Value or Values, Price or Nice

When the Co-operatives new marketing campaign breaks next week, a single ad lasting almost three minutes will test viewers of Coronation Street on how much they really care about ethics and sustainability during a recession.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Co-operative’s new ad last night during a dinner hosted by chief executive Peter Marks and marketing director Patrick Allen, who featured in Marketing Week magazine at the end of January.

The pair, plus other assorted company big-wigs (if such a concept exists at the Co-operative) had invited a dozen specific journalists to view the new corporate branding marketing campaign, which launches next week.

Viewers of Coronation Street on Monday may wish to forgo the opportunity to leave the room to make a cuppa during the first ad break for what they will see may come as a breath of fresh air.

The new ad campaign is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, in what was described as some “extremely tough negotiations” with ITV’s commercial boss Rupert Howell, Allen managed to negotiate the entire ad break in which the channel will broadcast the two and a half minute version of the ad. Considering Howell was in the national press only yesterday claiming ITV is now “scrapping for its life” on the revenue front, one would assume the Co-operative paid very top dollar for the chance to communicate without the potential clutter of other brands.

Another notable thing about the ad, which plays through the entire Bob Dylan track Blowin’ in the Wind, is that there is no mention of any of its 12 businesses or indeed, any of its offers. Instead the campaign focuses exclusively on the values of the company and what good it says it is doing for the world. Climate Change, young people, international development, these are the issues that Marks and Allen want their consumers to be considering when shopping at a Co-op store or arranging a loan with the financial services arm of the business. This is way out of whack with what else is going at the moment. Most other supermarkets for example, are focusing entirely on price, promotions and incentives, on helping their customers through the recession. Surely such a message has more resonance at the moment.

Not so, insists Marks. People don’t abandon their values just because money is tighter than ever. I’m not sure. Yes, I agree there is merit in the beliefs and ambitions of the Co-operative; as someone who sat next to Allen during the meal, there is no doubting his passion – his three courses went totally untouched as he spent the duration of the meal banging his fist down on the table to emphasise the need of big business to join the Co-operative in its lofty aims. But I don’t see out-of-work parents caring more about international development than they do about knocking £15 or £20 off their weekly shop.

When challenged on the point, Marks softened his stance and admitted that while the corporate branding ad cost £10m but that the other £60m in the marketing budget would concentrate on promoting offers and price ranges. The synergies achieved by the Somerfield deal which is due to be approved anytime now, will be pumped back into the business to help keep product costs down, he said.

Is that an admission of some sort that right now, price will trump everything else?  Is any other message in marketing communications, whether on ethical and sustainability issues or anything else, redundant at this time? And what does that do to the green agenda? Next week’s Marketing Week magazine may help answer the questions. Among other people, we’ve spoken exclusively to the deputy leader of the House of Lords, Lord Phil Hunt, Minister for Sustainable Development and Energy Innovations, who shares the Government’s view on how the marketing industry should currently be treating its communications in terms of ethical and sustainability issues.

Whatever happens with the Co-operative and however it fares, Marks is a a man that represents the best fighting chance. A strong leader with nothing but admiration for him among his top people, he managed to raise £2bn in funding from the banks after the credit crunch had started, his Somerfield and Britannia deals still look like they make sense and the critical mass he has created is twinned with a sense inside the £14bn company that it can finish the year having beaten the already prudent business plan that he presented to the lending banks in the first place. Good luck to him I say.

Mark Choueke

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