Profile: Michael Bates, marketing director, Morrisons

Michael Bates, marketing director at Morrisons
Michael Bates, marketing director at Morrisons

Michael Bates, marketing director at Morrisons, sees the supermarket, the UK's fourth-biggest, as a challenger brand.

Morrisons has just been through a period of transition, with the departure of Dutch chief executive Marc Bolland to Marks & Spencer and the hiring of his successor, Dalton Phillips.

Some continuity has been maintained, however, by the continued presence of its 42-year-old marketing director, Michael Bates. Bradford born and bred, he clearly understands the company's roots, something of which its larger-than-life president and former chairman, Yorkshireman Sir Ken Morrison, would no doubt approve.

During his 15 years at the supermarket, Bates has seen it change beyond recognition. When he joined in 1995, it was a resolutely Northern company. It had 70 stores, none of which were 'down South' or in Scotland or Wales, and it had only six people in its marketing department.

Today, Morrisons' footprint is national, with 420 outlets throughout the UK, but the brand has not ditched its northern heritage completely.

Bridging the divide

Reporting to group marketing communications director Angus Maciver, Bates is passionate about the bigger role he now has, but acknowledges that the brand had to work hard following the company's acquisition of Safeway in 2004. Bates, however, who plans to climb the Eiger in the Alps next month, relishes a challenge.

'Around that time there was a misconception about what Morrisons stood for,' he says. 'We were seen as just a pie shop. There was some negative press around the acquisition and a lot of the cliches of the North and South were brought out.' Some rather ill-advised comments from Sir Ken, who described his new workforce as 'lazy southerners' and the stores it had bought as 'tacky and small', did not help.

Following the merger with Safeway, Bates hired DLKW in 2006 to handle Morrisons' advertising. The following year the supermarket embarked on its first celebrity-led campaign, highlighting its heritage in fresh food.

'Our celebrity strategy is ongoing and allows us to deliver an instant cut-through and a degree of credibility. The celebs we use are real people, which encourages consumers to reappraise the Morrisons brand,' says Bates. 'Fundamental to the business is fresh food. It has always been at the heart. We talk about being a fresh-food specialist, which is not exclusive.'

Nonetheless, the integration with Safeway was not an easy one. A profit warning soon followed and Sir Ken, who had become the target of disgruntled shareholders, stepped aside, presumably to some sighs of relief from his PR department, and ceded executive control to Bolland.

'Bolland gave us the appetite in the business. We already knew what the strategy was and what we needed to do, but he ensured we did it,' says Bates. Typically, the curmudgeonly Sir Ken does not necessarily agree - he was recently quoted in an interview with The Daily Telegraph as saying: 'We worked together for a couple of years, but I wasn't too disappointed when (Bolland) left - he patently wasn't a retailer.'

The DLKW-inspired strategy continues and clearly works well for the supermarket, which insists that low prices does not have to mean a compromise on quality. 'We buy from the best growers and not the so-called best suppliers, like our rivals do,' Bates says. 'Our Market Street offering has been around for 20 to 30 years and is true to our roots. Morrisons was founded more than 100 years ago and its ethos is based on controlling the supply chain.'

A further initiative from Bates was 'Let's grow' in 2008. Designed to create a relationship with consumers and encourage school children to grow their own food, the campaign generated an ROI of £21.57 for every £1 spent. Last year, the activity was awarded the Effectiveness Grand Prix by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

'Our competitors had voucher-collection schemes running for a long time and we needed to engage with communities that did not know what Morrisons was,' Bates says. 'It fixes the chain of understanding of where food comes from.'

With more than 20,000 schools already signed up to the scheme, Bates plans to expand the annual initiative later this year by adding basic cookery skills sessions.

Now the integration with Safeway is complete, Morrisons ranks as the UK's fourth-biggest supermarket. One area in which it has failed to make an impact, however, is online grocery shopping, which is currently dominated by Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's.

Bates acknowledges the online challenge. 'We don't currently have an online grocery offering because we are concentrating on retail development. We have a lot of territory to cover, with around 60% of the population without close access to a store. However, as a business, we would never say never.'

The latest Kantar Worldpanel research shows that Morrisons has continued to grow its share of the UK grocery market in the past year, largely to the detriment of rival Asda. Bates smiles when discussing Morrisons' current position in the rankings. 'As number four we don't have to follow the crowd and we can act more like a challenger brand. This has allowed us to plough our own future.'

James Pool, managing director of DLKW, describes Bates as a strong asset to the Morrisons business.

'He really understands what makes the customer tick, as well as the commercial aspect of working at a supermarket. He can take huge credit for what Morrisons has achieved over the years,' he says.

Bates is keen to develop the brand's connection with the British public. Earlier this year, Morrisons signed a deal with The Football Association to back the 2018 England World Cup bid, having been offered the opportunity by M&C Saatchi Sports and Entertainment.

'Backing the bid for us is about connecting with the man on the street. We have more than 1m signatures so far and are confident that we will hit our 2m target,' says Bates.

Despite the change at the top, as well as the hiring of former Waitrose marketer Richard Hodgson as group commercial director, Bates is confident that his strategy has the respect of the new management.

'Dalton will recognise the strengths of the business and he'll be keen to allow us to deliver messages of value,' he predicts.

Bates' record in bringing some stability during a testing time for Morrisons, as well as his success in producing winning marketing initiatives, should stand him in good stead.

Inside Work

1989-1995: Graduate trainee, rising to senior brand manager for Dulux paint, ICI Dulux

1995-present: Marketing manager, rising to marketing director, Morrisons

Outside work

Lives: Near Harrogate with wife, four children, two cats, two dogs and 14 chickens

Hobbies: Running, mountaineering

Favourite film trilogy: Bourne

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