IGA Is ‘Upbranding’ Before Switch To Digital-First Marketing

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Shoppers will always want three things from their local grocery store: value, convenience and selection. Those have been the top three attributes shoppers have sought out for many decades. What has changed over time are the qualities that come next, said IGA President and CEO John Ross.

“You start asking them ‘what would make a great shopping experience for you?’ or ‘how could your grocer serve you and your family better?’ This is where all the changes in the marketplace are coming from,” Ross told The Shelby Report’s Editor-in-Chief Lorrie Griffith.

Lorrie Griffith, Shelby Report editor-in-chief, with President and CEO John Ross following their interview during the NGA Show.
Lorrie Griffith, Shelby Report editor-in-chief, with President and CEO John Ross following their interview during the NGA Show.

Shoppers used to want faster checkout times and clean restrooms. Now they want help making healthier choices, getting out of a recipe rut or putting dinner on the table faster. Every single item falls under the umbrella of helping them to be smarter shoppers.

“Why would shoppers be so concerned about being smart? They have the internet, right?” Ross said. Online shopping is great for new shoes or a vacation rental. But food is “tricky,” he said.

“Food” isn’t a single item but a combination of products. That can be challenging for people who want to know more about the food they are serving their families.”

Some shoppers have fallen into a routine with a small repertoire of ho-hum meals despite exposure to gazillions of images and recipes thanks to social media and cooking shows.

• Parents struggle to make the “right” choices for their children.

• Everyone is pressed for time.

• And mac and cheese is just so darned easy.

Ross calls it “guilt gestalt.” Shoppers believe they should be serving up something fresh, different, better. He said local grocers already have the tools to help shoppers do that.

Ross has spent most of his rookie year at IGA on a Socratic mission to learn about the alliance’s independent retailers across the country. In those conversations, he asked them whether certain techniques and tactics might be of help. Little did they know that those discussions were the framework of IGA’s new branding strategy.

By the time Ross laid it all out for IGA retailers at the Global Rally in February, many already had been involved with it. IGA’s Licensed Distribution Centers were as well.

Ross spelled out plans for the new branding campaign in two interviews with The Shelby Report—one before the rally and the other after.

Take credit and ‘upbrand’

If IGA were just starting out, Ross said its branding would focus on local products, high-quality fresh offerings and exceptional customer service, because that is what independent retailers offer their shoppers.

“But we’re a chain that has nearly 100 years of heritage, so I would consider it an ‘upbranding’ exercise,” Ross said. “We need to take credit for faster farm-to-store and store-to-table. As it turns out, most of our IGA stores do buy intensely local.”

To help retailers with upbranding, IGA is introducing new visual merchandising and shopper marketing ideas. They could include signage relating stories about local suppliers. It also could mean spotlighting the IGA associate who created a certain cupcake or potato salad.

“Chances are it’s a family recipe,” Ross said. “Imagine being over in the deli and talking about the potato salad recipe that we have been offering for 35 years.”

That, in itself, is local. Specialties created, say, in the South could be sold as local in IGA stores in the Northeast. It is a “modern version of systematizing our localness across the chain in a way that nobody else can do,” Ross said.

“Imagine us taking incremental responsibility for helping the shopper know what’s fresh and what’s local. That’s marketing,” added Ross, whose background includes marketing roles as well as co-authoring the Google shopper marketing book, “The Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT).”

Digital-first ad campaign

IGA is not abandoning “Hometown Proud,” its motto that has focused primarily on community service, but it now will put a strong emphasis on offerings inside the store. IGA will use “Locally Sourced” callouts on products that are featured in the weekly ad, which this summer will become a digital-first endeavor.

IGA will create and curate digital content and encourage retailers to reinforce their own local identity as well. The digital ad format will be interactive and include videos and more space for storytelling.

Designed for mobile devices, Ross likens the new campaign to looking at a newspaper, where the user would see a headline like “Summer Grilling Season.” Underneath is a recipe for a cold summer salad complete with all the necessary ingredients and a video that guides the shopper through the process of making it. There also could be coupons for some of the ingredients or for accompanying items like drinks or breads.

On the next “page,” there might be a new product launch. It could be an indulgent item that now is offered in portion-controlled sizes. It could be a healthy product accompanied by a video featuring IGA nutritionists explaining why it is a good choice.

“We’re using state-of-the-art technology to help us tell our story…Our goal is to triple the number of impressions that IGA gets at a national level today. So, it’s not just that it’s slicker and cooler and it will be the best grocery ad in the industry, but it will also have a real audience behind it.”

Some featured products might be from IGA’s private label line, but the idea works equally well with national brands. Ross said many name brand products have been boiled down to a package and price in today’s marketplace. There is no story. But there can be with IGA, and it could reach a nationwide audience.

“I would like our stores to become way better partners for the big CPGs on getting credit for their brand story but also for the launch of new products,” Ross said.

Unlike traditional weekly print ads, the digital-first campaign will give IGA retailers feedback on their advertising efforts.

“Because what we’re going to be doing is digital, we can give statistics back to our retailers on how those messages are performing,” Ross said. “That may turn out to be the most valuable asset of all.”

Innovation awards

Ross said one of the best part of his jobs is seeing how IGA retailers are innovating. He said any idea he may come up with—about marketing, operations or innovation—likely already is playing out at an IGA retailer somewhere. To bring more attention to these ideas and success stories, IGA created the CEO’s Innovation of the Year Award. As was previously reported by The Shelby Report, it was presented to four retailers at the Global Rally.

“What I wanted to do was create an award that wasn’t (given) just because you’re a quality retailer, but a reward for retailers that are taking chances and figuring out new ways to serve shoppers,” Ross said.

Some ideas are firmly local; others may be worth trying in all IGA stores. A recipe for a housemade potato salad that sells out every day by 1 p.m. in one store, for example, could be shared across hundreds of locations.

The biggest wins will lift entire departments.

“A great example of that is cut fruit and vegetables. We’ve got retailers that have quadrupled the space for doing cut fruit and vegetables that used to be the program you did just to deal with the stuff that’s expiring,” Ross said. “They’ve made a commitment to it being the freshest possible. What happened to their department sales? Your margins go way up.”

Great listeners

Ross said he has heard critical comments from manufacturers, distributors and others about a lack of innovation at independent grocery stores. “These retailers just don’t get it,” they will say, or, “That guy needs to modernize. He’s just running the same play he did in 1980s.” It always comes back to the retailers.

Having been an independent operator himself—his grandfather owned a grocery store in West Virginia—Ross said calls that criticism unfair.

“These entrepreneurs, they’re not thoughtless, and they’re not resisting change,” he said. “They want to do better. They may just not know how.”

Many don’t have the time or staff to devote to innovation. Ross wants the IGA corporate office in Chicago to be more of a partner to the independents than it has been, one that can help retailers fix problems if they’re stuck.

The new digital marketing plan is designed to be an extension of the high-touch customer service the retailers already provide. It begins with listening. Then, through storytelling, independent grocers can help shoppers with their desire to be smarter. The digital-first approach will expand that potential.

“Great marketers are great listeners,” Ross said. “We have to be the best listeners and best in tune with our customers in order to win. Period.”


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