Newark’s old co-op turns 40, embarks on a larger mission

From left: Anita Moos discusses signage with Jenn Grybowski and Craig Brown of ab+c.
From left: Anita Moos discusses signage with Jenn Grybowski and Craig Brown of ab+c.

By Christi Milligan

The challenge was this: How to take a 40-year-old grocery store birthed among the first generation of consumers committed to an organic, farm-to-table lifestyle, and rebrand it in a way that could attract like-minded millennials.

Last year, Newark Natural Foods Co-op was already poised to move from their longtime location on Main Street to a 10,250-square-foot space in the Newark Shopping Center just around the corner. New digs promised space for a café, meeting space in the basement, and presented the perfect opportunity to freshen the brand and capture a sought-after customer base.

“We weren’t the hippy, crunchy granola bunch anymore,” explained Anita Moos, marketing manager at the store. “Healthy and organic food is mainstream now.”

That wasn’t so in 1967, when founding members decided to start a food-buying club for locally sourced, organic food. They bought what they could from local farms and then split the cost.  Four decades later, active membership at Newark Natural Foods Co-op exceeds 4,000.

In the years since its founding, the store has gone through a number of logo changes. But Moos and the board were hoping to leverage this year’s big move as a springboard for creative marketing changes. To get started, her team embarked on a new research effort, which revealed an untapped market among area millennials.

“To get them in was really important to us, and we looked at different angles of how we could accomplish that,” said Moos. “We decided it was the perfect opportunity to rebrand.”

She turned to longtime Wilmington ad agency ab+c Creative Intelligence to navigate the brand research and creative process that could transform Moos’ raw vision into a concrete marketing and retail initiative.

The result was a trove of creative and whimsical yet strategic branding and marketing materials that captured the essence of the neighborhood staple without compromising its history or alienating longtime members.

“It was an interesting challenge for them, there was a real business need,” said Paul Pomeroy, managing partner at ab+c Creative Intelligence. “There was a significant build-out and they needed to bring brand new people into the space.”

The produce aisle at the new Newark Natural Foods reflects the market’s new vibe, with colorful signage and pithy taglines. The store has a new home in Newark Shopping Center.
The produce aisle at the new Newark Natural Foods reflects the market’s new vibe, with colorful signage and pithy taglines. The store has a new home in Newark Shopping Center.

For agency and client, it was a symbiotic match that hinged on the little grocery store’s openness to change and the longtime ad agency’s ability to pinpoint and rejuvenate its brand. To get there, it required research that would enable the creative agency to identify a brand and messaging platform.

While Newark Natural Foods’ market research had uncovered an untapped customer base, brand research — ab+c’s first step in the process — would ultimately help them develop a message about why they should come through the door.

“What are the core attributes highlighted in marketing? What are the benefits relative to competition to make those people you identified in a market study become customers?” said Pomeroy, about the answers his team needed to identify.

The business of brand identification and its inherent marketing and advertising components make up nearly 80 percent of the business at ab+c Creative Intelligence, said Pomeroy.

Traditionally businesses rebrand when they have a business offering something substantively different than when they began, or when a company’s brand has been damaged, he said.

For others, like Newark Natural Foods Co-op, the impetus is engagement of a new, broader audience.

“We work with those organizations to make sure they understand the thinking behind the varied decision-making groups,” said Pomeroy. “If, like Newark Natural Foods, they’re trying to hit millennials and college students, then the reason behind the purchasing decisions is different.”

Brand research by ab+c included consumer surveys, board surveys and general SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) that were distilled into recommendations — efforts rarely done well in-house, cautioned ab+c Creative Director Steve Merino.

“Many times we’ll have a customer who says ‘We know who we are,’” said Merino. “Yes, but you don’t know how everybody else feels about you.”

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The research also generates a message rooted in concrete strategy, not just creativity.

For Newark Natural Foods Co-op, research results also revealed a challenge: The word “co-op” — an integral part of the Newark Natural Foods logo for 40 years — was determined to be a stumbling block to new customers, according to Craig Brown, account supervisor at ab+c.

“That was definitely something we debated and debated heavily,” said Moos, of ab+c’s recommendation to lose the word from the logo. “That’s who we are and we’re very proud to be a co-op.”

But ab+c’s suggested that the word was exclusive, or at the very least, misunderstood.  Newark Natural Foods Co-op has always been open to non-members, though not everyone knew it, according to Moos.

