reveal anxieties and give them words, releasing tension and opening a path to dialogue.”

The Story Plotter can be a grid for thinking reflectively about the emotional connections that are forged in our stores and retold in our stories. The tales told in the final workshop echoed many conversations that had taken place throughout the conference— during walks in Central Park, while comparing member-owner messaging, and when foraging for New York City pleasures. Now we had a taxonomy for them.

As always at Marketing Matters, we connected with peers, made rich and compelling confessions of both successes and mistakes, and filled out the details of the daily lives of our co-ops. We conjured strategies to build more authenticity and value into what we do, speaking directly to the needs and concerns of diverse stakeholders. We came home with buckets of cool marketing implements, too: find more of them in Take it from here: cool marketing implements for 2010.

See other articles from this issue: #149 July - August - 2010*
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