The CMO Interview: Casey Keller

Alberto-Culver Grows Its Hair-Care Arsenal

Casey Keller Shares His Strategy for Getting Ahead of Rivals in Recession

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- He helped transform Pringles from a brand near death to a billion-dollar behemoth at Procter & Gamble Co. and turned condiments on their head, literally, with an upside-down bottle at Heinz. He also endured a roughly 18-month stint as chief marketing officer of Motorola, from 2006 to last March, trying to follow a legend in the late Geoffrey Frost as competitors and corporate raider Carl Icahn attacked.

Casey Keller, president of Alberto-Culver
Casey Keller, president of Alberto-Culver
In September, six months after leaving Motorola, Casey Keller, 47, took on a very different challenge as U.S. president for Alberto-Culver. He's heading a relatively small business -- global advertising spending was $265 million in fiscal 2008, with an estimated $160 million in the U.S., based on sales -- that's been gaining ground on such giants as P&G, Unilever and L'Oréal in the brutally competitive hair-care market.

In an interview with Ad Age, he explains how he plans to further take on the company's bigger rivals; why the old Jack Welch imperative of being No. 1 or 2 doesn't apply in hair care; and how the recession could actually help his company.

Ad Age: What brought you to Alberto-Culver?

Mr. Keller: I was less concerned about size. I was more attracted by the growth orientation. I've been through a lot of restructurings, looking at ways to optimize the business. I've been through cost cutting. But at the end of the day, what I really wanted was a company that was going to say, "We want to focus on growth."

Ad Age: You spent most of your career at P&G, then at Heinz in line management. Then you made a move to CMO at Motorola. And now you're back in line management. How do you feel about that?

Mr. Keller: [The post at] Motorola was a little bit of a hybrid, with business, marketing and even a little bit of the product-strategy teams reporting in to me. The big change for me going into Motorola was going into technology. But coming back to package goods, I wanted to come back into more of an operational environment and [have authority over] the broader sales/marketing operational levers. ... [The post at] Motorola was also involved in operational management, and I probably wouldn't have gone there otherwise, just because I thrive on understanding how marketing can drive all parts of the business.

Ad Age: Isn't there a big difference between tech and shampoo?

Mr. Keller: One of the reasons I see some similarity between Motorola and Alberto-Culver is that technology moves so fast, particularly in mobile devices, so your product is obsolete every three months. You have to be comfortable living in that environment. There, I was trying to figure out how we create some kind of brand stability in a rapidly changing technology environment. Here, the technology doesn't move at the same speed, but consumer tastes and attitudes and needs are changing more rapidly than they would in some of the other center-of-store package-goods categories.

Ad Age: Alberto-Culver's had success in very competitive categories against big rivals. What's the secret sauce?

Mr. Keller: The first thing is very clear focus. This company is very focused on beauty, primarily hair and now skin.

The second thing is being very nimble. It looks at ways to capture some of the opportunities in ways that some of the bigger competitors might not.

A good example is Nexxus. Here was an entity that was privately held, a small professional business. Alberto recognized the potential of the Nexxus entity in the [mass] retail channel. At the time it was a $25 million to $30 million business, and Alberto had the vision that it could be a much bigger business if you took it into retail.

Ad Age: Does there need to be a paradigm shift in the industry toward looking at some of those smaller opportunities, given that some of the megabrands are slowing down?

Mr. Keller: The old Jack Welch theory that you need to be No. 1 or No. 2, at least in hair care, doesn't seem to apply. The big No. 1 and 2 brands right now are struggling. Pantene's trends are not good. It doesn't mean they won't succeed long-term, but right now the scale is not helping them.

It's because of the way the consumer approaches hair care. The fragmentation of that category is based on consumer desires. They don't want to use the same thing day after day. They want to be able to modify their styling products.

Ad Age: You're going from a couple of turnaround stories to a company with a track record of success. How does that change your approach?

Mr. Keller: It's definitely a big difference. When I walked into Heinz, the objective tattooed to my forehead was: Turn around Heinz Ketchup, the flagship. And when I walked into Motorola, initially it was, "How do we keep the momentum of the company going?" But within a few weeks, it became apparent that we had some more fundamental issues.

Here, my focus is not on fixing what's wrong. It's on, "If we want to keep that momentum going and take this business to double, what skills, capabilities and ideas are we going to need?"

Ad Age: How have you answered that?

Mr. Keller: We're going to need to step up our game in innovation even more than we've done in the past. We're going to have to become a lot more systematic. Our pipeline has been more entrepreneurial, and as we get bigger and broader as a company, we'll need to become more systematic about driving that pipeline on longer lead times.

The second thing is, with our customers, we've been the little engine that could. But we're now getting to the point that our customers are looking at us and saying, "Help me figure out how to manage this category better and see where the growth opportunities are."

Ad Age: People used to think about beauty and personal care as recession-proof or recession-resistant. It's not clear it's turning out that way. How are you dealing with that?

Mr. Keller: The good news for us is that our hair-care portfolio is very balanced [with Nexxus, Tresemmé and VO5].

You can't pull your foot off the innovation gas pedal. We're launching two big initiatives in our hair-care business right now -- 24-hour Body on Tresemmé and Dualiste on Nexxus, which is a shampoo-conditioner that provides dual benefit -- color protection as well as volumizing or smoothing. Those two initiatives are really going to help us grow even during the downturn.

Ad Age: Given that some big categories of advertisers are cutting back deeply in advertising, is that creating any better pricing or opportunity for more stable players like you going into the upfront?

Mr. Keller: I haven't seen media pricing come down big yet. But I'm hearing rumblings that it will. I will also say that there seem to be more integrated media opportunities that we're in discussions about. There are probably fewer players looking at some of these big opportunities, and there are more becoming available. We don't want to pull our investment back on our core brands. A lot of people are taking their foot off the pedal, and that puts us in a good position to go talk to potential media outlets.

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