CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Quick: Name one highly creative advertiser. Bet your first choice wasn't Kraft.
The company that brought the world "My bologna has a first name" and "We helped!" for Shake and Bake is unlikely to ever go down in the ad annals next to Nike or Apple. But North America's largest food company -- about to become even larger with the addition of Cadbury -- is making strides toward updating the look and tone of its advertising while keeping it as accessible as possible for consumers.
It's a mission that brought a large Kraft contingent to Cannes last year and it begins at the top with CEO Irene Rosenfeld. "All the way from Irene, the marketing is important," said Dana Anderson, senior VP-marketing, noting "the [creative] bar is higher." Agency vet Ms. Anderson is charged, along with CMO Mary Beth West and Mark Stewart, VP-global media, to step up Kraft's marketing game. It does have a strong heritage to defend: Kraft was one of the first national marketers, pioneering sponsored content on radio and TV.
Kraft is also putting its money where its mouth is by increasing marketing support. Spending has hovered around 7% of total sales, but media rates have fallen, and sales have grown to $42 billion in 2008 from $36 billion in 2007. Kraft reports full-year 2009 results next week.
Adding attitude to ads
Kraft's biggest splash to date is its much-lauded iFood Assistant app for the iPhone. But it's also revamped its consumer website and revised its Food & Family magazine, targeting consumers looking for immediate cooking inspiration with e-mail newsletters. Moreover, Kraft is attempting to add some attitude to campaigns for pedestrian products such as Miracle Whip, as marked by a recent effort that portrays the brand as a proudly quirky and almost defiant alternative to other spreads. The theme: "We are Miracle Whip and we will not tone it down." Former agency execs point to this idea as one that would have eventually been rejected as too edgy under the old regime.
Ms. Anderson said that as part of its "holistic" approach to better marketing, the ad department has worked to make its food look tastier and more real. Kraft Natural Cheese was repackaged in mid 2009 with increased visibility of the word "natural." It's a response to consumers' desire for less-processed foods that are still convenient, and Kraft has cut through the clutter, in part, with better artwork. The company consulted editors at Better Homes & Gardens and Gourmet, sending product shots for commentary.
Karen Adams, senior director-advertising, said her team on the Oscar Mayer and pizza businesses have actually worked to make the food look messier and therefore more believable. The goal is to have a story behind every picture of food. For instance, when Kraft launched Deli Creations sandwiches in 2008, the initial print work depicted a woman in a suit, standing, with bent arm holding a sub sandwich. "People don't eat sandwiches that way," Ms. Adams said. New ads show a construction-worker-in-hard-hat happily biting into a sandwich.
While that won't likely be a Lion winner, it does accomplish one goal of Kraft's: getting away from the hot dogs on china plates of old. "We don't want to see the aprons and tweezers [used in a food setup]," Ms. Adams said. "It's got to feel [to the consumer] like, 'I can do that.'"
Kraft has also changed the way it works with agencies. Concurrent with an aggressive reorganization that saw the company's biggest-spending U.S. brands shift to McGarryBowen and DraftFCB from JWT, Chicago, Kraft strives to give partners better direction along with the higher expectations and shorter lead times. "We have a little joke," Ms. Anderson said. "Fast can be beautiful."
The company was lambasted, before Ms. Rosenfeld's arrival, for relying too heavily on research and not taking enough risks. Ms. Anderson, who has worked with Kraft brands for decades, referred to the old way of doing business as having a meeting in which the resolution was to go think some more and reconvene at another meeting.
Said a former agency executive: "When you start from so far out you tend to make your conclusions quite early on, then you're trying to cover every base when you're producing the work, you round the edges off and it becomes vanilla and doesn't have anything really sharp."
These days, Ms. Anderson said she may meet with brand managers and agency creatives for several days, meet with consumers, brainstorm and emerge much faster with new marching orders.
"They've really become more transparent in all of their needs that they've got in sharing information in a clear and concise way," said Tim Scott, president-McGarryBowen, Chicago. He added that Kraft marketers are engaged every step of the way.
Another former agency partner expressed skepticism that the entire Kraft marketing machine could have been changed in less than three years, especially one that "almost took pride in its 'dinosaurish-ness.'" However, the executive said: "It's hard to change a company like that but it would be churlish of someone not to give Irene her due for the changes they've made."
At the same time, too much change could be a bad thing at a company like Kraft. Another agency executive said that while the company has "advanced considerably" in the quality of marketing and the risks it's willing to take, being known as "old fashioned" can be helpful if you're selling cheese, mayo, deli meats and Ritz crackers.
"They wrote the book on old-school," the executive said. "They believe in integrity and family values. It sounds old-fashioned, but that's the company, and it's something to be proud of. Most people in this country still aspire to that."