Matt Atkinson is stepping down at the end of June as chief customer and membership officer at the Co-op, after nearly four years in the business.

His departure will see customer and community director Ali Jones, and data and loyalty director Charlotte Lock, report directly to Co-op CEO Steve Murrells. In addition, Lock will pick up responsibility for digital products and will also report into CFO and Life Services CEO, Shirine Khoury-Haq, joining her leadership team. It is not clear yet whether the chief customer and membership officer role will be replaced, nor is it clear what Atkinson plans to do next.

Murrells credits Atkinson with playing a major role in “galvanising and re-positioning” the business, singling out the impact of his “co-operative approach” and leadership.

Atkinson was charged with unifying the business around the Co-op brand and during his tenure the company says there has been a “step change” in the positioning of key assets in support of this vision. Platforms across data, digital, membership and community have all undergone what the company describes as “significant transformation” to meet the ever-changing needs of customers.

The Co-op also notes the “important commercial contribution” Atkinson has made in helping to create a new insurance distribution business, successfully exiting the Co-op health venture and re-organising the membership and customer function.

His remit spanned responsibility for digital products and customer facing technology, marketing, corporate affairs, membership and community development, including the Co-op’s growing portfolio of Academy Schools. In addition to this, Atkinson was charged with managing customer insight and data, as well as leading the innovation function and developing emerging businesses opportunities.

“The past four years have seen the Co-op continue to grow and regain its purpose as a differentiated business that clearly creates value with values at its core,” says Atkinson. “I’m proud of the contribution I’ve been able to make and I’m leaving behind some incredible memories and a fantastic team. The Co-op is a special business and will always have a special place in my heart.”

Co-op’s marketing boss on why membership is more powerful than loyalty

The past year has proved a testing and pivotal time for the company. The grocery business reached its highest market share for almost 20 years in September, attracting 1.7 million new households since the onset of the pandemic, with the average basket size doubling and online orders rising fourfold.

As rivals Sainsbury’s and Tesco decided to price match with Aldi, Co-op pushed ahead with its plan to stay competitive on price through the launch of ‘Honest Value’, a range of 50 everyday favourites and core essentials.

Under Atkinson’s watch the group dialled up its contribution to good causes. When the Co-op decided to pull its Easter 2020 campaign to fit the mood of the time, it donated £3.4m worth of ad spend to food poverty charity FareShare. The company also kicked off a campaign calling for an end to the abuse of retail workers and pledged to invest £70m over the next three years in measures to make colleagues safe.

Elsewhere, the business signed a sponsorship deal on the Co-op Live Arena in Manchester – designed to “rival Madison Square Garden” – and revamped its membership scheme, a year ahead of schedule.

Co-op Live Arena
A mock-up of the Co-op Live Arena in Manchester.

Prior to the membership relaunch, the business gave 1p for every £1 spent on Co-op products and services back to the member and matched this with a donation to the wider community fund. Atkinson took the decision to double the amount to 2p. So, while £15m was generated in 2020 for good causes, even if no customer joins the grocer in 2021 the amount being donated will swell to £30m. To date, the supermarket already has 4.6 million active members.

The Co-op also rolled out a digital membership app offering personalised offers, member-only in-store discounts, a scannable membership card and savings across the wider Co-op group. Within a month of launching in October, more than 1 million people had downloaded the app.

Atkinson joined the Co-op in November 2017 from his role as CMO at insurance and travel group Saga. Prior to that, he served as CMO at Tesco, global CEO at Havas and global director of integration at Saatchi & Saatchi.

The departure of Atkinson from the Co-op is not the only high-profile change in marketing personnel in the grocery sector. Last month, Rachel Eyre joined Morrisons as chief customer and marketing officer, a sign the supermarket says of its desire to develop “the next generation of retail talent”.

Eyre took over from Andy Atkinson, who was promoted from group marketing and customer director to group commercial director in February 2020, and joined from her role as group head of brand communications and creative across the Sainsbury’s, Argos, Tu and Habitat brands.

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