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Why Coles pivoted from plastic to collectible stories

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Collectibles. They’re a big deal in Australia. We love small, cheap plastic stuff from retailers and fast food chains. Why? It works. It drives sales growth and invariably engages our hearts and minds.

Collectibles are inseparable from kids' meals at Maccas. And over at Coles and Woolworths, collectibles are proven winners. The community has largely accepted this strategy as an integral, some would say fun, part of the retail experience - if you ignore controversy over plastics and the environment.

So it was interesting to see Coles re-enter the fray last week with its Little Treehouse campaign. It’s offering a cute little set of 24 books based on the LIttle Treehouse series by author Andy Griffiths and illustrator Terry Denton.

Like every good consumer strategy, it’s simple. Spend more than $30 and you get one of 24 different little plastic-wrapped books. It’s a lucky-dip model, meaning it will likely take more than 24 visits to Coles to end up with the full set - unless, of course you start trading or buying them on social media.

What’s less simple is understanding what’s going on from a strategy and leadership perspective. In fact, that’s exactly what the media has been trying to figure out.

Over at 7News, the stoked emotions with a report about the books being printed in China. Canstar wondered if customers would accept this campaign in the midst of a pandemic, quoting an expert who called the timing “perplexing.”

Meanwhile, the AFR quoted chief marketing officer and campaign architect Lisa Ronson setting the record straight. To paraphrase her, “kids are spending more time at home during a global pandemic, so of course it’s a good time!”

But let’s be clear, questions about the campaign timing, printing in China or the bigger question about plastics are a side show.

This isn’t a story about growth, it’s a story about trust.

Growth is sorted. We’re all at home cooking more than we ever have during the pandemic.

Ms Ronson unpacks the trust narrative in an interview with Mumbrella.

Our vision is to make Coles Australia’s most trusted retailer. So, I felt that campaigns like this one which have that excitement of the collectables that we’ve run in the past, but are making Australians healthier and happier very much at its heart is in line with where we want to go.

If you want to foster trust, customer engagement and authentic emotions that build loyalty, you tell a story. Or in this case, you invite a book author and illustrator to tell those stories for you.

It’s a great example of fostering what I describe in Beliefonomics as a Belief Moment, a story that engages hearts and minds to shift your belief from one state to another.

Stay with me as we quickly unpack this idea.

What’s “the story?” Coles is providing free books to align with a real-life hearts and minds moment: story time with your kids. This is an emotive, trust-building and time-honoured tradition shared between parents and kids. Coles wants to join you in the kids bedroom. Not in a creepy way, of course. It must be authentic and fun - as things do indeed appear.

What about “belief?” Coles is inviting us to believe it is the most trusted retailer in Australia. Not in supermarket retailing, but the category as a whole - an important difference.

In marketing parlance, it’s a vision that seeks to reposition the supermarket outside the Coles vs. Woolworths narrative. Woolworths, arguably, has already won that battle. It’s the “fresh food people.” Coles are not.

In response, it seems when you’ve lost one battle, pick another.

So, do you trust Coles above all other brands? It’s a journey that begins when you open a Little Treehouse book and start turning the pages. Just don’t get distracted by the fact that, metaphorically, there's a retailer in the room.


This is the first in a series of articles for CEOs and leaders who use storytelling to change the world. Sign up for the newsletter here!

Mark Jones is a master storyteller, brand strategist and author of Beliefonomics - Realise the true value of your story. Book him to host or speak at your next virtual or in-person event.

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