“Ab+c suggested that we get them in the door and then educate them about membership opportunities,” said Moos. “They were right.”

A brand biography, or substance of the brand, was used to position Newark Natural Foods relative to its competition, in this case Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Armed with a branding platform, ab+c tackled the message.

“This part was the most exciting,” said Merino, who added that Newark Natural Foods had no existing “brand baggage,” or fonts and color palates that dictated the creative process. “We were making a brand by scratch, retaining some of the positive and addressing negatives. From a messaging perspective we were starting on the ground floor.”

The food-buying club that once catered to what one manager called the “hippy crunchy granola” crowd has a new 10,250-square-foot home.
The food-buying club that once catered to what one manager called the “hippy crunchy granola” crowd has a new 10,250-square-foot home.

For the creative team, the challenge was fun, but complex.

“You have a community-based organization all about organic and sustainability — it’s crunchy, dirt under your fingernails kind of stuff, but as a grocery store you need it to be clean, crisp, retail-y,” said Merino.

Merino and Senior Art Director Jenn Grybowski began formulating ideas, creating fonts, words, slogans, colors that would capture the perceived emotions of the company. They said dozens of ideas were vetted internally before two were ready for prime time, and the final product selected handily by Newark Natural Foods board members.

“They were spot on – they totally got it,” said Moos, who presented the selection to the full membership in the fall, sans the word co-op.

The result is a colorful, crisp, logo composed of upper- and lower-case letters, shots of red, aqua and yellow in signage that combines both a rustic and modern vibe, and a supporting cast of shirts and bags with sharp, organic-driven slogans like “Morganic,” “Step Aside Pesticide” and “So Fresh You’ll Want to Slap It.”

“The language was fun,” said Grybowski, who designed the font and color palate.

“It feels like there’s a craftsmanship about it,” said Merino. “It’s underprocessed, the lower case mixed with uppercase – very approachable.”

“It was a jolt, and we loved it,” said Moos, of the logo and materials. “Ab+c was so different than what we anticipated — in a very good way.”

Newark Natural Foods opened its new location in the spring, showcasing the new logo on in-house materials that range from bags to T-shirts and signs. The team was even able to collaborate with the architect in time to mesh architectural elements with the new branding materials.

According to Moos, the reaction has been positive, with more millennials shopping and membership numbers climbing.  Newark Shopping Center has also undergone a $10 million revamp to its exterior, adding stores and revamping its parking lot.

“This is an iconic institution in Newark,” said Pomeroy. “We were proud to be a part of it — when you get involved in a project like that you want to work that much harder.”

A grand reopening and 40th anniversary celebration for Newark Natural Foods is scheduled for Oct. 17, said Moos. And just like the store, the celebration is open to everyone.


 

What’s all this talk of brands, messages, platforms and positions?

 

BRANDING

Creating an emotional connection, or experience, between people and products. (Walk into an Apple store.)

“One of the things we say is that marketers like to think they own their brands, but they don’t. The buyers, the customers own the brand,” said Paul Pomeroy, managing partner at ab+c Creative Intelligence.

He added that once a brand is cemented in the consumer’s mind, it could take on a life of its own.  “The best you can do is manage it, but how it’s managed is important to long-term health and well being of an organization — and that is priceless,” said Pomeroy. “It’s one of the most important investments a company can make in itself.”

 

BRAND RESEARCH

The process of exploring and understanding a company’s customers, competition, opportunities and challenges. (Arm & Hammer says to put one in the fridge, and one in the freezer.)

 

COST OF BRAND ASSESSMENT

According to Pomeroy, costs vary depending on size, type and scope of company.  It’s important to note that a brand assessment is separate from a brand launch. Assessments can range from $15,000 to $75,000.

“Newark Natural Foods offered a unique situation, one where we did the assessment and materials, but then they were able to run with it,” said Pomeroy.

 

MESSAGE PLATFORM

A simple and concise written strategy that all marketing communications should support. (Home Depot empowers people to do it yourself.)

 

POSITIONING STATEMENT

The way a company distinguishes itself within a certain category. (“Avis. We’re No. 2. So we try harder.”)

 

TAGLINE

A creative slogan that helps people remember what a company stands for. (“Snickers really satisfies.”)

 

TIMETABLE FOR BRAND ASSESSMENT

Anywhere from four to six weeks, according to Pomeroy.

 

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