CMO profile: Rejuvenating Oliver’s brand and customer approach

How this marketing leader is working to bring fresh energy into this Australian healthy food QSR's brand identity and customer experience

Seventeen-year-old Australian QSR and food producer, Oliver’s, was arguably doing healthy and inclusive food before it became trendy. With a menu boasting of options for coeliacs, vegetarians and vegans as well as those looking for healthier options on the go, the business built its credentials on being the healthy fast-food alternative.

But thanks to a combination of business restructuring, an explosion in health-oriented competitors and lack of internal strategic marketing, the brand has spent several years without clear direction and energy.

Enter a new business strategy, CEO, board members and James Wood, the first marketing director for Oliver’s in several years. Appointed six months ago and with a clear remit to reinvigorate the brand, Wood has been working to introduce new visual design, digital capability, customer insights and more to achieve just that.

Oliver’s was established in 2005 with two QSR properties in NSW. Today, it owns QSR operations across 26 locations across Victoria, NSW and Queensland, all on the highway. Its USP is to be the alternative to fast food for consumers looking for suitable dietary and lifestyle options. Oliver’s traditional QSR model is owned stores, but it also has a distribution agreement with Euro Garage (EG) through its network of nearly 200 service stations nationally. This encompasses a range of products, such as select salads, sandwiches and ambient produce.

As Wood tells CMO, he joined a business that had not had a marketing lead for a number of years. It’s also undergone significant changes, including a simplification of its operating model under a new executive team including CEO, Tammie Phillips, appointed two years ago. Phillips was a co-founder of About Life back in 1995 and its CEO until its closure.

“For all QSRs, Covid has been real challenge. And Oliver’s has undergone significant change in its structure and operational model. So as we have come out of the pandemic, the business has looked to how best to return to growth,” Wood says. “I was brought into the business to help drive that growth.”

Wood built his marketing career mostly on the client side, working in music and entertainment sectors. After spending time overseas, he joined NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service as a senior marketing manager. He then switched to agency side, joining the strategy team at Present Company, a digital and creative agency based in Surry Hills, where he spent three-and-a-half years.

“Agency was interesting and huge learning curve in terms of many areas. We worked with clients from startups and government to Ubank, BWS and F45, so big as well as small clients,” Wood recalls. “It was a great journey to learn and drive marketing outcomes for clients.”

But as he says, the return to client side was inevitable, and when the opportunity to join Oliver’s came up, he took it. “This opportunity is a golden one in terms of the briefing for marketing,” he says.

Brand reset

Six months in, Wood says it’s been a transformative journey already. One of the earliest priorities has been to refresh the Oliver’s brand. This was driven within the context of needing sales growth and stronger cultural connection and influence in the category.

“The brand needed lot of love and a transformation,” Wood says. Working with brand and creative agency, Artmode, Wood kicked off a brand refresh aimed at keeping the core of the proposition but giving it a new lease on life. As part of this process, the group has dropped the ‘Real Food’ from its name.

“What the business needed was a fresh articulation of its brand, and the name was really representative of that change. This brand was built on such a strong foundational intent, and this hasn’t changed, but simplifying our brand and strengthening the core assets has been critical to becoming more approachable, modern and culturally connected. Oliver’s has always been the healthy solution in the context of unhealthy fast food and convenience – but we needed to reflect this out in a fresh, modern way.” Wood explains.

“We transformed the visual identity in order to give the brand new energy and life, bringing it up to date with the modern understanding of health and where health culture has progressed to over the last 5-10 years."

But while the starting point was brand, Wood has had plenty of other things to do along the critical path of transformation.

One of these was rebuilding the Oliver’s website, working with the Central Coast-based digital agency, Advantage Agency. He’s also developed and launched Oliver’s loyalty program, overhauled Oliver’s social media presence, and built a foundational marketing team. Packaging and store design are next, bringing the new look and feel in-store to ensure the brand shines through that environment.

"We want every Oliver’s experience to feel warm, homely and be consistently excellent," Wood says.

More broadly, there have been moves to refresh the product, led by Oliver’s Head of Product and Accredited Dietitian Natalie Sharpe. A move made in December 2021 was to launch a Kids Menu, incorporating packaged healthy menu choices for little Oliver’s customers at a price point that represents great value for money.

“2022 is proving to be a transformative year for our product and we are doing a lot of work on the menu,” Wood says. “We have made strides already, and there is more work still to come.”

Customer insights

Helping guide Wood’s path forward is qualitative and quantitative customer research, undertaken upfront with Present Company. This proved an informative piece leading into the brand research, capturing insight from a broad demographic of road trippers, families, retirees, holiday groups and workers/commuters.

