All aboard!: Metro’s Serge Boulanger

As five major Ontario grocery brands hop onto the Metro banner train, Serge Boulanger makes sure the ride is a smooth one.

Serge Boulanger doesn’t sound tired, but he probably should be. He flew into Montreal the night before on a 6 p.m. flight from Toronto (that didn’t actually take off until 7:20 p.m.), just as he did the week before, and every week for the past eight months. ‘Travelling is not easy, but it’s part of the game,’ he says.

As VP marketing for Metro Inc., Boulanger is leading a massive rebranding that will see all Dominion, A&P, The Barn, Loeb and Ultra supermarkets in Ontario converted into Metro stores in the next year. But splitting his time 60/40 between Ontario and Quebec doesn’t seem to take away his focus. ‘It’s a big opportunity to relaunch a brand in the biggest market in Canada,’ he says.

In 2005, Montreal-based Metro bought all shares of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Company of Canada (A&P Canada) for $1.7 billion. Metro now owns the five major A&P brands, as well as the discount chain Food Basics, on top of its Quebec stores – Metro, Super C, Marché Richelieu and several other chains.

After purchasing the Ontario stores, Metro, which worked with Cossette in Montreal, met with the Toronto branch of the agency to determine its next move and how open people would be to the Metro brand. They conducted research through Cossette’s strategic group, Nucleus. ‘It wasn’t just among consumers, it was among employees, among the financial community,’ says Brett Marchand, EVP at Cossette Toronto, ‘It was a pretty thorough and open look at what was the right branding strategy for the Ontario market.’

‘People knew Dominion and A&P were grocers, but they didn’t understand the difference between those stores and the other grocers in Ontario,’ Boulanger explains. ‘So for us it was quite the opportunity to introduce a new name and to explain how this new store is different than the rest of the offers in the market.’

The company decided to consolidate the five major Ontario brands under the same banner. Boulanger was already heading up marketing for Metro and Super C in Quebec, and now he would take on the Ontario market.

The decision to rebrand the stores was a practical one. ‘There’s some synergy managing just one brand instead of four or five,’ Boulanger explains. ‘It’s cost effective, for sure, not just on the marketing side, but also on the operational side.’

In total, 158 stores will be rebranded across Ontario. Dominion, Ultra and The Barn stores are set to be transformed by Dec. 5, before the Christmas rush begins. Loeb stores will be converted in the spring, and the remaining A&Ps will be rebranded throughout ’09, finishing in November. The relaunches began on Sept. 26 with the first six stores.

Uniting the different store banners in Ontario meant eliminating choice between brands, but Boulanger says that wasn’t a concern. ‘Our research shows very clearly that consumers are more location-loyal than brand-loyal,’ he explains. ‘If your nearest grocery store is doing the job and offering you what you need, why would you go to another?’

When it came to the name, ‘Metro’ was the clear winner. It tested well among consumers, who saw it as fresh, modern and urban. It also provided an obvious link to the stores in Quebec and made sense for those who live in border cities, like Ottawa and Gatineau. ‘A lot of people have already been in a Metro store in Quebec, so they know a little bit about the store,’ says Boulanger. ‘They probably already had a good experience.’

The name isn’t the only thing changing. A $200-million investment has been made with about $180 million of that earmarked for improvements inside the stores. Some will receive big renos costing $2 to $3 million each, while others will undergo minor cosmetic changes, but all will be retouched in some way. The new décor will better facilitate a variety of changes to products and services, including improvements to the five key differentiators – home meal replacement (sushi, pizza, sandwiches, etc.), bakery, meat, floral and private brands (Irresistible and Selection will replace Master’s Choice and Equality, respectively). The other $20 million goes to marketing, internal communications, training employees, uniforms and other details.

Introducing the Metro name to Ontario gave Boulanger the chance to restructure his marketing team and bring the Ontario and Quebec sides of the business together. While the size of the team has remained the same (30 in Montreal, 20 in Toronto), the arrangement of the department and the responsibilities of some members have changed.

‘My view is to manage a national team,’ he says. ‘We’re going to continue to manage regional items for Quebec and Ontario, but we have a lot of things related to both markets.’

To gauge the Ontario market, they set up a test store in Whitby in February, followed by stores in Collingwood, Picton and Gananoque in June, and discovered that there wasn’t much difference between Ontario consumers and Quebec Metro shoppers.

