By The Drum, Administrator

April 9, 2004 | 9 min read

Fopp has the music retail market cracked. Offering chart music CDs, back catalogues and books, often at up to half the price of High Street giants such as HMV and Virgin due to its low mark ups, it is a hit with young and old alike. But while the music chain has enjoyed great success, founder Peter Ellen is now looking to take it to the next level - this marks the return of Fopp old boy Mino Russo.

Russo took up the position of head of marketing at the growing company in January, taking responsibility for a brand that now encompasses 16 stores across the UK.

“The reason Fopp is successful is it maintains that competitive advantage over its competitors, and not just in one area – in all areas of the business, and that includes marketing,” Russo says.

“The key focus is the customer and delivering value. My job is to continue delivering value to the company in terms of how we budget. We want to be seen as a big brand, but I have to use my budget very, very carefully. At the same time we also reject what other retailers do. We don’t do things like focus groups. We don’t do market research. All the market research we need we get from the customers themselves. They dictate the way the company goes, it’s not us dictating to them. We’re very customer-focused, and I have to be aware of that.”

Part of this customer-focus is the company’s value-for-money proposition. But with the company growing at such a rate, won’t this lead to an eventual increase in pricing? Russo says not. “I wouldn’t say that expansion would result in higher prices. We’ve got expertise in every area of the business that we operate in. Selling and buying too. If we don’t get the right price for something we just won’t do it. We sell CDs for £12 too, but if the customer doesn’t want it, we won’t sell it. Any value we get through the buying process we pass straight on to the customer.”

This crucial understanding of the Fopp customers has led Russo to introduce some new features to the stores, including the first in-store café in the company’s new Manchester shop.

“So many bars and cafes phone us up and say, ‘Why don’t we sell your CDs in our café?’ It’s a gut feeling, but people don’t want to buy CDs when they’re buying coffee. They’re more like exhibits, they’re there in the corner. But the reality is they’ll go out to buy coffee and a croissant, or whatever, and they’re not in the mood for buying CDs. However, we feel that, conversely, when you’re in a music shop, it’s likely you might enjoy a decent coffee. So we’ve sourced the best coffee you can get in the marketplace, which I’ve been involved with.”

This past month has also seen the opening of the company’s first Fopp Books store. The shop, which is located in Cardiff, is the first Fopp store to be entirely dedicated to books, and has been launched following the success of book sales in the company’s other stores throughout the country.

Russo explains: “It’s because, since we first dabbled with books, which was four or five years ago, they’ve grown to be an important part of our business. We thought that if it worked so well alongside CDs then why wouldn’t they work on their own? It’s semi-experimental and until we get it right we won’t consider spreading that idea through the rest of the UK.”

Further store openings throughout the UK now mean that, for the first time, Fopp has to look at its marketing on a national level. The company is now seen as a serious player, competing on the same level as retailers such as HMV and Virgin, and Russo’s marketing strategy has to reflect that.

A new website, built by MMI, is one step in the company’s new marketing push, as well as the appointment of media buyer Feather Brooksbank. But Russo maintains that the appointment of a creative ad agency is not on the cards.

He says: “We’ve built up a very strong brand out of nothing over the past few years. It’s something I think that other brands are jealous of. We do it in-house, and there are no plans to move it out of our in-house team. It’s a very strong brand and I think that we do a good job with it.”

Aside from advertising and an expanded web presence, a crucial factor in Fopp’s marketing is the stores themselves. This is a strength that Russo is keen to maintain.

He comments: “This is something that we’ve been developing, and with each new store we’re getting better and better at what we do. The environment is really important.

“We like to be different, and to differentiate ourselves. One way of doing that is the environment in which you buy your music. If you go into our new shop in Manchester, it’s not what you expect of a music shop. You might expect it from a luxury clothes brand, but you wouldn’t expect a record shop to invest so much in the experience of the customer. There is a wow factor with Fopp, and normally the first wow factor is the music, seeing the range of the music, but behind all that the environment is something that people notice. People notice the way it’s lit, the way it’s set out, the detail. All these things help differentiate Fopp from anywhere else. Not just music retailers and DVD retailers.”

With some people you can tell from an early age what they will do with their lives. Whether it’s the kid in class that likes to tell jokes, the boy who makes money by selling classmates his sweets or the girl who’s always singing, there’s sometimes an indication of which industry they’ll become a part of in later life.

So when 14-year-old music lover Russo got his first job working at Edinburgh Playhouse, it was a safe bet that he’d found the industry he wanted to work in.

After graduating from Napier University with a degree in business and languages, Russo spent a brief period working outside of the music sector, in France, before returning to his core interest. This return took the form of a move to Milan, where Russo worked in Italy’s first Virgin Megastore. This was followed by a stint at Sony Records, looking after the promotion of the company’s various artists.

“That was probably one of the sexiest jobs I’ve had, because I was looking after TV and radio promotion for their artists,” remembers Russo. “That involved doing things like setting up PR itineraries for artists coming over to Italy. So we might get them radio interviews, TV interviews, press conferences, fashion shows, guest appearances on the right sorts of programmes. Basically, all profile-boosting for those artists. That was really interesting and very sexy but, to be honest, after three years of Milan my wife and I got a bit homesick for Edinburgh. We came back here and started from scratch, and I got a job in Fopp.”

Russo was hired as a singles buyer for the Fopp store in Cockburn Street, Edinburgh. It was where he first met Peter Ellen, now chief executive of the company.

“That was one of the hardest jobs I’ve done,” recalls Russo. “It was very, very demanding. It was a great job, but a record shop isn’t just about sitting there drinking coffee and chatting to customers, there’s a lot of turnover of stock and a lot of hard work.”

After a year of hard work at Fopp, Russo moved on to the List magazine, working first in the magazine’s circulation department before moving over to the advertising sales side. A move outwith the music sector followed when Russo joined the Scotsman as an agency account executive, before returning to the List two years later as sales and sponsorship director.

The subsequent period must have been a successful one, because it wasn’t long before the Scotsman poached Russo back, this time to the role of sponsorship manager. After two-and-a-half years of hard graft at the daily broadsheet, a return to the music sector beckoned, with the help of everyone’s favourite marketing magazine.

Russo explains: “I saw the advert in The Drum and suddenly thought that the combination of my various experiences could be of use to Fopp. I sent my CV in and was lucky enough to get the job. I’ve followed Fopp very closely over the last 10–15 years, both from a customer point of view and from actually working there. I’d always kept in touch with Fopp and known about their strategy and how the company works and how it’s progressed, especially over the last five years when it’s expanded throughout the UK.”

With more stores opening every year, a growing customer base and a competitive marketplace, Russo has a big job ahead of him. But with a firm understanding of both his sector and his company, it looks like he’s well equipped to handle it. Plus, as a life-long music lover, Mino Russo is not a marketer searching for his target audience. He is his target audience.


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