Marc Bolland doesn’t want to be known as ‘a marketer’. He’s a retailer now, CEO of Morrisons, entrusted with the keys by Sir Ken and doing well by all accounts. 

But he can’t help himself. Slipping the disc in the DVD player, he shows me the new ad campaign for Morrisons, featuring Richard Hammond. A huge smile arcs across his face as he enthuses about the unexpected opening (a Spanish village), humorous touches (the trolley in the glider; the English field in the shape of a Union Jack) and little details such as the sticker reminding the viewer how every cut of meat is ‘prepared for you’. 

“Every word counts. All the messages are in there that we want to say about Morrisons,” he gushes. “I think this may be the best ad yet.”

So, is this not a marketing-led recovery, as some have suggested? Bolland is suave, sophisticated, cultured, and his understanding of branding, positioning and messaging is a constant theme of our interview. But while rivals have attributed the chain’s recovery simply to advertising and promotion, getting ahead of the game with its Christmas push, it’s actually been a little more complicated. 

By the time the first of the new celebrity ads by agency DLKW appeared last October, the groundwork had taken in everything from a full product range review to new packaging, logos and liveries, as well as store segmentation and store design. “We’ve refreshed the stores, the products, the website,” he says with a flourish. 

After a 25-year career with Heineken, ‘refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach’, the emphasis on refreshment is apposite. But Bolland’s success, which has helped Morrisons outperform its rivals for three consecutive quarters now, and saw it win Grocer of the Year at The Grocer Gold Awards, owes far more to a retailing adage – the one about retail and detail – than to branding. 

“There’s not a single detail of the change I haven’t been involved in,” says Bolland, citing everything from 8,000 new SKUs to the new signage inserted above the opening hours placard welcoming you to the store. “Even the new uniforms have been tested to make sure they’re more wearable, practical. I have seen all the detail.”

The first change identified was range development, which Bolland admits had been held back by the Safeway merger. “Although our availability was good, the range development had not continued and there was a big backlash, so we pushed very strongly to develop the new lines. In 2007 we launched or relaunched 8,000 products, including 2,000 new SKUs. 

“It’s important not to disappoint shoppers who used to go to Tesco or M&S,” he says. “So you want a broad range.” Without changing its positioning, “you can still get a bag of apples or a bumper potato pack at a price no-one else can match but we now cater for more tastes.”

Catering to greater interest in healthy food, bagged salad and soft fruit have increased from two or three SKUs to as many as 10 or 20. There are also new lines of organic, Eat Smart, Fairtrade and free-from products. On a visit to the superstore in Bradford, he points to fresh pasta (69p) and the new Fresh to Go section with sandwiches made in-store (£1.09). “A real sharp price,” he points out. 

But the area that got the most attention was the premium range, The Best. Bolland’s eye for branding again shines through as he examines a new mozzarella and sun-dried tomato focaccia bake. It features the new dark green and yellow livery (“more distinctive and original”), good photography and the product is clearly visible through a window. But, he stresses, “before you start designing your pack, you need to think about the architecture of the offer, and be absolutely clear where The Best and Value are positioned.” That’s where the real work has come.

Another step change in 2007 was store segmentation. Instead of a one-size-fits-all strategy, two identically sized stores feature up to a 15% difference in range. At Wimbledon there’s now more premium, organic and fresh produce (“we’re giving Tesco across the road a lot to think about”), while in Scotland, Morrisons identified 100 local suppliers to provide produce “clearly recognised as relevant to Scottish consumers.” 
Perhaps the most visible change was to in-store presentation, with walls pulled down to reveal the in-house butchers and bakers and cake makers as they work up the hundreds of lines prepared on the shop floor every day. 

There’s an element, here, of style over substance, with the emphasis on presentation as opposed to product enhancement. The fresh fish counters now feature mirrors. Salad bars use metal bowls. Chalk boards provide an artisan feel. But to Bolland it’s simply a question of playing to the chain’s strengths. “We prepare far more lines on the premises [than rivals]. We cut more meat and bring it in as primals from our own abattoirs. We bake more bread and prepare cakes and sandwiches in-store.”

Underpinning the refreshment has been some smart people strategy too. The main board remains unchanged, save for the retirement of Sir Ken and the appointment of Sir Ian Gibson as non-executive chairman, though Morrisons group trading director Martyn Jones was promoted. 

The key changes have been one tier below, at executive director level, with a new group HR director, Norman Pickavance, reporting directly to Bolland, in addition to a new group marketing and communications director, Angus Maciver. These new appointments addressed historic weaknesses badly exposed by the Safeway acquisition. 

Bolland also recruited – from Tesco – a customer insight director, Nigel Dodd. And he made sound appointments at a category level, including John Vinuesa – also from Tesco – to spearhead home and leisure. 

Non-food, of course, is a contentious area. Twelve months ago, Bolland looked out of step with the market as he resisted devoting more space to it. Preferring to make the 6% of floorspace it had work harder, Bolland says that with more “relevant” products in better taste, sales have improved. And his decision to stay focused on Morrisons’ roots in fresh and value is now looking even better as the credit crunch has hit discretional non-food sales hardest. “I wouldn’t want to claim foresight. It was pragmatism,” says Bolland modestly. “Our stores are not the right size for large-scale non-food and I was not prepared to do a large-scale rebuilding. We chose the opportunity with our supply chain to be the best in fresh.”

Small but important changes on the supply side have helped create clarity. Switching to 100%-UK beef, lamb and pork supplies has enabled Morrisons to present a very clear message to consumers about its positioning. 

Only when the foundations were in place, then, did Bolland look at advertising. “We ran with an old ad campaign right up to the moment we were ready.” Bolland also chose this moment, too, to alter the nature of the promotional execution, with “more surprising deals” in categories where previously Morrisons had stayed away, including fresh and Market Street, as well as DVDs. 

And while advertising spend has increased by £20m and from 14% to 17% of share of voice, the most significant change in advertising, he argues, is in execution. “The biggest change is that we are using the money better”, with constant reminders in-store of key messages. Has it helped, I ask, that Bolland came from the manufacturing side?  “I’ve brought in some understanding of how they work,” he agrees. Winning in retail, he says, is not too different from the manufacturing side. “It’s about consistency of branding, and clarity of translation.” 

The results speak for themselves.