Taking on the high street and winning

Katie Butler shares a fresh approach on transforming retail marketing and building customer loyalty


The University of Sheffield recognised the need to evolve its catering services in line with the changing social environment, encroaching high-street brands and increasing international student and staff population. Our aim was to establish a competitive edge and transform the catering offer giving our customers a reason to choose us.

Following a strategic review, the University invested in an extensive programme of customer insight to get to the heart of what its students and staff want from the catering services on campus. In response, its cafes and bars were rebranded and given their own identity, reflecting the values of the faculty they were located within. Product ranges were redeveloped, each with a hot food offer sitting comfortably alongside a cold food range. Along with the refurbishment of some of the older outlets to improve flow and customer experience, 2013 also saw the opening of a number of new outlets and a large scale brand refresh to develop the foodservice in line with the high-street operators.

The University commissioned brand specialists to draw on their expertise and experience of working with some of the leading brands in food and beverages such as Sodexo, O’Neills and Green King. They undertook an immersion exercise in all areas of the business, working with the service teams to fully understand the operations and devise a competitive strategy.

The self-delivered catering model in place was working well and those involved were skilled, committed and passionate about their work. By working in collaboration with suppliers they were able to bring a fresh offer in some areas where support services were limited. The University has a wide range of food and beverage offers for students, on campus and close to their accommodation, available throughout the day, for any occasion or budget. However, with staff working for two different employers, as some of the outlets were managed by a subsidiary company, it was imperative to create a seamless service for our customers. This unique offer and staff ethos was to be central to the strategy – the challenge was bringing it all together under one integrated approach.  

Aims and objectives

In order to achieve the vision, it was essential that the values of the University of Sheffield were upheld, whilst embracing the different commercial needs, audiences and personalities of each café and bar:

1.  A brand strategy that defines the University of Sheffield (US) DNA and allows the personality of each location to shine through.

2. A communications strategy that delivers the right message in line with the customer journey.

3. Tactical, seasonal and key date marketing communication to attract, re-engage and retain customers.

Brand development

To develop the brand proposition it was important to keep the university’s ‘US’ signature to represent the vision of ‘delivering excellence’ and ethical standards. New names and visual identities were designed to reflect the personalities of each location, while maintaining the ‘US’ link.

The result was 15 unique brands all underpinned by the umbrella brand ‘Designed and Operated by US’, along with three cross-venue sub brands for the reward card scheme (It’s GeniUS) the meal deal (DelicioUS Deal) and Fairtrade coffee brand (Coffee HoUSe).

For the brands to be successful, the product offer, service standards and the interior design schemes were aligned. In addition to the major refurbishment of a number of its outlets, all food and drink offers were redeveloped in line with customer feedback.

Integral to the strategy was driving the service ethic amongst staff. Recruitment has been focused on employing staff who are comfortable with engaging with customers and challenging the team leaders, feeding into the design and product development, understanding the creative journey and how their contribution would shape the brand. Improved service standards were adopted and staff have become brand ambassadors with a measurable mystery customer audit as a KPI.

Part of the challenge was the need to retain and re-engage existing customers. A sophisticated loyalty card was already in place, but it needed to work harder. The card was re-launched as ‘It’s GeniUS’ and a communications strategy put in place to shout about the benefits. The relaunch took the form of Food Angels doing tastings outside outlets and brand ambassadors within the residences to answer questions across intro weekend.

Collaboration with the Students’ Union took the form of tastings all week to drive footfall around the Students Union, particularly as there had been lost opportunities the previous year with the reopening of the building around signage. To build on the success of the GeniUS card, a series of exclusive offers and discounts open only to registered GeniUS cardholders have been introduced.  

Implementing the brand strategy wasn’t without its challenges – with staff on different reward and recognition packages and sitting across two employers, driving change in some areas was more difficult than in others. The introduction of mystery audit was at first alarming but now it is embraced, with teams competing to be top of the league table; also through recognising it as a category of our annual awards evenings it has been embedded as part of our culture.

And the result

Caryn Masters, Head of Commercial Services, said: “I was very clear in that we were not going to change an offer unless we could do it well. With significant investment required to bring in retail specialists, we had a clear return on investment plan of 12 months. There was an uplift of 14% sales in the initial roll-out year, which has surpassed all our expectations and we are well on track to achieving this payback. This year the outlets are showing a healthy growth of 12% year-on-year, which in the current economic environment is very encouraging.

“Some of the newer units whose concept development was as a direct result of customer feedback through our student survey, have doubled their sales line showing that reaction to special diets and being internationally inclusive can have a truly positive effect in winning and retaining customers.

“And the key to it all; by having a marketing and retail team all working together and incentivised into delivering a clear vision, delivering commercial success comes as standard.”

Katie Butler is Brand Manager for Commercial Services at the University of Sheffield.

For further information go to: https://cubo.org.uk 

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