When I first moved to the UAE in 2007 I worked for Transmed, the official distributor for Procter & Gamble in the country. As an account executive, I was responsible for selling and maintaining a certain portion of the portfolio to my client Spinneys, an upscale supermarket chain based in the UAE.
As part of my training, I was sent with different account managers to different chains to see how the retail landscape varied. One experience at Union Coop always stuck with me, as the style of the store differed drastically from my own client.
Back in 2007, Union Coop (UCS) was a cooperative that was targeted at UAE national families. These shoppers tend to buy in bulk as they have large immediate and extended families to cook for. The chain mostly stocked popular mass market products or regional brands. There was no room for gourmet and no real presence of imports. Union Coop was where you went to find bargain prices.
Sometime in the last ten years, all this changed. I have no idea when it happened, as I only recently revisited, but this chain is no longer the same brand I encountered 10 years ago. In fact, the transformation is inspirational.
Today’s Union Coop is a dream. Pristine aisles, brand new trolleys that actually roll properly (what is it with supermarkets and bad trolleys?), shelves upon shelves of imported products, gleaming produce, and an overall enjoyable shopper experience.
The chain is now a strong challenger to expat favourite Spinneys, whereas a few years ago there is no way the two brands’ audiences would have overlapped at all. So what did Union Coop do to change their brand image that dramatically? Was it through incessant PR and advertising?
No. They worked on the basics: the 7 P’s of marketing.
Product – As I mentioned above, there was never any focus on gourmet or imported goods. If Union Coop wanted to become more popular among expats, who make up the majority of the UAE community, they needed to make changes to their product portfolio. Today’s Union Coop not only boasts a wide variety of products from all over the world, but it also stocks lesser known local food brands that offer gourmet options, and even have a small corner dedicated to Italian imports.
They also did away with the bulk focus. While promotional sizes are still available, bulk buying is definitely not Union Coop’s core product strategy anymore.
Place – Union Coop’s locations were predominately selected in areas that were more popular with UAE nationals rather than expats, thus naturally reducing the amount of expats who shopped there. While those outlets still exist, newer outlets in the more expat dense Umm Suqeim and Barsha have now been opened and are easily accessible for residents from Jumeirah, Barsha Heights, Marina, JLT, and more.
Promotion – While the chain has made some slight tweaks to its external communication style, the real change that I have noticed is that other companies are no longer allowed to set up promotional material in ostentatious ways in the store. Prior to this shift, consumer goods brands were permitted to put up roll up banners, flyers, and other material that often became eye sores. The reduction of this material may have irked the brands, but it’s definitely made shopping at UCS a much more enjoyable experience.
Price – Of all the P’s that UCS tackled, how they handled price is the smartest of all. The chain has always been known as a place to find better prices than most other retailers. When improving their brand image, they could have easily raised all their prices to correspond with that change. Instead, they kept most staple products as bargain buys and only really increased prices on the new imports and premium products. For this reason, UCS is now truly a value offering as it provides a fantastic shopping experience with great prices as a cherry on top.
People – The people who work at Union Coop reflect the diversity of the country, and I love that. They are also well trained and happy to assist shoppers. The company still supplies modest uniforms for all staff. This shows that it is staying true to its original principles, which are rooted in local customs and traditions. By doing this, UCS also did not alienate its existent base when adjusting its strategy.
Processes – With all the changes mentioned in this article, it’s now become incredibly easy for most people to locate, reach, park and shop at any Union Coop store. There is always enough parking and there are always enough cashiers. Those two things alone are a big win for any shopper!
Physical Evidence – UCS has improved the interiors of the stores and has also done one thing that won me over – they invested in shopping carts that actually roll properly! The plastic carts that they opted for feel sturdier, cleaner, and easier to use than the metal ones usually found at supermarkets. This little bit of physical evidence was enough to show me how purposeful the chain is behaving with their upgrades.
This analysis of UCS is purely done from my outside perspective as a marketer. What this case shows is that if you want to change your brand image, start from the inside out. No amount of PR and advertising can dramatically change the market’s perception of you if you don’t actually alter the factors that created that image in the first place.
Well done to Union Coop for creating a brand that has really started to shine in the market by applying best practice methods.