Marketers should be leading the Co-op

The Co-operative Group is shifting its strategy from a rescue mission to one of rebuilding. Having gone through a torrid time in 2013 and the start of 2014, now permanent chief executive Richard Pennycook believes the Co-op has got through the worst and can look to the future. 

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That includes plans to up marketing activity for what Pennycook says are its “unloved” insurance and funeral care businesses to remind people what they offer. Next year, a campaign is planned that will unite the group’s disparate businesses under one brand proposition.

However, missing from those plans is someone to head up the marketing team. The group’s marketing director Gill Barr left a few months ago following the Co-op’s decision to remove marketing from the executive board and put it under the responsibility of Nick Folland, the company’s director of external affairs.

Speaking to Marketing Week at an event this morning (4 September) to announce its half-year results, Folland said the Co-op felt no need to replace Barr because it has a “super team that know the business and how it should be sending out its message”. He has now taken responsibility for the running of the marketing team.

The Co-op is one of the biggest advertisers in the UK. According to Nielsen figures it spent £33.6m last year, up 28.93 per cent on the previous year. Yet it now has a man in charge of its marketing department who has no experience in marketing.

Folland has been running the Co-op’s internal and external comms teams since he joined from Kingfisher last year. However his background is in the law. At Kingfisher he was legal and corporate responsibility director. Prior to that he was group legal director at EMAP having qualified as a solicitor at Linklaters and Paines.

Pennycook, meanwhile, is a finance man and the rest of the exec team has no background in marketing. A decision is yet to be taken on what the group’s new board will look like, but one of Lord Myners’ criticism in his governance report was the lack of marketing and other discipline-specific expertise.

The next six months will be critical for the Co-op. Pennycook and his team are now focused on rebuilding the company and its battered reputation having spent the last few months trying to push through vital governance reforms.

It has a £500m warchest from the sales of its non-core businesses – farms, pharmacies and Sunwin services business. It plans to spend that on its food business in opening 100 new retail stores and refitting a further 350 as well as product innovation and range. It is also launching new digital services for its funeral care business.

To support that investment there will also be a marketing push. Folland says the plan is to promote each of its brands over the coming months with tactical seasonal activity.

He admits the strategy at the moment is to do marketing brand by brand, with “nothing coherent above it”. The Co-op Group does have a new purpose but its marketing doesn’t yet reflect that brand proposition.

“What we don’t want to do is launch a new brand proposition before we are ready. There has to be a right point to ask people to come back to the Co-op and that’s not quite now, but it’s not far off,” he says.

Yet the Co-op approaches that crucial moment in its brand turnaround without someone with direct marketing experience at the helm.

All consumer-facing brands should have marketing at their core. Currently the Co-op does not.

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