Q&A: The Co-operative’s Gill Barr

Gill Barr, Group Marketing Director at The Co-operative Group, speaks to Marketing Week following the announcement that the brand will take a more “energetic” approach to marketing.

Gill Barr Co-Op

Marketing Week (MW): Is part of the challenge the Co-operative Group faces is that it is still perceived as old fashioned?

Gill Barr (GB): It is partly that. From the outside it can sound like very old fashioned ideas but it’s actually quite a modern dynamic business. Take our banking business, it’s a really good banking business and it wins awards but people don’t know about it. It’s partly because The Co-op isn’t very good at boasting. If I had a pound for every time someone says The Co-op hides its light under a bushel, I’d be rich.

A lot of the growth in recent years has been through corporate growth and acquisitions. Now is the time to focus on organic growth, which requires a much more structured approach to customer thinking.

MW: After your first year at The Co-op, how do you plan to go about driving that organic growth?

GB: What’s occupied me is to really think about who are all our customers, who are these members? Where would we go to get more business? Is there an awareness problem? Are there other issues that we need to address and what are the messages that they would find motivating to persuade them to try us?

MW: Last year you talked to Marketing Week about carrying out the biggest piece of customer insight research the group has ever done. What have been the findings and how is The Co-op putting it into place?

GB: Twenty million people shop with us each week, but the research identified pools of customers who could be interested in our products or services but either weren’t aware at all, or got the wrong end of the stick about The Co-op. There are very few active opposes but there is an awareness and information challenge. People don’t necessarily understand all the things that we do.

At the moment, the number of customers that shop across more than one of our business is too low.

MW: Is part of the future strategy about cross-selling The Co-op’s many businesses, products and services?

GB: Yes in part, it’s sort of cross-promoting, what we want to do is sell complimentary services that will make [customers] lives easier and construct vibrant propositions that customers will find appealing.

Take our funeral business, when someone dies, it’s a gruesome thing to go through. And there are a lot of administrative things to do like probate and closing bank accounts. These are things we already operate in so it’s not about selling that to them, it’s about providing something that makes life easier.

In a recent focus group one lady said to me: “That isn’t sales, it’s taking way a problem.”

At the moment, the number of customers that shop across more than one of our business is too low.

MW: Is that a big change in the way The Co-op’s divisions have operated as a business in the past?

GB: One of the things that I put into place very quickly when I joined was a customer leadership team. It consists of the managing directors of the business getting together and thinking and talking about a customer led agenda across the group instead of thinking about a customer as a funeral customer or a food customer or a banking customer. [We want to identify] the things we can collaborate on and think about strategic issues.

These MDs aren’t marketers so we have a second group called the strategic marketing board to identify the thread of steel that goes through the middle of everything. They say ‘if that’s what the strategic agenda is, how can we [marketers] join forces across the business and deliver messaging that is mutually reinforcing.

It’s a bit early to talk about what has come out of this, but there is a very strong emotional cue that goes right the way through the business and our values.

MW: After publishing the Ethical Operating Plan and 53 new commitments, how do you communicate those in a way that is relevant to consumers?

GB: One of the things you realise is that you can’t say everything to everyone all the time so you have to segment and sequence things appropriately.

One message we’re particularly interested in at the moment is community. It’s always been right at the heart of the ethical operating plan and the way our membership works. Our members come from local communities. It’s at the heart of who we are. But its important in a climate where nationalism can be a bit scary and community can be reassuring. Being involved in our community and contributing to things that make it a better place to be involved.

…There is a very strong emotional cue that goes right the way through the business and our values.

Our marketing increasingly will focus on reinforcing to our customers and to others that aren’t aware of us, why we’re right for them and why we’re different. We’re not a baby Tesco – if you look at where our stores are, they are community neighbourhood stores.

MW: The Co-operative Group launched its “Revolution” campaign last year to encourage people to join the Group and form more co-ops. How is it progressing?

GB: Revolution was a campaign at a particular point in time. It has lead to new co-ops starting and continuing engagement with people. It was a small budget and remarkably successful at sustaining interest during that period, but we’re not in the business of politicising a new lifestyle. We are a commercial organisation and first and foremost, we have to meet customer member needs.

MW: The food business is the most commonly associated with The Co-op, how are you looking to grow the awareness of other businesses in the group?

…As we become more sophisticated in our digital use, we will become more increasingly interested in crowd sourcing and using it to dialogue with our members.

GB: The good news is that the other businesses have propositions that customers like; all we’ve got to do is tell them that they’re there. That’s the long and short of it. One of the things that unite all our business is the flight to trust. At a time when trust is in short supply because people don’t trust government, large corporates, footballers or talk show hosts – actually The Co-op is trusted.

MW: Will there be an increase in marketing investment to promote the other businesses in the Group?

GB: There certainly will be an increase, but the very fact that I was appointed [in a new group marketing director role] is indicative of the fact that CEO Peter Marks is very clear that he wants the business to have the customer at the heart of everything we do and he wants a much more purposeful and energetic marketing presence.

MW: You’re recruiting for a new head of digital role – is digital and new channels something where The Co-op isn’t particularly active in and needs to do more?

GB: Yes. If you think about community, virtual and real communities are clearly close bedfellows and we can be much more participative in.

MW: Co-creation is a growing area for a lot of businesses and becoming more widely used. How does The Co-op use it?

GB: We’ve use co-creation workshops to look at our customer strategy and as we become more sophisticated in our digital use, we will become more increasingly interested in crowd sourcing and using it to dialogue with our members.

MW: What does success look like for you at the Co-op?

GB: Success for me looks like reversing the situation described earlier in that we have great businesses that people aren’t aware of. We will have a fantastic brand, which is well communicated to its audience and offers an exciting portrayal of the modernity of The Co-op. This is an idea whose time has come. So instead of thinking about it in terms of its genesis, thinking about The Co-op as an opportunity for consumers to engage in trading relationships in different way, because most people are fed up with the way things are.

MW: Some of these acquisitions have been major such as Somerfield and Britannia. How is the integration of those businesses into to The Co-op progressing?

GB: The trouble with acquisitions is it’s never done. I wasn’t in the businesses for either acquisition, but I think they were very well managed. In the history of acquisitions, they don’t make you awfully hopeful, but these are business that have been very well managed.

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