CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- One of the biggest players in the grocery game is a company that most shoppers probably know nothing about. Acosta Sales & Marketing -- founded in 1927 as a food broker for the Jacksonville, Fla., market -- has grown into a national sales, marketing and merchandising powerhouse representing 66% of the No. 1 and No. 2 consumer-packaged-good brands.
The company's mission, in a nutshell, is to get better exposure for brands at grocery, club, convenience and drug stores. After operating relatively quietly for years, the private firm is now expanding its profile, hiring a stable of new executives and putting more resources into the hot field of shopper marketing, where Acosta is increasingly competing with agencies that provide similar services and partner with traditional ad agencies.
This week, Acosta will announce the addition of executives for several newly created positions. Soche Picard, whose resume includes helping to launch MasterCard International's "Priceless" campaign, is the new senior VP-shopper marketing and client services and Lauren de Simone, a 20-plus-year marketing veteran who has worked with companies such as Philip Morris and Coca-Cola Co., is the new senior VP-strategy and innovation.
Acosta, in which private-equity firm Thomas H. Lee partners just last week bought a controlling stake for an estimated $2 billion, added 3,000 associates last year and now employs 17,000 people in 65 U.S. and Canadian locations.
The man in charge of growing Acosta's marketing organization is Ramin Eivaz, a former PepsiCo executive who was hired in late 2009 as Acosta's first chief marketing officer. In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Eivaz discussed the company's mission and growth, as well as consumer packaged-good trends. He declined to discuss specific clients, such as Starbucks, which plans to tap Acosta for in-store support for its bagged coffee business -- a deal now handled by Kraft Foods, which is in a legal dispute with the coffee giant.
Ad Age: Explain your business model.
Mr. Eivaz: All the selling, the analysis, the category management, the assortment optimization ... the back office -- anything and everything required to make sure our manufactures' brands are represented to their set of objectives and beyond at the shelf is basically what we do.
Ad Age: Why and how are you increasing your investment in shopper marketing?
Mr. Eivaz: Brand marketers started to realize if you really want to understand your consumer, you also need to understand your shopper so that you're able to continue to deliver [your] message not only to the consumer, but to the individual who's making the purchasing decision. That trend started a few years ago, [and] we are an agency meeting our clients needs, so while we were doing a lot of retail ... about a year or two ago we started a big focus to enhance our level of capabilities and advancements in the space of advanced shopper marketing. Not only have we done a few acquisitions, but we have also hired a lot of great talent just in the past six to nine months.
Ad Age: Are you competing with ad agencies that have shopper-marketing divisions?
Mr. Eivaz: What we see in the marketplace is many of the traditional consumer agencies have difficulties getting themselves into effective shopper or customer marketing. We believe what makes an agency successful in this space is several things. One is what we refer to as retail intimacy -- if you really want to be effective in one retailer vs. another, you truly need to understand the key strategies, the key brand messaging, the key principles that that retailer executes every single day.
We have over 670 marketers spread across the country working with different retailers. So we take pride in saying there is nobody that knows the retailer better than we do. Another aspect that we believe makes these agencies successful is superior [customer] insights. ... Because we represent so many No. 1 [and] No. 2 brands, our portfolio of data and research and insights is more -- I can say with confidence -- more complete, more holistic than any other agency. That gives us a superior look into those shoppers' needs and preferences.
Ad Age: So tell us about consumers, what will be the biggest trend this year?
Mr. Eivaz: Once we saw the consumers and shoppers come out of the shock of the economy, we saw a lot of behavioral changes as to what they bought, how much they bought. They started to get a little bit back to normal again. But we don't think it will ever go back to what it used to be five years ago. Consumers now have access to more information from a standpoint of value and promotions, either through mobile or online or other methods. And they are maintaining their frugality. They are maintaining their value attributes. They want quality brands, but they want to make sure they are getting them at a value. I don't think that's going away.
Ad Age: Shopper-marketing spending has doubled in the past five years to $35 billion, according to Booz & Co. Do you expect this to grow?
Mr. Eivaz: Think about the whole movement from TV to digital, from digital to store ... There is a major transformation going on around us, which requires different ways to communicate to consumers. In this environment, shoppers have a bigger role. In this environment, retail is a medium where you could communicate and leave impressions with shoppers like you used to leveraging TV. In this environment, digital is part of the equation, not only at home with online but on the go and inside the store with mobile. That movement is shifting billions from traditional media to new media.
Ad Age: But will consumers really be willing to invest the energy to use in-store mobile when buying inexpensive items like a bar of soap or box of cereal?
Mr. Eivaz: They might not be the same applications that one uses when they are shopping for flat screens at Best Buy. ... Some of these might be applications that allow you to carry your shopping list from home, on the go and inside the store. So at the end of the day, some of these applications ... are assisting the shopper with managing their lists, like making sure [they get the] right nutritional facts because of dietary restrictions. ... Or when they want to make sure they are benefiting from all the in-store promotions that should be available to them. So, in totality, mobile is going to grow faster then many other vehicles out there.
Ad Age: Your company helps companies lay out store shelf offerings. What is the trend here?
Mr. Eivaz: Every store has a different set of shoppers frequenting it. And different mixes of shoppers have a different set of preferences and needs. So [for example] you would never set up a Hispanic store the same way you would set up an Asian store.
Ad Age: It gets finer and finer. Which flavor of salad dressing do I want out of the few hundred in this one store?
Mr. Eivaz: In the past, one schematic used to represent a hundred stores. Retailers are now saying I want that one schematic only to represent 50 stores because they want to customize their stores to meet more of their unique shopper needs to drive more sales and to improve their inventories.
A store in San Francisco clearly will have a different shopper base than a store in Los Angeles or Texas ... Even within Hispanic [neighborhoods] you cannot compare a Los Angeles Hispanic store to a Miami Hispanic store or a New York Hispanic store. As you start getting into this, it gets more and more complex.
Ad Age: Walmart is retreating from its clean-store policy. Do you think other retailers will move to remove restrictions on in-store displays?
Mr. Eivaz: You need to look at this retailer by retailer. [For] every retailer there are certain guidelines that influence their strategy. Depending on the retailer, depending on the brand position in the marketplace, I think some retailers will react to Walmart more than others. So it's hard to make generic statement but I think overall the trend being talked about is more and more inside the store, the notion of being able to communicate products is a trend that's likely to grow and not go down.
The question becomes at what point does it reach the saturation point. There's a balance that always plays out. ... So I think the retailers will constantly be watching that balance.