Three Fail-Safe Approaches to Risk-Taking

CMO Spotlight: Tad Kittredge, Burt's Bees

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Burt's Bees chose to run its 'Uncap Flavor' campaign on TV.
Burt's Bees chose to run its 'Uncap Flavor' campaign on TV.  Credit: Burt's Bees
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When he served as associate director of global marketing at Burt's Bees, Tad Kittredge found himself in somewhat of an unenviable position. It was 2015, and a new competitor was disrupting what had theretofore been a comfortable 30-year tenure in personal care, with a best-selling product in peppermint oil balm. This nascent foe was siphoning away market share from Burt's Bees for the first time in company history.

Tad Kittredge
Tad Kittredge

With the alarms sounded, Mr. Kittredge and his team worked to redefine the brand, and they uncovered an important insight: young consumers only knew Burt's Bees for its peppermint oil balm, which -- while reliable -- was starting to port an old-fashioned image. The company then developed new balm flavors, packaging and naming architecture. When it came to a push for awareness, instead of turning toward the trendy, Burt's Bees found a home for its "Uncap Flavor" campaign on TV.

Burt's Bees saw sales growth triple in the ensuing year, especially online, making the company again the fastest-growing lip balm brand in the U.S. "In our case, the media objective became how to drive rapid awareness of our flavor variety with a seasonal product. As sexy as social media is, TV is still the best hammer to hit that nail, so we started building our toolbox around it," says Mr. Kittredge.

In a digitally obsessed world, was the reliance on TV risky? Certainly. But was it smart? Absolutely. "Risk is an often misunderstood concept," Mr. Kittredge says. "As any good investor knows, risk and return are often correlated. So when your growth aspirations change, you need to ensure that your acceptance of risk is adequate to support those." In Burt's Bees' case, TV was the smartest "risk" available to address its problems.

And when it comes to risk, Mr. Kittredge, now the director of marketing for Clorox's Brita empire, finds the following three approaches helpful:

1. Not taking a risk is extremely risky. The marketing team at Burt's Bees could have, in theory, rested on its laurels, or even built a new, low-cost digital campaign centered on its core product. But staying the course should never be the default option, says Mr. Kittredge. "Really assess the risk of doing nothing," he says. "All too often, we assume that the status quo looks like today, when in reality, competitors will keep pushing and consumer preferences will keep shifting." Doing nothing, then, puts a brand even further behind where it believes it will be. "I call this the burning platform," says Mr. Kittredge. "Sometimes you need to look down and see your feet on fire to make jumping look a little less scary."

2. Give the risk some breathing room. It's also smart to identify how much of a loss the proposed risk is allowed to incur, which Mr. Kittredge refers to as a "no regrets bet." When pursuing a new "growth vector," he recommends knowing these numbers and building a budget from there. Burt's Bees' bet was, of course, TV, although the team supported it with a full marketing mix. "I like to think of business choices in terms of an investment strategy," he says. "If you can make enough safe choices that act like bonds for your business, that frees you up to make a bigger bet on a risky stock."

3. Understand your allies. Lastly, the more sales research you can realize, the lower the risk in the first place. Says Mr. Kittredge, "Marketers need to get out of their bubble and partner with their sales counterparts to leverage bold marketing choices and secure incremental displays, distribution and merchandising programs." Burt's Bees approached retailers with its TV proposal and asked how the company could help win over the target in-store, which Mr. Kittredge says led to compelling conversations and better online, offline and in-store integration. "Ultimately, that kind of marketing-sales collaboration helped us put a lot of incremental revenue on the board before the first ad ever aired."