Overall winner – Loblaw’s Craig Hutchison: Back to the future

From a new events program that has the attention of international retailers to the unapologetic kitsch of the Insider’s Report, Loblaw’s Craig Hutchison is ushering in a new golden age of grocery.

From a new events program that has the attention of international retailers to the unapologetic kitsch of the Insider’s Report, Loblaw’s Craig Hutchison is ushering in a new golden age of grocery

To say Craig Hutchison has his hands full would be an understatement. The soft-spoken, easygoing SVP marketing for Brampton, ON.-based Loblaw Companies finds it easier to list the things he’s not responsible for: product development, package design, PR and investor relations.

Hutchison is the go-to guy for all things marketing-related at Canada’s largest grocery retailer. His team of 80 – five in Quebec, three in Atlantic Canada and the rest at the Brampton HQ – handles the President’s Choice, No Name, Joe Fresh and PC Home brands, and 17 retail banners from Real Canadian Superstores to deep discounters like No Frills and “Great Food” banners like Loblaws, Zehrs and Fortinos. All advertising, flyers, online activity, in-store signage and events pass across his desk.

“The creative challenges that go through a day are what really get me excited,” he says. “Every day is different. I probably have, right now, nine different TV commercials – six PC, three Joe Fresh. I’ve probably got eight different radio scripts on the go, six or seven different major [in-store] events, [and] we’re working on healthy and lawn and garden Insider’s Reports.”

Back in January 2007, facing increased competition and infrastructure challenges, Loblaw Companies reported its first annual loss in more than 20 years. Coupled with management shake-ups – president and chief merchandising officer Mark Foote resigned in April 2008 and current president Allan Leighton stepped in – the company has suffered in the media and the eyes of shareholders of late.

Hutchison, who shares this year’s Overall Marketer of the Year honour with Frito Lay Canada’s Tony Matta (see p. 30), joined the company in March ’08 in the midst of this transition and hasn’t looked back. He has helped turn the recession into a singular opportunity for Loblaw, which is shifting back towards a more marketing-driven organization. Since Q1 of this year, the same store sales have been up or remained flat, and the company reported a 20% earnings hike for Q3 in November.

As the PC brand celebrated its 25th anniversary and the PC GREEN line marked its 20th in 2009, Hutchison is executing a “back to the future” strategy across the board in Loblaw marketing to recapture the authenticity and relevance of the glory days of Dave Nichol and [store designer] Don Watt – and help turn the struggling Loblaw brand around.

As part of the retailer’s response to value-hungry consumers, he has overseen the reintroduction of the No Name brand to consumers, and an 18-week communications overhaul of five major banners.

“We had so many tremendous programs that we ran back in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” he says. “We’re spending a lot of time evaluating those programs and bringing them back today. Because whether it’s a Club Pack program, a GREEN program, [or] the Insider’s Report – the initiatives we had at that time are still very relevant. So a lot of the things that we’re doing – whether it’s in-store signage or having a spokesperson like [company executive chair] Galen [Weston, Jr.] – are really to bring us back to the way that we were.”

Adding to the focus on old favourites are new programs, including the aggressive expansion of apparel brand Joe Fresh Style into over 200 Loblaws stores – as well as a stand-alone boutique in Toronto and expansions into cosmetics and bath. On the CSR front, industry leadership initiatives to eliminate plastic bags and bottles, support sustainable fishing and locally grown food are gaining momentum. And Hutchison also recently completed the redesign of the company’s online properties, including PC.ca, to feature highly customizable e-flyers that cater to consumers’ location and lifestyle.

His ability to successfully juggle so many knives can in part be attributed to Hutchison’s 20-plus years’ experience mostly in food marketing and sales, including 10 years at Nabisco on Mr. Christie, battling PC’s Decadent cookie brand. Before joining Loblaw in March 2008, he ran marketing and sales for Weston Bakeries for six-and-a-half years, encompassing brands Wonderbread, Country Harvest and Italiano. “That’s how I got to know the Weston family well, and they asked me to come over and help out on the Loblaw side,” he says.

Hutchison stepped in to provide a much-needed central voice for marketing, restructuring the group into five teams: brands, led by Hutchison’s former Nabisco colleague Allan Lindsay; events, headed by Sainsbury’s import Chris Kew; the Joe Fresh and PC Home team led by former Loblaw communications director Elizabeth Margles; the retail team headed by another internal promotion, Vanessa Norris; and a separate, dedicated flyer team.

The re-org is what Hutchison considers his greatest accomplishment of the past year. “During the 18 months I was trying to get these people in place I probably had 50 of the 80 people reporting directly to me at one point or another,” he says. “So it gave me an opportunity to get to know the team intimately, to know what their strengths were, where they want to grow. A little challenging having 21 direct reports, but it was really a
great experience.”

