While many brands talked the “we’re here for you” talk in recent months, few that I have seen walked the walk as authentically as the value-driven Grocery Outlet food stores. Store managers at many of its 350 independently owned stores hit Facebook Live in the morning to give real-time reports (see video at end of story) on what essential goods were coming off the delivery truck palettes. That adroit and positive use of social connectivity was possible only because SVP of Marketing Layla Kasha had spent two years schooling these stores in using social media to be real community members. This was just one case where Grocery Outlet zigged when others zagged in response to the crisis.
Grocery Outlet is a network of over 350 independently owned, value-driven grocery stores. The company is based in Emeryville, California, and has stores in California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Layla is a veteran of grocery and food marketing. She's been at Save-Mart, Sprouts and Cold Stone Creamery.
MP: What did your marketing plan look like before all of this happened? What major channels do you and the independent owners use?
Kasha: My team and my budget look at enterprise-level marketing. Think TV, broadcast, radio, print ads. We do run social media at a higher level. We create ads and we run carousels. The independent operators are the lifeblood of our model. They lead in the community level. They partner with local community foundations and food banks and different groups to create that local connection. They run their own social media pages. There's a master Grocery Outlet page. And then there's independent pages for all the stores. They're running content on their pages specific to their communities and specific to their stores. They could have items they're promoting, they could be sponsoring a volunteer drive or a food drive or a marathon in their town that they're doing individually. That's what they contribute and they are the connection to the community. They are what keeps us rooted in our mission. It's a unique situation, a unique model.
MP: How do you maintain brand consistency across so many independents?
Kasha: I have really strong relationships with these operators on a one-on-one basis. We text each other. We Instagram message each other. The ability for me to reach out to somebody and say, hey, this is what I need.
MP: What is the key differentiator in most of your markets and how would you explain how this brand differentiates itself from the other chains?
Kasha: The big differentiator for Grocery Outlet is that we are a fun grocery shop. A lot of people see grocery shopping as a chore. Most of our shoppers will tell you they're excited to go because they just don't know what they're going to find. It's a treasure hunt. It's this fun, different experience. The differentiator is that we are able to offer extreme value into these communities that really need it. They're saving between 40 and 70% on a basket next to a conventional. And even against discounters we're a deep saving.
MP: How did you leverage your network of independents when the crisis hit?
Kasha: We quickly put out the alert, Use your social media. Social media is a really strong tool, especially for us. Our operators went live every morning and a lot of them did it differently. A lot of them went live and said, ‘Hey, guys. It's Jason, I'm at Pleasant Hill.’ And he'd be talking off of his phone on video in front of the truck being unloaded and he'd say, We've got toilet paper coming in. We've got this coming in. Here's what I have, and then customers could interact with them live and ask, Do you have sugar? and he would say, Yup, sugar. It was an interactive, very local-feeling communication and it wasn't marketing. We're not saying, hey, come to our store. We were saying, how can we help.
MP: Did your independents need to be instructed on how to do that?
Kasha: When I first got here, my big mission was social media. I've been promoting and training and doing everything I can to get them more comfortable with social media, and Facebook Live was something right out of the gate I got on. We've done tons of webinars, in-person workshops on tips and tricks on how to make that better. So when I came out and said, Hey, guys go live. Tell people what you have, communicate with your community, they knew how to do that.
MP: On the national level, how did that creative strategy and the media-buying strategy change?
Kasha: We could have turned off everything we were doing because, quite honestly, every grocer will tell you they were finding us whether we were on TV or not. But it was a good opportunity for us to be good partners and continue our buy, which we did. We did not alter our buy, we left it in place.
MP: Did you change your creative strategy?
Kasha: The other thing that we learned by talking to our consumers was that they really wanted something normal. They liked seeing our spots because they were funny and they were quirky and they weren't doom and gloom. They're watching news, they're consuming media much more rapidly and at a much greater scale right now because they're home. So the ability to have that 30-second break from all the bad news was positive for them.
We've tailored it a little bit to talk more about, now, you can get everything with us because as people change their shopping patterns — meaning they're going to do less trips out because they're trying to stay safe and limit their time outside of their home
MP: How did customers want to talk with you during the crisis? Which channels?
Kasha: This is an interesting takeaway: I would have told you three months ago that the main way we got information or how they want to talk to us was email, followed closely by social media messaging. It shifted to phone. All of a sudden, we had an influx of calls coming through. It was people wanting connectivity, because they're in their house and they don't have the ability like they did in their normal life to be able to connect. So our calls went up and our call times went up. What would normally be six minutes to have a conversation and resolve an issue quickly doubled, and we realized it was just people really wanted to talk. It was really one of those things, I didn't see coming.
MP: Do you think this has been an accidental brand-building exercise for companies like yours?
Kasha: I do think it is. We knew people were finding us out of necessity. And what's going to make you stand up long term is how you treat them when they come in during a time of crisis. People want comfort. When you look at what people are buying what people are making, it is a comfort-driven society right now and the brands that they trust and love are the brands that they're going to be looking for in the future.
It did two things for us. It naturally brought out who we are in our core. We are a community-driven business that has been around for more than 70 years. We're family run. We are built on family. And we are naturally the comfort brand. The ability to expose more people to that has been positive, as much as you can say anything is positive coming out of this because I think we would have all preferred to not have this be the situation.