Rona: Faites attention!

When Michael Brossard started seven months ago as senior national marketing director for home improvement retailer Rona, he says he asked Robert Dutton, president, what the company wanted him to accomplish. ''He said, 'Michael, I want my brand to be as loved in English Canada as in Quebec.'' And that is really at the heart of why Rona is marketer of the year in the home improvement category.

When Michael Brossard started seven months ago as senior national marketing director for home improvement retailer Rona, he says he asked Robert Dutton, president, what the company wanted him to accomplish. ”He said, ‘Michael, I want my brand to be as loved in English Canada as in Quebec.” And that is really at the heart of why Rona is marketer of the year in the home improvement category.

No, not because English Canada is the centre of the world (it isn’t), but because Rona is not just about selling tools anymore (it never really was) and all about selling a great brand (it is now!) experience. Rona has experienced its greatest success ever in the last year and is currently spreading its how-to know-how to the rest of the country – and maybe beyond.

The key to making Rona as well-known and loved a brand in English Canada has revolved around what Brossard describes as building brand relationships. To be fair, Canadian-owned and operated Rona has some advantages not all other Canadian companies share – at $4 billion in annual sales, it’s the number one player in a market valued at about $28 billion. So it has the muscle. But does it have the heart? That’s what Brossard and co. are currently involved in building.

The strategy included store design, a branded home improvement reality show, the re-design and re-launch of hundreds of private label products, a continuation of its clever, quirky ‘how-to’ TV campaign, massive expansion of its community sponsorship and loyalty programs and continued consolidation of the market with the acquisition of the Building Box, Réno-Dépôt and a variety of smaller, independent retailers.

From an advertising perspective (Montreal-based BCP handles all Rona creative), its ‘how-to’ TV campaign has arguably been Rona’s most visible presence to consumers. The spots feature a variety of everyday people put into humorous situations that call for renovation gumption. Rona promises them they can ‘make it happen.’ Brossard says the ads represent the kind of branding that holds everything together. ‘What is behind the ‘how-to’ people? Well, it’s the coach who’s going to help you do your renovation projects in a very friendly manner.’

The spots are also notable for featuring women as equally as men. Brossard says this was a conscious decision reflecting research showing traffic by gender at Rona stores is about 50/50. Brossard adds that one of Rona’s major paint suppliers told him that 80% of paint colour buying decisions are made by women. This kind of reality has driven Rona to create paint boutiques where people can match paint schemes using books and other décor items.

Brossard is particularly pleased with the Rona Dream Home show, which launched in Quebec in 2001 (Carat handles Rona’s media buying) but came to Ontario and Western Canada on Global only last year. The show pits two families against each other to do the best improvements to their homes. Going up against the numerous U.S. home improvement shows could have returned lukewarm results. But Rona banked that a strategy of featuring Canadian families in Canadian settings would strike a chord with viewers here and it seems to have worked. The half-hour show hit a peak of 700,000 viewers for one episode.

Brossard says: ‘For us that’s pretty successful. It puts us on the map because our brand name is integrated into the show.’

While the glamorous TV work is obviously getting its due, Rona hasn’t neglected the less visible but equally important work on the shop floor. Over the past year the company

re-launched several hundred products out of its 1,500 SKUs with an eye to exploiting the power of branding.

Brossard says that previously Rona had thrown up a private label product in every category. But because Rona wanted each product to be a ‘brand ambassador’ – meaning that it had to stand for better service and be a great product – some product lines were upgraded with new packaging and others were simply cut because they didn’t fit with Rona’s brand image.

Says Brossard: ‘We’re much more strategic in the SKUs we’re selecting for marketing and merchandising. We’re putting more emphasis on our packaging and on selection of the supplier that’s going to actually produce these products, so that they achieve a very high quality standard.’

Stores have received a makeover as well. Rona has introduced new boutique elements in stores for such items as paint, moulding, doors and windows. Brossard says some of these categories can be difficult to merchandise, so Rona showcases the products in faux-settings where consumers can see exactly how a given product will look in their own homes.

‘The purpose is to create a silent sales rep,’ says Brossard. ‘We’re working with our manufacturers to create P-O-S material that goes through the how-to tips.’

On the business operations side, it’s important to note that Rona isn’t just a big box chain. It operates a variety of stores, including Cashway and Lansing, and sticking with small moms and pops is so far proving another winning strategy.

But not so fast. Brossard says only 25% of the market is held by big box stores. The majority of business in fact belongs to small stores.

Is it any wonder then that Rona is buying them all up?

The numbers keep going up for Rona, despite Brossard’s estimate that Home Depot’s marketing budget is 1.5 times that of Rona’s. The latest numbers tell the tale: best quarter ever in Q2 2004 and same store sales for the period up 9.2%.

The goal of achieving increased awareness in English Canada is going better than expected with awareness numbers now above 50% (it’s 80% in Quebec). The ‘how-to’ TV campaign has run for the last three years and so far has generated a 10-point gain in awareness in English Canada. Rona also remains poised for growth: at 540 stores now, Brossard says the company is targeting 700 stores and $7 billion in annual sales by 2007.

‘And from there,’ says Brossard, without a hint of braggadocio, ‘we’re going to the U.S.’

First the Statue of Liberty, then fine wine and now Rona. Making it happen? We think so.