A Q&A with The Fresh Market CMO Kevin Miller

By Mike Kaufman

Kevin Miller, CMO at The Fresh Market, is presenting a session, "The Fresh Market Turnaround Story – The Power of Love" at the ANA 2023 Brand Masters Conference from April 26 to 28 in Bonita Springs, Florida. ANA's Mike Kaufman, SVP of brand and media, recently interviewed him for a pre-conference discussion.

You've been at The Fresh Market now for just under three years, and those have been remarkable years for the company. But as we all know organizations can be slow to change. How did you manage such a remarkable turnaround in such a relatively short period of time?

I had the benefit of coming to the company under a mandate for change. At the time, TFM was privately held by Apollo Global. They had just replaced the previous CEO with a new CEO Jason Potter from Canada to help lead the turnaround of the business and prepare it for a possible IPO or M&A. So, the first conversations we had were about what needed to change at TFM to drive unprecedented growth. We both had similar beliefs and strategic outlooks and I ended up being Jason's first hire as CMO with a mandate to innovate and drive change.

What do you feel were the most significant obstacles you had to overcome in achieving your success? Internal or external?

The obstacles were the same as you would find at most large companies that hadn't experienced a lot of change and were operating under legacy programs and mindsets throughout the organization. Bottom line, most of the organization only knew one way to do things and that was the old way.

However, we had a vision of becoming America's most loved brand and a strategy map that made it clear to everyone in the organization exactly what their roles and responsibilities were to help us achieve this vision. We focused strongly on communicating the vision, strategy, and expectations to every member of the company and they quickly began to believe and buy in.

There were a number of big initiatives that were announced that proved we were determined to do big things — and at the same time, there were a number of little things that we did to prove we were focused on serving the customers and delivering on our brand promise. [This included] tangible things like buying new shopping carts and trash cans for the store, giving raises to the store managers, providing new uniforms to the employees, implementing new ecommerce capabilities, and having weekly town hall meetings with the company. It all created a sense of action and excitement and a sense of belonging for the crew. This reached a pinnacle at the end of our first year when we were voted No.1 best supermarket in America in 2021 by the USA Today's Reader's Choice Awards. The morale of the company went through the roof when that happened.

Speaking of "internal," another truism of management is that change must start from within, and best to start by getting your own house in order. But that negative Glassdoor rating! Where was that on your priority list, and how did you tackle it?

Yes, that was pretty bad. Bad for our brand perception and bad for the company morale at a time when business was not good. Was that perception widely held within your organization, and were drastic steps required? If you look at the detail in the ratings, it was driving primarily by front line employees in the stores not having confidence in the executive management team after several years of instability and turnover at the very top of the organization.

I'm not sure where we are on Glassdoor now, we do know that our internal surveys indicate that our employees are happier with their jobs and that reflects in our overall satisfaction scores and our Net Promoter scores. Additionally, we were voted best supermarket in America for the second year in a row by USA Today and Newsweek/Statista has ranked us a top five most trusted brand in our category for 2022.

Grocery has become crowded with entries that arguably step on TFM's branding, such as Amazon Fresh and Wegman's, while established chains have received similar makeovers focusing on freshness. How have you managed those challenges, and kept the "fresh" strong in TFM's branding in the face of the new competition?

We stay focused on our vision of becoming one of America's most loved brand and our strategy for achieving that vision. One of the key pillars of the strategy is to establish a reputation for being the best place to purchase the highest quality fresh food. We are focused on our customers who demand the highest quality fresh food. Unlike other grocers, even the one's that have "fresh" in their names over 70 percent of what we sell is actually fresh product versus traditional grocery whose mix is only 25 percent fresh food.

Additionally, we focus on three key fresh food areas: where to go to get your fresh meat, seafood, and produce, where to shop when there is a special occasion, and where to shop when you ask yourself "What's for dinner tonight?" Freshness is at the core of each of these shopping occasions and clearly our quality, service and experience differentiates our fresh offerings.

Of course, the other dynamic in play over the past two years is the pandemic, which led to real changes in how customers shop, whether it be online, curbside, etc. How did you navigate that shifting landscape, and what surprised you the most about your customers?

We were very proactive and took the pandemic very seriously. We were the first major retailer to require all our employees and customers to wear masks; we were one of the last to drop this requirement. Additionally, we invested several million dollars into cleaning and sanitizing our stores during the pandemic. The surprising result was an overwhelmingly positive response from our quest and our customer satisfaction scores for store cleanliness. Safety also went up.

And now that the pandemic is seemingly waning, what do you think the long-lasting impact will be on grocery shopping?

The pandemic undoubtedly dramatically accelerated the penetration of ecommerce both delivery and curbside in the grocery industry. That will be its biggest legacy and longest lasting impact.

That USA Today "No.1 Best Supermarket in America" honor is a remarkable credential for your brand, and a CMO's dream I suspect. How have you leveraged that in your communications?

It is a dream, and it is well deserved by each member of The Fresh Market team. We leverage the designation by including the logo and the best in America messaging across all our advertising platforms, TV ads, digital, social, direct mail, outdoor, mobile, search, email campaigns, etc. Since we have the privilege of being voted No. 1 in back-to-back years of 2021 and 2022, we estimate that we have delivered over 5 billion advertising impressions that have touted to America that we are No 1 over the past two years.

"Brands for Humans" is language we're familiar with here at the ANA, as I'm sure you know. Can you tell us what that means for you, and your business?

It means everything to us and our business. Our core vision is expressed in the most human terms as possible. "One of America's Most Loved Brands" is aspirational. It is based upon the most powerful human force in the world, "love," and it ties the brand to love and how we want our guests and employees to feel about the brand.

Our strategy for delivering is anchored in a very human emotion which is creating a reputation. Humans are the only species on earth that care about reputation, and the reputation we want to be known for is delivering an experience anchored in joy, anticipation, and "trust." These are all core traits when it comes to forming a relationship.

You might say that The Fresh Market turnaround was engineered from the ground up as a "brand for humans," and the results prove that there is power in that positioning.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

A shorter version of this interview was originally published at MediaVillage.