Peter Miller and Susan Darbyshire tell Liz Hamson about their bold strategy to reinvent and re-energise the Spar offer

Behind the unassuming facade of Spar's central office in Harrow, two people have been quietly staging a revolution. For the past year and a half, Peter Miller, group trading director, and Susan Darbyshire, its marketing director, have been taking a long hard look at the famously complex structure of six wholesalers, 1,600 owners and 2,737 stores and working on a game plan to ensure the organisation can thrive rather than just survive in today's merciless convenience environment.

It's nothing if not bold, judging by the details revealed exclusively to The Grocer just prior to the unveiling this week of a new slogan, 'There for You', which will anchor a major new advertising campaign kicking off next month. Spar is also three quarters of the way through a radical review of its 900-line own label range, having launched a new premium range under the banner 'Treat Yourself - Fine Quality Food' a fortnight ago.

Underpinning it all is a simple mission, says Miller: to unify the business not only in the eyes of consumers, but also its own retailers and wholesalers. "Essentially what we've attempted to do is to get the working relations between ourselves and our six wholesalers working more effectively," he says. "We've got to get a greater level of collaboration."

Following the inevitable shake-up of the trading team, Miller's attention turned to what had become a rather tarnished jewel in the Spar crown: its own label range.

He acknowledges that it was beginning to suffer in comparison with the own label ranges offered by the multiples. To drag it into the 21st century and offer a real alternative to the multiples' convenience offer, a greater emphasis on fresh foods as well as beers, wines and spirits was needed, and less of a focus on ambient goods.

He says: "One of the reasons I joined was that Spar had such a recognised brand, one that has always stood head and shoulders above everyone else's as far as the independents go. But with more competition coming in, we had to go through the process of re-engineering the brand from beginning to end, and this dovetailed with the relationship piece with retailers - we needed to get them on side."

The project was dubbed Brand of Choice. He explains: "We are not a multiple grocer that can allocate stock to stores. We have 1,600 individual managing directors out there with whom we need to work. For us to be successful in developing a new own brand proposition, we had to come up with something compelling that retailers and wholesalers would choose."

The review drew heavily on consumer research to ascertain who Spar's "chosen competition" should be. "We were asking: who is good in this category, and not necessarily just coming up with Tesco. So we'd go along to see what was what and ask: if that is what the market is doing, what should we do?"

Some products are totally new, some reformulated, he says: "It was about going back to basics. The things that we were famous for, such as our tea and coffee, we had to make sure were fit for purpose. Then it was about saying: what else do we need to market? For us the key area to exploit is chilled fresh foods."

The team came up with four new sub brands to complement the core Spar brand: Spar Value, which replaces the Saver range; Goodsense, a healthy range; Discoveries, a range of wines; and Treat Yourself - Fine Quality Food, which kicked off with a seven-line range of sandwiches a fortnight ago. About 20 Goodsense lines - mainly ready meals - have already hit the shelves, with more to follow in the next phase of roll out, as well as a further 15 to 20 Treat Yourself lines including barbecue meats.

Benchmarked against the best of both own label and branded rivals, the new ranges offer better choice to the "classless" Spar customer, believes Darbyshire.

Three hundred have so far hit the shelves, with 300 more to follow by the end of the year. While some ambient lines have been shed, the overall number of own brand products is expected to increase from 900-1,000 to 1,200.

There's a lot at stake: Spar believes it can generate 28% sales from own label, significantly more than at present. Hitting the target will mean not just getting the range right, but also making sure each store gets the right assortment for its customers. To tailor its offer better, Spar has set up six test stores, which it describes as neighbourhood value, neighbourhood affluent, in transit, urban lifestyle, daily needs and community supermarkets, with a view to creating a set of blueprints for ranging across the estate.

"It's about being able to provide the right solution for retailers and really user-friendly information," says Darbyshire.

The early signs are encouraging, with sales of some of the new SKUs up an impressive 85%. Miller is also looking into the potential of non food with a view to presenting a new offer to market this autumn.

But both he and Darbyshire acknowledge that the range overhaul will count for nothing if it is not communicated clearly to consumers and retailers, which is where Darbyshire's team comes in. "We've done a huge piece of consumer research, conducted workshops with industry and with our retailers, and one of the things to come out of it was the importance of our heritage and independence," she says.

Spar directors conducted "shop-floor conversations" with customers to establish exactly what people understood by this heritage and it soon emerged that the role that Spar retailers played in their local communities covered everything from being involved in local fundraising activities, supporting sprinters through Spar's Sprints Initiative, to offering friendly customer service or simply a familiar face. What many customers didn't understand was that most stores were independently owned rather than part of a franchise.

Darbyshire says: "The particular example I have is of a retailer who was referred to by his first name by customers. People knew him personally. He knew exactly what individual customers wanted. A lot of my colleagues saw similar things. We said: we need something that describes us in a way that we can communicate."

The distillation of these observations was 'There for You'. Next month, the first ads with the new strapline go out as part of a £1.5m multimedia campaign. The amount pales into insignificance compared with the sums spent on advertising by the multiples, but, says Darbyshire, it was important that its retailers weren't asked to contribute substantially more than before.

With such a modest amount at its disposal, the campaign had to be carefully targeted. Aimed primarily at busy parents, it is expected to run on GMTV's One Minute TV as well as in the weekly and monthly consumer press, Virgin Radio, Talksport and regional radio. Fresh will be a key theme of the ads, about 60% of which will focus on product and price and 40% on brand-building. They will be very different to last year's TV campaign with its speeded-up footage of a busy mum grabbing some convenience food. Though still situation-based, they will target a wider range of customers including men wanting to grab pizzas and booze before settling down to watch the World Cup.

The campaign will also be supported by redesigned PoS. Around £1m of Spar's £5m marketing budget has been spent on giving in-store material and the Real Deal promotional campaign a fresh look - with the emphasis of the latter purely on product and price. To ensure its retailers are up to speed, Spar has also been conducting a pilot customer service training programme across nine stores that it hopes to roll out shortly.

All of this requires buy-in from the retailers themselves and the good news is that Spar's national guild has warmly welcomed the ambitious plans. Though the threat from the multiples remains, Spar retailers are now in a position to fight back, says Darbyshire. The key now is to convince consumers. "Our goal is to give our retailers the tools to help them compete in the local environment. From the start, we said we wanted to increase sales, but this is about the starting point of promoting Spar with the customers."