Back in the late 90’s, I spent a lot of time working with food retail businesses, little did I realize it at the time, but that was a pattern that I was to follow for well over a decade.
In my first commercial agency role, I was working with Whittards, JW Lees Brewery and the CoOp – who at the time were using the Pioneer brand to refresh their food retail channels. I was working in a large team, developing and delivering a complete new suite of packaging across the entire product portfolio – from wine and whisky, right through to sausages, ready meals, bread and milk…you name it, we had samples in the office, designs to develop, product photography, food styling and illustrations to commission. It was a lot of fun, I had the opportunity to learn from some great people, who I still admire to this day – their artistry, professional and personal input, taking the time to explain the subtleties of their craft and allowing me to opportunity to see why they’re so passionate about it.
When I moved roles to a smaller agency, there was a whole new dynamic and a new set of clients, one of whom was Booths. I’d never heard of them, I remember my first visit to the Knutsford store, it felt a little out of touch at that time. Their products were good, much of the produce was truly local, being reared or farmed in the North West, there was a lot that they could, and still do, deliver that the bigger multiples simply couldn’t achieve, they were leaner and more agile but none of this was communicated in the store, in the press or anywhere else.
When I met the directors of the business, I realised that they had a lot of ambition. They had bold plans, they’d hit on something special and had a vision for the road ahead. This was music to my ears, probably Oasis or Blur…given the time and geographical location, most likely it was Oasis – Roll with it (sorry couldn’t resist that one). If, like me, you’ve never heard of Booths or if you’ve never experienced what Booths delivers, the best way that I can describe it would be to say, Booths feels like a regional version of Waitrose, where pretty much everything is locally produced and sourced.
I worked with the team at Booths for over 7 years, in that time we developed the brand into a champion of everything that is great about local – providing the best food and drink in the region. We called it Booths Country, telling the stories of artisan food production and creating in-store theatre that provided an entirely different retail experience from what I had first experienced at the Knutsford store.
Booths was in a happy place, they had embraced the best bits of the supermarket customer experience and blended it with the local knowledge and the personal service of a high street deli or farm shop. When you cast you mind back to that period, British food culture and the foodie movement was there, it had arrived and was getting better established, but it still had more than it’s fair share of teenage angst, not sure where it was going or what it would end up being. Booths was different, they were clear about what they wanted to be and knew exactly who shopped with them.
It’s all in the timing
There are 3 main periods of activity in food retail – Easter, Summer and Christmas/New Year. Developing campaigns for these was great fun. One of the reasons that I believe I enjoy my job as much as I do, are the learning opportunities that every project brings.
Working on these seasonal campaigns always brought tonnes of learning – from photo shoots on trawlers at Fleetwood to oil painting illustrations for the coveted Christmas brochure, there was always a challenge, an opportunity to connect with people and tell the human story about why this food tasted so damn good.
Working on these big campaigns can really screw with your own personal sense of time, for example I’d be arranging Christmas carolers and snow for shoots in the middle of summer, by the time Christmas arrived I’d be deep into if not almost past Easter. On top of that there were all the weekly promotions, monthly events, sports, charities and other events local to anyone of the 26 stores that made up Booths Country happening regularly. Communicating and controlling the logistics of all that required a lot of planning, it certainly improved my project and stake holder management no end, not to mention my negotiation skills. It also gave me the opportunity to explore a host of design and communication applications including packaging, in-store point-of-sale, direct mail, online, regional and national press, TV and radio.
One of my favourite things about the work that we produced working with Booths has to be the brochures and door drops. I have always had a real affinity for paper, the textures and the way in which the type of paper can affect the finished piece, how it’s received and what it says, should never be under estimated. The first year that I was running the Christmas campaign saw us take the bold, and at the time unconventional move, of using uncoated paper for all the literature. I’d seen some incredible work in Europe, mainly coming from Sweden, Norway and Germany, where big business had turned it’s back on the conventional glossy brochure in favour of something different, something earthy and more honest. That’s the affect of using uncoated stock and I loved everything about it, how it felt, how it looked and even how it smelt – yes that’s right, proper paper sniffer moments. But most of all it felt right for the Booths business.