Part of Loblaw’s restructuring efforts is a de-layering of the organization, and Hutchison’s management style remains very hands-on. “[From] the first person in marketing up to me there are only three layers, so it’s a very flat organization, and one where ideas are shared very seamlessly.”

To ensure that seamlessness, Hutchison travels to stores every Wednesday, talking to consumers and employees and tackling issues on the ground. On the executive level, on Mondays he goes through weekly sales numbers with senior management to ensure timely responses to fluctuations in consumer behavior. “I’ve always been a very quick marketer, but to be able to see that attention to detail, especially during this economic situation, allowed us to develop much faster insights and put our Spidey radar up early.”

This radar has come in handy more than once. When the global economy ground to a halt last fall, Hutchison’s team was already hard at work supporting a major effort to revitalize the “value powerhouse” No Name – which included a return to the original black and yellow packaging for over 2,500 SKUs. The four-week “basket comparison” campaign launched in January ’09 with integrated in-store communications and a TV execution by AOR Bensimon Byrne.
“The Galen commercial was almost identical to the commercial that Dave Nichol shot in the ‘80s,” Hutchison explains, adding that he relies on a long “organizational memory” to make up for his relatively short tenure and ensure the “back to the future” strategy rings true. “It was such an effective ad, so we almost shot it word for word.”

No Name was just the first step. As of January 2010, over 4,000 PC and No Name SKUs will have “new” packaging – the classic yellow and black for No Name, and white with dominant food photography for PC – “except for probably 25 iconic packages like Decadent that we will never change,” adds Hutchison. 

Next, starting in August 2009, Hutchison’s team embarked on what they called the “18 and a half week plan” to makeover the identities of five banners: Atlantic Superstores, Ontario Superstores, Fortinos, Zehrs and Maxi. “We’ve reinvented…the way that we describe value,” explains Hutchison. “It was like giving birth one banner a week for six weeks: every single value communication, signage element, colleague communication – everything.”

At the Ontario Superstores for instance, under the new “Over 2,000 prices rounded down” positioning that saw product mix adjustments such as greater emphasis on Club Packs, the team delivered over 280 signage elements, a weekly TV campaign, flyer and PR integration, and an in-store demo program. “It was stem to stern,” says Hutchison. 

Bensimon Byrne SVP/CD David Rosenberg, who has worked with Loblaw since 2002, says Hutchison has brought a sharper focus to the brand. “Loblaw is a complex, multifaceted organization that often has to turn on a dime,” he says. “To get the whole organization aligned behind a direction is a pretty gargantuan task, and he seems to be able to manage that very difficult task unbelievably well.”

So well, that his programs are starting to capture attention elsewhere. “We will look worldwide and shamelessly steal and copy other great inspirations, lots of them from the U.K. But we’re now starting to see some of the U.K. retailers following what we’re doing. Some of the words like ‘Big Brands’ and some of the other phrases that we’ve put into our events [are] starting to show up in some of Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s programs.”

What’s that adage about imitation and flattery?

Vital stats

Marketing team size: 80
Time at Loblaw: 21 months
First job in marketing: sales and marketing on Fleecy for Bristol Myers Products Canada
Professional highlight of the past year: building a stronger, better, more integrated, more creative team
Local grocery store: Bayview and Moore Loblaws in Toronto, “which just had a major renovation, and it’s really terrific”
Favourite PC product: Decadent cookies. “It is absolutely the best. I could eat a whole bag in one sitting”

Then and now

The GREEN flagship line turns 20 this year.
Yeah, and PC turns 25, so that’s really exciting for us. It’s been a full celebration from last year when we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the PC Insider’s Report. We just had a fabulous event, where we brought in 500 of our private-label vendor partners, and celebrated 25 years of PC. Dave Nichols was there too. It was great.

Did you have any idea then of the importance of the environmental movement and what it would be today?
I worked on ABC and Arctic Power detergent, and we lived through the first real environmental movement. It was probably 1990; everybody was moving towards super-concentrated detergents.That’s when GREEN launched and a lot of [other] initiatives. It rode a wave and then it got quiet. But Loblaw has remained committed to launching new products, and over the last two years we’ve really ramped it up again.

Jump to:

Overall winner – Frito Lay Canada’s Tony Matta: Raising the stakes

Finalist – Nissan Canada’s Jeff Parent: No guts, no glory

Finalist – Canadian Tourism Commission’s Greg Klassen: Canada’s tourism superhero

Finalist – Canwest’s Muriel Solomon: On with the show