Strickland: Why Zellers pledges to be better

When it comes to promises, there probably isn't one mom would want to hear more from her husband, her kids, and yes, even her local retailer. Zellers is pledging to get 'better' in a new ad campaign.

When it comes to promises, there probably isn’t one mom would want to hear more from her husband, her kids, and yes, even her local retailer. Zellers is pledging to get ‘better’ in a new ad campaign.

The result of a combined effort from Toronto agencies Riddochdickinson Communications, which created the strategic blueprint as a short-term project, and Zellers’ new AOR Leo Burnett, the initiative hit airwaves on Feb. 25 and ‘speaks to moms in [their own] language,’ according to SVP David Strickland.

In one instalment, a mom returns to Zellers on several consecutive days to buy toilet paper, which she is obviously embarrassed about. There’s a description of everyday low pricing (EDLP) on toilet paper. Then, there’s a cut to her home where her young son is flushing the Charmin down the toilet.

A second execution featuring Oreo cookies is similar. Mom buys them day in and day out at Zellers and then we discover why – her daughter is serving them at tea parties with all her stuffed toys and dolls. Of course, she eats every last one.

While Zellers initiated the spots, Strickland concedes the featured brands helped pay the bill. ‘I think it’s important to look at things in a strategic partnership play,’ he says. ‘This is the tip of the iceberg, but with HBC Rewards and CRM and everything we’re doing, we will redefine the marketing relationship as we move on.’

Last fall, the Brampton, Ont.-based mass merchandiser broke off its four-year-old relationship with Toronto agency Ogilvy & Mather, which produced work that ranged from depictions of a busy mom forgetting to wear a skirt during the hectic holiday season, to a store associate talking to garden gnomes.

‘There is no question we were looking for more consistency in terms of voice, and more of a link to the mom store strategy in that voice,’ says Strickland. Below he explains further what propelled Zellers into its new marketing direction, and how it fits into the broader retail strategy.

What instigated the need for a new marketing strategy at Zellers in the first place?

We have been judged based on our past history, as opposed to our current performance. Since 1997, we have been spending time fixing stores and trying to improve the assortment. But we weren’t seeing a change in perception to the degree we needed based on the work we’ve done.

A lot of people who haven’t been back to Zellers in several years don’t know that our stores have been renovated. If their experience with Zellers, historically, was with us being in the high-low game, or prior to our implementation of a lot of our inventory management and store-level forecasting systems, they would have had frustration with out-of-stock. They would have had a perception of us not being able to deliver on their basic everyday lists.

From our standpoint, it’s that history that remains in the minds of people. So we are really focusing on that. Clearly, our current customers who experienced the new Zellers didn’t feel the same way…. But we needed to reinforce to them that, ‘you have chosen a great store and this is why.’

You had two agencies work on this campaign both strategically and executionally. What did you learn from the strategic process?

Riddochdickinson said we had to find out the simple truth about Zellers in terms of what we offer. There are two truths [they came up with]: that we are focused on a single customer, which is moms, and that we are focused on continuous improvement.

They came up with the simple line of ‘Zellers better and better.’ It’s not a typical catchy marketing phrase; it’s actually an expression of our commitment to the customer.

What research did you engage in to ensure this approach was appropriate?

The campaign will be focused on convincing customers that we have changed for the better. We [asked] our merchants and store managers to tell us what their teams have done in support of this positioning.

We got all their ideas and we went through a process of screening them with customers to determine which ones were most relevant and compelling. We broke them into four areas: value; style, in terms of stylish products like Martha Stewart and other brands that are key to differentiating us; the shopping experience; and a better understanding of our customers, which we call ‘Better Solutions.’

Executionally, how will Zellers get the point across?

There will be three spots initially. They are all focused somewhat on value. The first two are focused on everyday value and everyday basic products, but very much in a Zellers voice and in a mom’s store strategy.

There’s going to be humour in them, although that’s certainly not a defining component of the ongoing campaign. It plays on the realities of the cute world of moms and their kids, and uses them in ways to demonstrate to moms that we understand their world.

Other than ‘Better and better’ there’s a line called ‘What’s on your list today?’ So there’s a focus on mom’s list and that becomes a unifying concept that ties together the campaign.

There are other spots that we can’t talk about right now, that we’re in the midst of developing and, again, tapping into mom and insights, through understanding that her family and kids drive her lists in terms of what she needs.

How did you ensure that the work actually resonates with Canadian women?

We pre-tested much of what we’ve been doing in animatic form…with Ad Lab. They bring in 50 women, and you get them to respond to the animatics, both in the moment emotionally, as well as to the messages.

We wanted to make sure that we were speaking to moms and this was directed at them.

Is this the most extensive customer research Zellers has undertaken, and if so, what has been the benefit?

I would say that we didn’t leave any stones unturned. We covered the country from coast to coast, in terms of talking to the customer in groups, because that was part of the strategic validation.

We got as much feedback and input as possible, particularly because Canada can be very regionally diverse in terms of perspective. In some places our stores are farther along in the improvement process as well, so you get different perspective from that.

We wanted to understand how to put together the case of how to convince customers to change their perception of Zellers. The nature of the idea was such that we had to go through a process like this to have the confidence we wanted. It wasn’t just an advertising campaign. It was more about the organization’s commitment and a clear desire to prove our case to customers. The only way to know that is to pre-test the case.

Will you be pushing specific brands in your advertising, such as some of your private-label programs?

One of the key messages is that our entire Martha Stewart line is being reduced to between 30% and 50% to EDLP, so the message to consumers is going to be that you don’t have to wait for a sale to get Martha Stewart.

Within the home area, it’s a key differentiator and style component for us. So we’re taking that message to TV and print and building on more and more points. Our print breaks in April/May issues in the likes of Chatelaine, Canadian Living, and [Canadian] House & Home. Radio breaks at Easter and will focus on specific seasonal needs Mom may have, but it will link into the same idea.

What is the advantage of having a consistent everyday low price program in place?

We’re not doing what we did before, which was your everyday price wasn’t competitive but you went way below your competitors when you were on sale. That was the historical problem. It’s more difficult for the stores to keep the shelves stocked, when 80% or 90% of the volume is done when items are on sale and the rest of the time you don’t sell anything.

There’s a promise of being in stock more consistent[ly], which we know we improved operationally since our systems have come into place. And with EDLP, we’re growing a lot of our consumerable businesses substantially.

Are there any particular areas where you think you’ll see growth going forward?

We’ve seen consistent growth in virtually all of our consumerable categories going back to the spring of last year. The objective obviously is to accelerate that growth by making people aware of the promise.

If you look at some of the brands we carry, we’re the lowest price you can purchase on Levi’s and Wilson, and the consumers have a lot of heart for the fact that these great casual brands aren’t available anywhere else cheaper than at Zellers, and that’s something we want to push on.