From the beginning, the focus was on developing our understanding of our customer base through data. "We really didn’t have usable data, segmentation or insights. There wasn’t a data-led foundational understanding of the customer that the business could refer back to in strategy and decision making,” Wood says.

“That’s what I’m working to build over time, starting with that initial research project. And we’re continuing this with grassroots efforts, rolling up our sleeves and going into stores, talking to customers, immersing ourselves in the data.

“We also did a brand tracking study and have started tracking brand health metrics in a formal way.”

With plenty of instinctual knowledge across the organisation – even if it hadn’t been quantified to an addressable market and its breakdown – the customer research was less surprising and more a solidification of that gut instinct.

“But what we were able to gain is really establish who we are as business, and how can that be relevant to each of our customer segments, from the inner-city metro young couple to suburban families, tradies into health, the truckies on highways that want to make more healthier choices, grey nomads,” Wood says.

“Our ambition is to capture those. As a brand, we come from a base of low awareness in the market. The challenge and opportunity is to get our name out there, get brand awareness up with our first, best customers, then to go beyond that. That could be speaking to those who might not have thought of health as a first preference but are open to it and would be benefitted by it.”

An unexpected finding for Wood was the sheer number of loyal fans of Oliver’s.

“Oliver’s has this groundswell of advocates that love the business, because the purpose of the business is so real and honest,” he says. “We are passionate about health and outcomes to customers, produce and quality of the product. There are QSRs that speak to that now, but I don’t think any of our competitors can deliver on that promise of health as Oliver’s does. It’s a point of difference and people respond to that and love that.”

As he’s developed out social capability, Wood is starting to see this advocacy coming through more on social. “It was another area which had to be built within the business as that was untapped. As we have begun to engage proactively with online communities, we’re seeing that advocacy coming through much more strongly,” he says.

Wood is being equally strategic when running marketing campaigns. Given its locations, Oliver’s big sales periods are around school holidays. Oliver’s ran its first brand campaign over the summer holidays, called ‘Home on the Road’, to drive demand during this holiday period, followed by Easter. Inbetween that, there’s tactical activations to capture people while they’re on the road.

“As a brand, we come from a base of low awareness in the market. The challenge and opportunity is to really connect with health culture and grow brand awareness and resonance with our first, best customers, then afterward to go beyond that,” he says.

Purpose recalibration

At the same time, internal buy-in has been critical for Wood. While Oliver’s purpose was always there, it needed to be better understood and become more readily understandable internally as well as at the coalface.

“The business has such a pure intent, but we needed to rearticulate that in a way that made sense. It’s amazing just doing that and speaking it makes a difference,” Wood says. “It’s up to us to take people in our owned stores on that journey and embed those principles in everyday practice.

“We had to start with a re-articulation of who we are as a business, what our values are and why we exist. We had to answer those questions upfront. Then it’s where we want to be in terms of position in market. It’s now a very crowded market. We had to get that piece right before we did the visual piece. If there isn’t an organisation-wide understanding of the business, who we are and the path we’re on, that design won’t work.”

It’s again reflective of the desire to be more approachable and relevant, simpler, more understandable as a business for a consumer.

“Also, our product focus is to simplify, consolidate and optimise quality of the product as well as its consistency so we can ensure that consistency across stores and every time someone picks up a product off the shelf.”

Because Oliver’s hadn’t previously run loyalty or done much by way of data capture, back-end capability has also been built to help in that quest. In addition, an app has been under development and will go live shortly. Wood says this is central to the loyalty strategy for Oliver’s.

Another digital milestone has been to launch online ordering in the last month. This allows customers to order on their phone when they’re at an Oliver’s or before they arrive.

“That’s been a big change for us. Apart from marketing, part of my remit and deliverables have been bringing the business from a laggard in terms of digital to industry benchmark level,” Wood says. “With online ordering, the new website and app we’re launching, we are catching up in that space, and the functionality of all those elements is robust.”

Supporting such changes at a broader IT level are the rollout last year of a new point-of-sale system to all stores, digital menu boards with time-of-day capabilities, real-time live updating to menus and pricing in-store and enhanced analytics data. Self-service kiosks were also relaunched with improved functionality.

 The next big priority is the ecommerce refresh. “A lot of QSRs had to step this up in the face of Covid and responded well in that regard, with unexpected growth in those areas. We have a diversified store network, and our locations aren’t necessarily those locations where delivery partners exist. So we are rethinking how we get an Oliver’s experience into the home another way. Ecommerce will be a great answer to that,” Wood says.

“Part of the journey is bringing the Oliver’s experience to people at home so when they’re not out and about on the freeways and highways they can still experience health in an easy way. Our intent has always been about making it easy for people to be healthy. We are looking for ways we can do that, going beyond a visit to Oliver’s when you’re on the highway.”

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