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Can MullenLowe’s Covid work help it tackle the cost of living crisis with Co-op?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

August 26, 2022 | 7 min read

As the agency prepares to take on the Co-op’s digital business, MullenLowe’s Nicky Bullard explains how she plans to apply Covid crisis lessons to boost the retailer’s e-commerce approach.

Co-op shelves

MullenLowe's Nicky Bullard explains how the agency aims to assist new client The Co-op / The Co-operative

The Co-operative Group includes the largest funeral care chain in the UK, a major legal services business and one of the biggest life insurers in the country – and that’s not counting a high street food retail chain that has a bigger market share of the supermarket sector than Waitrose. All in all, it is the country’s largest consumer co-operative, owned by 4 million members.

But retail brands, like shoppers, are under pressure. Recent figures from Gartner suggest that retailers are spending less than before the pandemic, reflecting ”growing economic uncertainty”. Changes in consumer spending habits caused by the UK’s worsening cost of living crisis will arrive at their door first, while inflation and supply chain issues have hit the sector, including the Co-op.

So it was an interesting time for the grocer to switch horses for its agency-of-record. The Co-op picked MullenLowe Group as its digital and customer content AOR this month after a four-way pitch against Digitas UK, M&C Saatchi and incumbents Kin+Carta and The River Group.

”We’ve been holding out for a national treasure brand that fits with our shared values for some time and I can’t think who better to be partnering with than Co-op,” says Peter Moody, chief executive officer of MullenLowe Profero. ”Opportunities like this don’t come around often.”

The agency joins lead creative agency Lucky Generals and media agency Dentsu on the roster.

Pressure and purpose

Its chief creative officer Nicky Bullard tells The Drum that the agency hopes to draw on its experience working on the Cabinet Office’s nationwide Covid-19 briefs to assist the brand through the cost-of-living crisis.

She says: ”Retail changes super fast. But there is one thing that changes faster than retail and that’s a virus. This agency did all the [government] work around Covid.” If her team can deal with ”the turnover of work, at that standard, fully integrated and with messages changing by the hour... with some very important stakeholders,” she says, then it can help the grocer weather a recession. ”The experience sets us up to give it some confidence that we can handle what’s happening in society and respond quickly and effectively.”

Progressing the Co-op’s e-commerce and digital presence is high on the list of priorities for Mel Matson, its director of customer proposition and communications. ”The way in which people are shopping has changed a lot over the last few years and, as it continues to evolve, we need to make sure we’re leveraging the Co-op brand and products to the right audience, in the right place and at the right time,” she says.

In response, the agency promises to ”revolutionize” the grocer’s approach to e-commerce, in each of its businesses. And MullenLowe’s ”data-driven, targeted consumer marketing and content strategies” intend to put the Co-op’s centuries-old business model at its heart.

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Bullard says the agency aims to meet its new client’s brief by pushing its identity as a social enterprise and co-operative organization to the top of consumers’ minds. She says the retailer’s social purpose matters more than ever as a point of difference.

”If you look at food retailers, it’s a sea of sameness. It becomes about price wars... The opportunity for the Co-op is to elevate that purpose. Investors, customers, employees want to feel and see purpose. It’s good for business.”

Making sure the two businesses shared an outlook on society was key for the client, Matson adds. ”It’s clear that MullenLowe shares the same values and principles as Co-op... we’re both committed to ensuring that we continue to make a difference for our customers, members and communities.”

MullenLowe hopes to make the impacts of the Co-op’s social model apparent to its customers, not just its internal teams. ”When you buy a tin of beans, you should know you’re not just buying a great value tin of beans, you’re actually having an impact on your community in some way,” says Bullard.

The agency’s first work for Co-op should break around Christmastime. ”Not too much pressure on, then,” jokes Bullard.

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