Horse's Mouth: Bridget Lamont, Countdown

  • July 27, 2015
  • StopPress Team
Horse's Mouth: Bridget Lamont, Countdown

On her journey:

I’m the youngest of five girls and I grew up in Hamilton. My first part-time job at high school was in the delicatessen at the Woolworths supermarket in Hamilton East. I didn’t ever intend to work in retail. I actually planned to be an archaeologist, and realised quite early on that there was no money in archaeology. And in a country with a history as short as that of New Zealand, maybe that wasn’t the best long-term career option. So, I started law school, realised that wasn’t an option for me, and I did an arts degree. During university I had part-time roles in food retail in Wellington, and didn’t realise at the time that I would end up doing what I’m doing now—which, in my opinion, is the perfect job. 

On being a direct marketer:

For a data-driven marketer to end up as the general manager of marketing for the largest supermarket brand in the country is unusual, because we operate in the world of mass communications—but, at my heart, I’m a direct marketer. So sometimes people ask me how those things reconcile, and in my mind they reconcile in an amazing challenge: how do I take a very mass conversation and drive some of the practices and techniques that you learn as a direct marketer? And how do you get those things to co-exist? Whether I’ve succeeded in doing that, I don’t know. I certainly have a lot to do, but if I think of some of the things I’m most proud of it would be taking the One Card programme and turning it into some pretty smart communications direct to consumers.

On loyalty:

The most powerful asset I have in my arsenal is the data of people shopping in their local stores.
It lets us have those relevant conversations. Through things like the MyCountdown email and web platform … we are able to have more personalised and tailored conversations. 

On being ‘constructively dissatisfied’:

As marketers, we should never feel comfortable or complacent. Frankly, if we do, then we’re doing our customers a disservice, because they are continually moving and evolving. The way people are consuming media is evolving and changing and as marketers we should never be comfortable that we’ve got it right … I am perpetually dissatisfied. If you ask my team, they’ll tell you that I’m always wanting to do the next thing. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but there’s so much that’s possible. But in an environment like retail, you have to be constructively dissatisfied. It’s not about things not being good enough. And if I think about my colleagues in buying, operations and logistics, it’s clear that the executive team at Countdown is never going to accept that what we’ve done is enough. It’s never finished. And although it sounds negative, there’s actually a positive in that it means there’s always more that we can do for our customers and there’s always a better way for us to deliver a service and market … And that drives me.

On simplicity:

Countdown is an incredibly huge and complicated beast that serves 174 communities made up of 2.6 million customers a week. I know it sounds like a cliché, but my job is very simple: I have to tell stories and sell baked beans and bananas. It’s nothing more complicated than that.

On the success of Super Animals:

Where we hit the nail on the head with the animal card promotion was that it had an educational component. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that we will only ever do programmes that have an education element to them, but it’s clear that when you get the combination of education, collectability and scarcity, then you get the kids, their parents and the schools engaged. This was seen an opportunity for a learning experience. It wasn’t just a supermarket promotion. 

On ‘for good’ projects:

We are having a lot more conversations among the leadership team about being more local … So in that regard we have things like the Countdown Kids’ Hospital Appeal, which with the help of our customers raised $1.3 million last year. We also have our relationship with the Salvation Army, through which we support Red Shield and Christmas appeals and also our food rescue programme … We’ve been doing that kind of stuff for quite some time. We haven’t talked very much about it. We’ve been relatively quiet about the ‘for good’ work that we do—and that’s an acceptable position. However, in my view as a marketer I see it as a missed opportunity. We should talk about the good stuff that we do. The reality is that brands do things to be good corporate citizens, but that is not the only reason why we operate in that space. We need to be pragmatic. We do things to benefit our brand equity as well as being a good corporate citizen. 

On Woolworths Australia’s Anzac mishap:

That was unfortunate. I don’t know very much about how things transpired there, but what I will say is that we took a sound and valid position around Anzac Day. It was about supporting the RSA, and it’s purely and simply that. We were a vehicle for our customers to express how they feel about Anzac Day and the role that it plays in the New Zealand psyche.  

On collectables:

It’s about relevance and resonance. It’s about giving us a different conversation to have with customers other than just price. So, we’ve run a number of homeware programmes—we’ve had Jamie Oliver crockery, glasses and crockery and  kitchen knives—and those very much are about the household shopper … It’s a classic example of what’s old is new again. Collecting cards is nothing new. I remember as a child getting cards out of Weetbix packets. What I find fascinating about the recent programmes is that it’s relatively old-fashioned. It’s not a high-tech thing. It’s just paper. Yet, we’ve had people queuing up for swap days for something that’s moderately old-fashioned.     

