Brand Ambassadors for a New Era (Market Basket style)

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2013.10.07_Brand_AmbassadorsIt isn’t by design, but workers of New England-based DeMoulas Market Basket have become the poster children for employees as brand ambassadors — bar none.

Chances are pretty good that if you reside somewhere in Massachusetts or Maine or New Hampshire, Market Basket is where you buy your food, at least occasionally.

71 stores. More than $4.5B in annual revenue. A four percent discount off already discounted prices for every shopper at every store with every purchase (except for tobacco and alcohol). A family divided. And 25,000 employees, most of whom are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

Here’s the thumbnail if you’re not familiar with the story:  About 100 years ago a fellow named Arthur DeMoulas opened a grocery story in Lowell, Mass. and with hard work and that of family members, constructed a super market kingdom that reigns supreme in the northeast. Over the course of decades, Arthur’s sons — and today his grandsons — fought for control of the every growing company. Recently, the fight for control reached fever pitch.

My wife and I shop at Market Basket. Our kids, our moms and our friends shop there. Everyone I know within a 20 minute drive of a Market Basket shop at one of the stores.

The reasons range from convenience, to inventory, to quality, to price and to the culture of the employees, many of whom have worked for the DeMoulas family for decades.  The employees are abundant, helpful and always courteous.

That’s the culture that recently ousted (done in by his first cousin Arthur S. DeMoulas and a majority of the BOD) Market Basket president Arthur T. DeMoulas nurtured, at least according to the vocal majority of current employees.

If you crave more of a detailed history of the long family feud that rivals any family feud, you can read about it here.

What is truly amazing and unparalleled in recent US corporate history are the measures Market Basket employees are taking to overturn the board’s decision and return Arthur T. to his seat in the CEO’s office.   Many are putting their jobs on the line to fight for the reinstatement of a leader who is beyond wealthy, but has apparently treated his employees like they are his extended family.  Allegedly, Arthur T. walks store aisles on occasion, knows many employees and their kids on a first name basis, and generally is in touch with the day-to-day operations.

Arthur T.’s leadership, generosity, healthy wages, a robust retirement/profit-sharing plan, and the excellent working conditions he has overseen have earned him — in the hearts and minds of many employees — hero status.

This week, an organized group of Market Basket workers — many are numbered among the 20,447 members of the Save Market Basket Facebook page — delivered an ultimatum to the supermarket’s new management team:  return Arthur T. to full authority or else.

“We will not work for anyone but (Arthur T. DeMoulas),” the workers said in a letter to new management, which has a response deadline of today at 4:30 p.m. eastern time.

I’m guessing that the two new co-CEOs — who come from outside the company — had no idea what they were in for, or else why accept the job?  In their response to employees’ demands, the co-CEOs say when they attempted to return a response to the demands of the employees, demands that were delivered in person, the workers instead left the meeting.

In addition, in their statement the co-CEOs said, “This behavior is not appropriate nor is it in keeping with Market Basket’s culture of respect.”  This response was followed by a firestorm from employees claiming that current management has little or no understanding of the Market Basket culture – the culture that Arthur T. built.

There’s a lot of talk from advertising and branding agencies and public relations firms as well about the significance of brand ambassadors and brand champions to an organization’s success. Building brand ambassadors should be part of any communications plan.

Sometimes, though, as in the case of Arthur T. and his army, brand champions become just that organically, without a specific plan or methodology.  But by walking the talk.

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