‘Consumers are looking for the same thing. They are looking for value and they’re looking for a good experience in-store,’ Boulanger explains. He notes that they’re also looking for new meals and new experiences, but at the same time they still require the foods they’re familiar with, which can vary significantly. ‘We have to look store by store at the ethnic population to make sure we are carrying the right offer for them.’

Getting Ontarians familiar with the Metro name would take a rigorous ad push. Boulanger and his team worked with Cossette to come up with the tagline ‘Food at its best.’

‘We wanted to include the word ‘food,’ because not everyone knows Metro is a food retailer,’ explains Boulanger. ‘It’s clear, it’s short, it says how the Metro banner wants to support the consumer.’ Their second tagline, the play-on-words ‘a store is born,’ illustrates that they want to be ‘the star of the industry.’

Print ads feature store employees caring for food as they would for babies. It was important to Boulanger to highlight store workers because sometimes, ‘the only link or relation that the customer has to the store is the cashier, the bagger or maybe the butcher, so we have to make sure those guys are with us.’ At launch, a wrap featuring real employees was included with the regular store flyer.

To target Toronto commuters, two GO train cars on the Lakeshore line were wrapped in Metro branding, and the OOH splash continued on bus shelters and billboards. Direct mail offering bonus air miles was sent to homes in the areas surrounding the stores.

For the launches, street squads – complete with shopping carts turned into baby carriages – gave out samples of products and booklets of offers. To push the openings, ads were placed in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. Metro partnered with Citytv’s Breakfast Television for its Thanksgiving food drive, and the company sponsors the ‘celebrations’ segment of the show. CHFI also did remotes at store level, encouraging consumers to come to openings. And at the end of October, Metro ads in the form of wall projections appeared on the sides of buildings across the GTA.

While no specific sales numbers are available yet, Boulanger estimates that the new stores’ sales have been slightly higher than those that have yet to change over. ‘We’re not losing any customers because the offer is there,’ he says.

But the company didn’t just have to get the word out to the public; they also had to get their employees on board. ‘We did a good communications campaign, because some of them have been working for Dominion, for example, for 40 years,’ says Boulanger. ‘When you’re saying to a guy, ‘We’re changing the name of your store within a couple of weeks, and you’re going to be a Metro manager instead of a Dominion manager,’ [they'd ask], ‘Why? How are we going to be supported?”

On Sept. 14, Metro held a two-day conference in Toronto with all the Ontario store managers. They are also holding meetings a couple of weeks before the switch in each store to explain what’s happening, why they’re doing it and what kind of marketing will support it. Boulanger says that employee reaction has been positive so far: ‘We look at every comment that every employee is making to make sure that we’re going to serve our customers in the best way.’

When you’re relaunching as many as 10 stores a week, a clear view of the overall marketing strategy is critical. But the biggest challenge, according to Boulanger, has been taking care of so many little details in such a short time – from the logos on the grocery bags to the ‘thank-you’ stickers on the pop bottles to the store screen savers.

Pulling all of this off is no small feat, but Boulanger keeps his eye on the bigger picture. ‘He uses his gut and he’s decisive,’ says Marchand. ‘He has a vision for the Metro brand from a marketing standpoint beyond just the Ontario market, which is important because they are building a national brand now.’

Bio:

Born: Quebec City, Que., Feb. 6, 1966

Attended: Université de Sherbrooke

Family: Married with a daughter (15), a son (9) and no pets

Hobby: Golf

Career: Began as a CA with KPMG but switched to marketing in 1991. Worked for Group Everest Agency in Montreal and the San Francisco Group, where he spearheaded the ‘magalogue’ Les Ailes de la Mode, which reached the same number of subscribers as Elle Quebec within 18 months. Joined Metro in 1996 as marketing manager for the Metro banner in Quebec. After several promotions, he became VP in 2001. In 2004 he was also given the Super C banner and in 2008, responsibility for the Ontario market.

Seven Questions:

Favourite meal?

Sushi.

Favourite section of the grocery store?

The coffee aisle.

Favourite place in the world?

Paris.

Most important lesson you’ve learned?

You have to continuously raise the bar.

One thing you’ve never done that you’d like to do?

Touring the world – I love travelling.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Slowing time.

How do you define happiness?

A good meal with my family.