Common Ground Food Co-op
Year founded: 1974
Number of members: 5,800
Member equity: $60
Number of employees: 95
Retail square feet: 8,000
Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana, Ill. has been one of the fastest-growing food co-ops in the country. When they moved to Lincoln Square Mall, their expansion plans included a comprehensive approach to community outreach, customer service and education that has brought the co-op many new customers and enriched the community. The co-op was initially started by college students in the 1970s who would drive a van to Wisconsin every week to get organic and fresh food that they would distribute in a church parking lot. Since then, their retail identity has evolved to one that is professionally focused on community, healthy food and continuing to be a positive force in the world.
Maria Ludeke is the co-op’s marketing manager and she said, “Our approach is different from a lot of traditional business.” Instead of focusing on external advertising to reach people, they have built their outreach efforts on strengthening the relationships they have in the community. “A big part of our marketing budget is dedicated to sponsorships, donations and outreach,” she said. “Being grounded in the community is just as important as knowing where your food comes from. Because we are sampling and tabling we get to know people and have the opportunity create a bigger connection.”
Common Ground’s marketing efforts are closely tied to their Ends, which include:
- Being the center of a vibrant, inclusive community
- Strengthening the co-op movement
- Serving as an educational resource
- Developing an equitable, robust and environmentally-sound food system
Ludeke said that focusing their marketing planning on the Ends is important for defining themselves in the marketplace. “We are proud of who are, and our brand is to be bold, energetic and welcoming,” she said. She believes strong marketing systems focused on the Ends makes the co-op “professional and competent, but not corporate.”
Currently the co-op is engaged in a process of learning more about a variety of potential customers in the Champaign-Urbana area because it is considering a second location. “The two cities have different personalities,” Ludeke said. Urbana tends to have a more laid-back vibe focused on schools, gardens and green lifestyles. Champaign attracts young professionals eager to have adventurous drinking and dining experiences. In common, both cities have a need for healthy food access, and the challenge is crafting messages that resonate with many different people who share a common need. “We are learning more about what they want and shaping our messages for that.”
As part of their efforts they’ve launched new member drives and offered short presentations about the co-op to local businesses. “It’s important for us to build these relationships,” Ludeke said.
It’s not just the community relationships that Common Ground focuses on. “The biggest thing we do is how we manage our internal relationships. The importance of in-depth communication is so important. If the people we are working with are not well informed or comfortable with why we’re doing things, it can be difficult. Great customer service is our best marketing,” Ludeke said.
In particular, they have goals for the in-store experience that include generating excitement for shopping, offering beautiful displays, and encouraging everyone to learn customer names. “We have a lot of promotional meetings where we are working to predict what the customer wants and how to merchandize for that,” she said. “We want people who interact with our co-op—from staff to customers—to know that we care for them.”