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Deep Dive 13 Apr 2020 - 6 min read

Updated: Coles CMO Lisa Ronson on media mix, the return of TV, newsmedia and splitting marketing for post-COVID

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

Lisa Ronson is putting "trusted media" to the test for Coles messaging, designed to help calm an unsettled public. And it appears to be working.  Ronson's research and insights unit is feeding the marketing team daily on consumer mood and messaging signals from what Google and Facebook are capturing in search and social - and what Coles newly expanded creative and media agency roster is tapping from international markets. Here's how she's managing media - and more.     

Updated: We've added more on why Lisa Ronson has split Coles marketing into COVID and post-COVID teams, the rationale behind Coles just-expanded media and creative roster, how Ronson views rational and emotive communications through COVID and some fundamental consumer behaviour change that she says is coming on the other side of this crisis. You can catch all that in the last segment below.


Let's get to the topline fast. Coles marketing and media budgets and volumes remain "largely unchanged", says CMO Lisa Ronson, but the channel mix and how it's being used has been entirely up-ended in the past six weeks.

What was an AFL sponsorship and broadcast deal with Network Seven has morphed into a 2.5 minute primetime COVID slot for Coles featuring it's biggest line-up ever of celebrity - and troubled - chefs cooking home meals with pantry ingredients, shot on their iPhones. It raw and rough but fast and effective.

Coles has also been using TV to reassure shoppers that the supply chain is under control - chief operations officer Matt Swindells has been fronting a campaign standing in logistics centres surrounded by toilet paper and other panic-buying staples. Outside of the information and community service role Coles is playing, Ronson says she's also upbeat about MasterChef on Ten as an entertainment option through COVID-19. 

In newspapers - yes, for the digerati it means that anachronistic analogue creature that has ink  - Coles has been firing daily "community update" messages. For Ronson, "trusted media" is doing it's job.

"People are looking to newspapers and TV for trusted news," she says. "And that's a good place to put our messages in.  Newspapers are a very trusted media so it makes sense for us to be there. We're trying to communicate things that are changing on a week-by-week and sometimes daily basis because we're an essential service. We have to keep our customers informed and we're finding from our call centres and questions going to our social channels that there's a large demand for the right information from Coles right now."

For TV, it's the same strategy. Ronson says she's still using a similar channel mix but in a different way. "We're working very, very closely with all of the networks, probably a little bit more closely, because there's content being produced in a different way to what we normally would. We're working with all the networks on how we can get messages out there to our customers that we've got enough toilet paper, we've got enough flour. Just buy as your would normally buy. So the networks have all been terrific at that."



Those efforts are bearing results, Ronson says, as the grocery giant starts seeing purchasing patterns start to regain some regular rhythm. "We're starting to see things normalise more than where they were probably two weeks ago," says Ronson. "But the supply chain has changed dramatically because we've effectively been doing a Christmas every day for five weeks now. And we normally have six months to prepare for Christmas. 

"But people are seeing their pantries are full, their freezers are full and some of the messaging we talked about earlier, particularly with the TV networks, is starting to resonate and give people comfort that if they just calm down a bit and shop as they normally shop, it will be okay. We get a lot of feedback through our research and the interesting thing is our customers get a certain amount of comfort when they walk into their supermarket and the shelves are stocked."



UPDATED: Thursday April 16


COVID splits marketing team  

To deal with the current crisis and remain focused on the longer-term marketing agenda, Ronson has split her team in two.  "We'll need to have a strong plan stacked-up and ready to go for some of our key events in the marketing calander," she says. "We're still marketing the events, albeit in a slightly different way but we'll still have specials and promotions and trying to lower the cost of some of the big events coming through over the next six to 12 months." 

Ronson says the COVID marketing team is thinking about seasonal promotions and "what's going to be relevant to talk to our customers about and what's not relevant into the future. We need to be aware of what's not sensitive or not empathetic to the times."


Some consumer behaviour will fundamentally change 

Although Mark Ritson is convinced little will change in consumer behaviour on the other side of COVID, Ronson says there will be change. "I definitely see shifts," she says. "A lot of the younger generation haven't been through anything like this before. It's hit people very hard, which is why you've seen some of the scenes that we have in fighting over things like toilet paper. Who would have thought that at the beginning of the year? So it will make people more cautious in what they buy and when they buy it. I think they will hold more stock. They might buy fresh more frequently. They will look at more locally-produced products in general. I do think there'll be some fundamental shifts. I agree with Mark in that we are human and we'll go back to very well entrenched behaviours but I think there will be some changes in the way that Australians deal with the supermarket category on a day-to-day basis."          


Why change agency roster mid-COVID?

Ronson clearly considered an agency review after landing at Coles but has sidelined that agenda for now. She added DDB and TBWA, the creative agencies working on Coles Financial Services - which is also under her marketing remit - to the supermarkets roster. "I just felt it would be an unfair thing to do to the industry, to get people to pitch on Coles whilst they were working from home," she says. "So rather than do that, I just went to my bench with my financial services roster. Big Red will still take the lead but given the volume of communication that we're doing at the moment, we needed additional resources. As I said, I didn't want to do a pitch because I didn't think it was right so I went to our existing agency roster who are excellent agencies and they will help us through this period and beyond. At the moment it's to cope with volume." 


Each-way bet: Brand v performance; emotion v rational 

As Suncorp's CMO Mim Haysom upweights marketing investment into brand building, and HiPages Stuart Tucker swings strongly back to performance marketing through COVID, Ronson is having a bet both ways. "The answer is it has to be both," she says. "Because we've got a very unique role in the community and Australia at the best of times and it's probably even more pronounced in times like this, given we're an essential service. It's important to keep the hope, if you like, and have some joy. So you've seen us talking about Easter, hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Easter hunts and what to cook around Easter, even though it's going to be very different. 

"Having those emotional messages and things like having Curtis Stone say thankyou to our customers and our staff, those emotional pieces are really important. But then it's also about the rational in terms of our community service announcements, and our specials and promotions and trying to lower the cost of everyday living. That's how it's both for us."


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