A co-op membership card: the Blue Peter badge of retail?

An interview with Ewan Vinnicombe-Wallis, the former children's television producer speaking at the 2022 Co-op Retail Conference

Ewan Vinnicombe-Wallis spent 20 years working for the BBC and had one of the most coveted jobs in children’s television: executive producer of Blue Peter. At the Co-op Retail Conference in March, he will be talking to Rose Marley (Co-operatives UK CEO) about “how the experience of a brand at an early age builds affinity, loyalty, and a deep-rooted understanding of the values of a brand that can last a lifetime”.

Ewan knows more than most about brand loyalty. He met Ms Marley in 2018 while organising plans for Blue Peter’s 60th birthday – a landmark celebration for the world’s longest-running children’s TV programme. Today, he is a freelance broadcast media consultant based in Manchester working with independent production companies and a director of SharpFutures, the creative digital agency that supports diverse young people into employment which Rose founded in 2012. Clients include BBC, ITV, CISCO, FOX and more and Ewan is thrilled to be on board helping a new generation find creative careers.

Blue Peter was a really fun job,” he says, “and all those connections I made and the experience I gained I now utilise to help young people. I do a lot of local community talks about my time at Blue Peter. I have been very lucky and I am happy to share my experience. We used to get tens of thousands of letters every week, which when you think of the level of effort it is to write an actual letter and put it in the postbox, is quite something. We had a team of eight to answer them and I found myself in some amazing places. One day I was meeting royalty then I was in Downing Street. It was wonderful. However, I left after the 60th birthday because that experience couldn’t really be topped and I also wanted to become a freelance.”

Celebrating 60 years of Blue Peter

With his track record of customer engagement and keeping young audiences happy, Ewan is looking forward to his debut at the conference. 

“Rose knows how much I value brands,” he says. “I was working for one of the biggest for kids and asked to reinvigorate Blue Peter and find different ways of connecting with the 

audience via new platforms like the BBC website and social media. As part of that, we hired someone Rose knew to write a poem and perform it for the 60th birthday, connecting audiences across generations. She saw my work and how I ensured the event worked for every child that had appreciated Blue Peter over the years. We have kept in touch ever since.”

Born in Hertfordshire, Ewan knew that he wanted to work in television from an early age. He received a place on a media course at university and then started as a tea boy for the Chuckle Brothers; working for the BBC “was my dream come true”.

He believes that working with children and young people is particularly special. “They tell you what they think and they are really direct in what they say and the questions they ask. It is all about ensuring the young audience get a really good experience. For example, it was true that everyone got a personalised letter if they wrote to Blue Peter – I still have my own letter from when I won a competition and a trip to Liverpool in 1984 to see the Garden Festival! I am still a big kid at heart, always asking questions. At Blue Peter, we would always look at what the audience wanted and we kept the show focused.”

The link between a children’s TV programme and retail co-operatives may not be blindingly obvious but as Ewan points out, “it’s all about opportunities”. 

“When brands hook people in at a very young age and give them something to believe in, then it can last a generation and longer. Those experiences, when you are very young, can frame your whole life and define you as a person. My connection with the Co-op, for example, is the very clear memory of my grandparents going there for their weekly shop and then there are all the other values you think of when co-ops are involved. Those are really important.

“As a brand, co-operative retailers don’t just have the actual shops on the high street, there is the member-led benefit. If you think of something like the Blue Peter badge scheme, then the co-ops have a similar club membership ethic, which can be quite impactful. It means that you can capitalise on that sense of belonging, bringing more and more people in and showing them how it can be a different way of doing business. Everyone has got a share in the success and future of co-operatives. And if you engage kids quite early on they will stick with you forever.”

“Those experiences, when you are very young, can frame your whole life and define you as a person”

As far as branding goes, Ewan believes the retail wing of the co-op movement is already a good way down the track of keeping its customers loyal: “The [Co-op Group’s] slogan ‘it’s what we do’ is a very good one – it evokes things like the commitment to farmers in developing countries, sustainability standards and belief in the Fairtrade ethos. The Co-op clover-leaf imprint with the retro branding they have now shows they have been around for years, but it is not just harking back to an old brand. It shows experience. Blue Peter had the ship as a brand and we never deviated from that.”

He also sees the changing nature of shops and shopping as a big opportunity to engage with communities. “Think of all the different strands of customers there are. There is a lot more diversity and a lot more respect we can show to different communities. 

“Appeal to the future and bring the co-op into people’s lives. In the co-op retail world people are walking through the door every day and you must listen to what they are saying and what they want. Ensure that families know the value of shopping in a co-op and what makes it different to shopping anywhere else and add the loyalty factor of children feeling part of a club – that is when success can grow. 

“Kids become students and workers with jobs and wages – and if they have grown up with it ethically, if they consider themselves an ethical person, they will stay loyal. So retail co-operatives large and small need to push everything they can towards the new generation to focus in on what they want from a shop so they can feel special.”

The Co-operative Retail Conference, organised by Co-operatives UK, is held in Crewe on 11-13 March. For more details and to book, click here.

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