Coles’ Lisa Ronson on the evolution of collectables and marketing through COVID-19

Today, Coles chief marketing officer Lisa Ronson kicks off her first major collectables campaign featuring miniature books by author Andy Griffiths. Here, she discusses with Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson the evolution of collectables, how COVID-19 has changed Coles' marketing, and if we will ever return to normal.


Lisa Ronson, chief marketing officer at Coles, (LR)
Zoe Wilkinson, journalist, Mumbrella (ZW)

ZW: What led you to choosing books for this collectable campaign?

LR: Well, there was sort of two main inputs into it.

The first is it always comes back to our brand purpose of helping Australians live healthier and happier lives. And, we know that kids that have a love of reading or read books have better educational outcomes and they’re happier, happier kids. And so that aligns really well with our purpose. And then another piece of research we did showed that whilst 83% parents want to buy their kids books that will encourage their children to read, only 22% actually buy books regularly for their children. So on the basis of those two main inputs, it was a fairly easy decision.

ZW: And what was the process of selecting a particular series? How did you come to Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series?

Andy and Terry have got the most successful Australian kids book series in the past decade. And when you look at the top 10 books that have been sold to a broad range of kids over that time period, they’ve got five or six out of the top 10, so it was overwhelmingly working towards the Little Treehouse series, and working with Andy and Terry who are really passionate about kids’ literacy and reading, and getting more books in the hands of Australian kids. So we had very aligned objectives on that front.

Andy Griffiths is the author of the treehouse series

ZW: The books and the packaging are made from sustainable materials and can be fully recycled. Following some of the feedback that Coles received based on the environmental impact of the Little Shop Collectables, what role did considering the environmental impact of these collectables play in the campaign’s development?

LR: It played a big role. We’ve publicly announced that we want to be a more sustainable supermarket and based on our customer insights, consumers and our customers are getting increasingly aware of their footprint and plastic in the environment. So, in the vein of being very much customer led, customer-insight led, that played a part in the development of this program. We don’t think that anyone’s going to want to recycle the books, but the option is very much there if they want to recycle them at the end of the campaign.

ZW: The first Little Shop Collectables campaign delivered incredible sales results for Coles and drove families to the store to spend more money. Did you have to think about the ethics of encouraging families to spend more money during COVID-19, considering the impact it’s had on family budgets?

LR: These programs have long lead times. Like any of our campaigns, we start planning them a long way out. So the planning was very much pre-COVID. But, what we do know is that Australians are coming in and they’re spending in our stores anyway, and they really like that additional reward for spending on the groceries that they were going to buy anyway. That was overwhelmingly the feedback from Little Shop one and Little Shop two. They felt that they were getting an exciting reward and exciting treat for doing the grocery shopping each week. So we were mindful of that. It just brings a little bit of a spark to the shopping experience and particularly for children.

ZW: The campaign targets children’s literacy and leverages Coles’ relationship with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. How will these causes set this campaign apart for previous campaigns? Did it come about with the partnership with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation in mind, or was that just a perfect fit?

LR: It was definitely with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation in mind because we are the largest private employer of Indigenous Australians in Australia. So it’s really, really important to us. And what’s different about this collectable is definitely the Indigenous Literacy part of it.

But, we’re also launching our first storybook school competition where we’re looking for basically the next creative geniuses like Andy and Terry, and schools will win fantastic prizes. And every entry we get to that we’ll donate books to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation because we wanted to make sure that underlying all of this is us using our size and scale to get the books in the hands of so many more Australian children. So it was a big part of how we built the campaign to take it to market.

ZW: This is your first major collectables campaign at Coles, how does it reflect the direction in which you want to take Coles as a brand?

LR: I’ve talked about our purpose before, so that’s very much front and centre for all of our marketing. And then our vision is to make Coles Australia’s most trusted retailer. So, I felt that campaigns like this one which have that excitement of the collectables that we’ve run in the past, but are making Australians healthier and happier very much at its heart is in line with where we want to go, because we are very much insight led, we listened to what our customers are saying to us, and we’re constantly striving to raise the bar with how we are surprising and delighting our customers. So we’re very much looking to do that increasingly and we’re looking at solutions and how we help solve our customers’ pains, pain points, and that’s through not only campaigns like this, but campaigns like ‘What’s for dinner?’ and helping lowering the cost of our customers’ weekly shops. We’re really leaning into the things that mattered to them.