I gathered as many samples as I could and presented this approach to the team at Booths. They could see this was a way to stand out, be different and be more environmental. The green issue was gaining more momentum through the 90’s and when I found a mill in Sweden that could provide what we needed, at the right price with a process that was much greener than most paper producers of the time. Everything came together really quickly…perhaps a little too quickly, for little did I know at the time, just how much the printers and press minders (my suppliers) would push back on this process.
Like most people, printers don’t like change (though the recent past has seen more changes than they could have ever envisaged) and using an uncoated stock brought more challenges from my suppliers then anywhere else. Print production is all about speed – set a job up quickly and then run it as fast as you can before putting the next job on etc. Uncoated stock doesn’t confirm to this job in, job out format that many printers operate with. To start with the repro (how the plates would be imaged, by the way this was with film and Cromalin – proper old school by todays standards) had to be tweaked, the colours had to be desaturated to allow for the dot gain of the paper – all of this information was tested and supplied by the mills that were producing the paper, but it was far from the norm.
Then when it came to passing the job on press, achieving fit was harder, damper blankets on the actual printing press filled with paper fibres much quicker (the paper wasn’t as calendared – smooth), the uncoated paper had a tendency to tear or snap from the reels (this was web printing) and that was a printers worst nightmare. That said, I found a printer who shared my vision, who was prepared to try something new, something different and they made a great job of every project we ran together.
We worked closely to not just deliver great print, but strategic buying and best practice. At times we would bulk buy up to 12 months of paper, locking down budgets, print slots, dispatch and delivery – ensuring there were no unpleasant surprises throughout the year.
When the Christmas brochures were printed Booths were thrilled with the results, their customers loved the tactile, un-corporate feel of the paper. Everything we did in those campaigns stood out as being different from the rest. The proposition and the way in which it was communicated was different, the advertising was quirky, the print was earthy and the in-store point-of-sales materials continued this journey for the customer as they shopped the store. It was a wonderful experience and something that I’m very proud to have played my part in. As a business, we picked up many new clients on the back of the way in which the Booths work was delivered. It was clear that people wanted something different and something that connected with their customers.
We were a small, tight knit team, compared with where I had started my agency life, we were dots on the horizon, but that didn’t matter because we knew what we each brought to the party and we genuinely all punched above our weight.
Our team consisted of an art director, copywriter and two designers. We’d all previously had the pleasure of working with teams of production assistants, artworkers and the comfort of working in a much bigger creative team when delivering projects of this type. The first time we did ‘Christmas’ for Booths we all knew that we would need more man power. With the best will in the world, there is only so much that each person can do, recognising that certain aspects of a job don’t come naturally to you and that other people are better at some tasks than you are, was and still is, so important to the success of these projects. We expanded with the help of freelancers, sourcing and collaborating with dedicated artworkers, whom would produce the print ready files from sketches and rough layouts, commissioning and art directing a photography team (there was around a months photography to be shot), working closely with a national paper merchant and a recommended printer, home economists, stylists, couriers and several others who were brought in to deliver this project.
I led this project and the on-going business, working with a team of eight, sometimes a little more, to ensure that deadlines were met, production was on target, the client was updated and the brand was developed, this was all part of the day job. In my eyes I am a designer first and foremost, my passion for communicating with clarity (and often humour) has and will always be at the centre of everything that I do. I am a creative thinker and around that there are many bolts-ons, bits and pieces that I outsource to help me deliver projects that are greater then the sum of their parts. I’m proud of the work we produced for Booths and I’m proud of the team that helped me deliver, a number of whom are still helping me deliver work to this day.
There are many, many great stories and experiences that I could share about my time working with Booths and my team. A time, as I’ve already said, where I learnt a lot of stuff, and things that have held me in good stead with countless other clients over the years, not least SodaStream, PURE digital, Whirlpool, the Milk Marketing Board, KitchenAid, Pizza Express, Kelloggs, Accenture and more. I’m looking forward to the next challenge and the opportunity to learn more about another sector, service or niche, developing how it connects with the people who are passionate about it.
Thanks for reading, 2017 marks my 20th year in brand communications and I thought it was time to share some of the buzz form the past two decades in this series of blog posts.