On media criticism:

It’s no secret that we had a rough ride at the beginning of last year with a lot of negative focus on our business, so we are very honed to hear what is said about is. And, where we can, we look to respond appropriately … We’ve learnt to listen very carefully to what is said [in the media]; and wherever we can, we look to set things right.  

On price wars:

We don’t use that phrase. We don’t believe in the concept of a price war. However, what we do believe in is that if you ask New Zealand consumers about what is important to them in choosing where they buy their groceries, most of the top twenty reasons have some element of price or value. We are an extremely price-sensitive market, and the global financial crisis and all of the other tough times we’ve been through have honed this price sensitivity almost to an art form. And I do not see this changing, even though we might be a rock star economy. It has become so ingrained in us that whether you’re a low-income consumer or have the luxury of high income everybody is looking for the best price on the products that they want to buy. We don’t believe that we have a right to charge more for a can of beans than anyone else. We’re in market with campaigns saying things like ‘We are committed to bringing you cheaper groceries’. That’s a really overt statement. They are very clear articulations of our intent. We’ve been on that journey since October 2013, and it really started to hit its stride in February or March last year followed up by the $1 bread. It is very clear that we are looking at the products that matter to Kiwis and bringing our prices down, and where we can, we lock them down indefinitely at that price. Does this kick off the words I don’t believe in? We haven’t seen a price war. We’ve seen responses. We’ve seen reaction. I have no doubt that the other guys look at what we do and take it very seriously, as we do with them.  

On not being a Kiwi company:

You’ve hit a nerve there. My view on New Zealandness is pretty simple. I work with a team of 18,000 Kiwis. I’m the custodian of a brand that operates in 174 communities. I don’t know what else it takes to be a New Zealand brand. We’re owned by Woolworths Australia, and are proud to be. It’s fantastic to see a guy [Dave Chambers] who started as a grocery assistant spend 37 years in the New Zealand supermarket business, and then go on to head up 900 supermarkets in Australia. I think that’s pretty cool—and that’s what being part of the Woolworths group is about. We’re owned by an Australian company, but you walk into any Countdown and you’re going to find a group of passionate Kiwis of varied backgrounds who are working to serve other Kiwis. And for me, that’s the end of it.

On shouty retail advertising:

Why do we do it? Because it works. Why do we put unaddressed mailers into 1.4 million letterboxes (which is just a paper version of shouting)? Because it works. I’m a pretty simple person. In terms of our media strategy, I’m going to advertise where the eyeballs are. In terms of our style of communication, I’m going to do the stuff that works. That’s a gross over-simplification, but retail advertising in New Zealand is pretty shouty … I would like to think that there is opportunity for us to eventually be more elegant, but that’s a long journey … So, will we be the leading force in changing [the shouty advertising]? I think that’s unlikely.

On adopting digital advertising:

We’re not different from any other big brand. We’re looking hard at where the eyeballs are, and our investment in digital has grown significantly in the last three years. I use the digital reference in its broadest terms to include everything from our emails through to social and search. We have trebled our spend in three years—off a small base obviously … I can only see that investment growing, but the challenge we face is that fragmentation, particularly in the marketing mix, can be pretty challenging to keep a handle on. So we’ve made specific decisions on which social channels we’ll be involved in.

On social:

We were relatively early into the social space in terms of retail brands, and now have 230,000 odd Facebook fans on the channel … One of the reasons we got onto Facebook early was to be able to hear the things customers were saying about us. There were things that people were saying about us anyway, but we weren’t hearing it because we weren’t part of the conversation. To be part of the conversation can be uncomfortable, because it’s not great when you have a customer talking about their poor experience in that environment—but I would much rather hear about it and do something than not hear about it at all.     

On the fight against obesity:

There’s a crisis looming in this country around obesity, diabetes and other related issues. And as a food retailer, we have to stare into that. That’s not to say that we won’t sell foods that don’t have sugar and salt in them. We will sell products that Kiwis want. But can we amplify the conversation around products that are better for you? Can we amplify the conversation around how to cook a healthy meal? Absolutely, we can. So when you start to think about how retail marketing can be more elegant, those are the sorts of conversations you want to see coming to the fore. People choose what they buy in our stores. We’re not here to tell Kiwis what to buy. I think that would be insulting, quite frankly.

On e-commerce:

Online shopping is a real jewel in the crown for us. We’re really proud of it, and we’ve been doing it around 17 or 18 years. Best practice puts it at four to five percent of sales (the obvious one that everyone looks at is Tesco for this). We’re not there yet, but the space is growing very well. Clearly, as infrastructure and technology improves, growth comes with it.  

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