Ronson became Coles’ CMO in March 2019

ZW: Do you think that collectables will ever reach a point where they’ve sort of run their course as a marketing concept? And what do you think would come next? What’s the next evolution?

LR: I think that so long as collectables remain interesting and they continue to evolve and innovate, I think they’re one of those things that… They’ve stood the test of time. I mean I remember, and I’m going to show my age here, collecting things like Smurfs and things like that at the petrol station. So they might come in and out of favour over the years, and there’s been so many iterations, whether it be football cards that kids swap in the playground and that sort of thing, I think it’s just about keeping it current, keeping it interesting and bringing a little bit of excitement and delight to customers shops.

So whether they’ll be in the same time of the year, every year into the future, I don’t know, but we’ll continue to, as I said, be insight led and monitor the interest of our customers to determine when we run them, what the shape of the programs are and how we run them.

ZW: The pandemic really put supermarkets in the spotlight, and because Coles staff are on the frontline, how has it changed the course of your marketing that was layed out for this year?

LR: Well in a lot of ways, at the height of the panic buying I had a section of my team focused on COVID-19 communications because Australians were increasing looking to the supermarket sector for information around hygiene, how we were sanitising our stores, social distancing, and product restrictions. So a lot of the team have been focused on those types of communications and also, interestingly, working with our competitors in the supermarket category to bring joint industry messages to Australians about the health and wellbeing of both our customers and also our team members.

A full-page ad in The Australian in March [Click to enlarge]

So it was very much about the more functional communications at one end, then continuing with the more aspirational and inspirational messages. And I think we started them back around Easter time and then in the middle, what are some solutions for the time and one of them was the What’s for dinner? live that we rolled out and are continuing to do because it was so successful with our customers.

Coles’ What’s for dinner? campaign

ZW: ‘What’s for dinner?’ really kicked off in response to the impact COVID-19 had on your customers. Is that going to be something that continues throughout the year in different iterations, different forms?

LR: We launched it back in September of 2019. The simplicity of it, I think was the beauty of it at, you know pre-COVID, between three and six in the afternoon there was a large proportion of Australians that were getting anxious about what they were going to cook for their family or friends and themselves for dinner. So that at the beginning of the campaign, it was all about getting five ingredients or less on the table in 30 minutes or less and providing inspiration – because the other point is people were getting stuck in a rut of doing spag bowl every Monday and then maybe something else on a Tuesday. So we were trying to mix it up and provide that little bit of inspiration that people were wanting to explore a little bit more in the kitchen.

And then coming into COVID the conditions were slightly different, so it was more around the inspiration and doing a lot more with some of the basic staples and looking at different cuisines, looking at very multicultural cuisines and just providing that overall inspiration from a lot of really credible chefs and cooks and great people that we work with currently and have worked with over the years.

And it just went down a treat, it was two and a half minutes every night, really simple, other tips from the chefs around chopping things and where do you put onions and garlic, and it was sort of really practical as well. We’ve since evolved it to be under $5 per serve, which we know Australians are increasingly looking to value, so we’re trying to find those value solutions.

It’s a great platform in short that we’re continuing to evolve based on the environment and what our customers are looking for.

ZW: And at the start of lockdown a lot of opinions in market were ‘We need to ready ourselves for when we come out the other side of the pandemic’, but now the opinions are starting to change in the belief that consumers’ priorities and focuses have completely shifted in this period, and that marketing will now never return to normal. Is that something you agree with?

There’s, as you said, a couple of schools of thought. Some people think that people will just bounce back. I ultimately think they will, but I think it’s going to take a lot longer than what we anticipated. I don’t think people will go back to how we were straight away. I think it’s going to take months and years actually. And I think there’ll be some behaviours that will continue around things like basic washing your hands and sanitisation. I think we’ll appreciate things more like travel, being able to go out for dinner, out for breakfast, those sorts of things. I think we might all just slow down a bit more, but then will that continue forever? It’s really hard to say.

I do think it’s going to take quite a bit of time before we go back to how we were and how we market and how we live our lives, because marketing is ultimately a reflection of what our customers are wanting and how we can help solve some of their problems. So their problems will be different for a significant period of time. So we need to work with that and lean into it, and continue to be helpful.


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