The CMO Interview

Healthy Choices Aid ConAgra Resurgence

Marketing Chief Joan Chow Ups Marketing and Innovation by Getting C-Suite On-Board

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

CHICAGO ( -- In her three years at ConAgra Foods -- maker of Hunt's, Healthy Choice and Orville Redenbacher -- Joan Chow, exec VP-chief marketing officer, has reenergized several of the company's once-tired product lines, opened lines of communication with senior management, championed strong increases to the marketing budget and developed a dedicated team to partner with retailers, among other things, known internally as the "centers of excellence."

Ms. Chow grants that her enviable working relationship with CEO Gary Rodkin has made many of these advances possible. She has time on his schedule every week to update him on various marketing initiatives. And keeping her door open to the entire executive suite has made champions out of those who might have otherwise been marketing critics.

Joan Chow
Joan Chow
Ms. Chow began her career working on baby brands at Johnson & Johnson, a stint that taught her how to be a true brand manager while also managing a P&L. From there she went to IRI, the Chicago-based market-research firm, where she learned the importance of shopper marketing. Then, as senior VP-CMO of Sears, at the time Sears Roebuck & Co, she learned the retailer point of view -- a critical perspective, as in the wake of increased private-label penetration, retailers are hurriedly shedding products from shelves to ease sensory overload and boost their own margins. All of these were valuable experiences that she's now drawing on in her efforts to lead ConAgra's marketing.

Analysts describe the Omaha, Neb.-based company as having a "challenging portfolio," with many brands in need of a major facelift. ConAgra has answered with better innovation, such as steaming technology for microwaveable products, and has increased the marketing budget, which is expected to grow as much as 25% for the current fiscal year. According to Kantar Media, the company's measured-media spending increased 9% in calendar 2009, to $213 million, from $196 million in 2008.

Today the company can boast one of its best success stories, the restaging of Healthy Choice, which following quality improvements, the addition of new meals, a repackaging and a quirky marketing campaign starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has posted solid sales and market-share gains. Single-serving meals have declined in the recession as consumers are eating more meals with family. Healthy Choice has grown its dollar share 9% in the last 52 weeks, according to IRI. The category is down 2% as a whole, and the company notes that competitors are down 4% or more. Perhaps most impressive for Healthy Choice is that the brand has achieved these sales increases without discounting.

Ms. Chow, who frequently relies on Healthy Choice dinners at home, said the company is working hard to reduce sodium on big brands without crowing about it. Hunt's will soon also remove high-fructose corn syrup from its ketchups. In the face of increased regulation, Ms. Chow added that a scientific advisory panel is monitoring every development, and is advising the company on its portfolio.

In an interview with Ad Age, she shared her views on P&L ownership, product revitalization and teaching the C-suite about social-media strategies.

Ad Age: What are the centers of excellence and what do they do?

Ms. Chow: We formed groups of functional expertise all aligned to one marketing vision. As one marketing team, we inspire our employees, consumers and customers to be brand advocates by exceeding their expectations in everything we do. The centers of excellence are: integrated customer marketing, advertising, strategic marketing, consumer insights and content distribution (media, digital and social/experiential media). Many of these groups did not exist when I joined. For example, there were only two people working on shopper marketing in 2007.

1. Get regular face time with your CEO.

2. Keep it informal. Not every meeting needs to be a presentation with decks.

3. Have an open-door policy to all senior execs. Everyone is interested in marketing, and keeping them informed can make advocates of critics.

4. Communicate that C-suite involvement doesn't have to represent delays.

5. Train executives in social media so they understand what consumers are seeing.

Ad Age: How did you get [shopper marketing] started?

Ms. Chow: I met with Doug Knudsen, our president of sales, and we talked about the need to create an organization that understands the needs of the shopper and our customers, the retailers. That became the integrated customer-marketing team. Within that team, we have shopper insights, shopper marketing, category leadership and in-store marketing experts. Seventy-five percent of them reside in the field, with our sales teams, dedicated to certain customers. They develop programs aligned to our customers' objectives and their shopper segments and take into account the in-store experience. Had it not been for my experience at Sears, it might have taken me longer to appreciate how important that in-store experience and understanding of the shopper mindset is.

Ad Age: How did the weekly meetings with your CEO work?

Ms. Chow: I'm really fortunate to have someone like [Mr. Rodkin] who has such an understanding and appreciation of marketing, and it really is obviously fun to work with him on this. We need to meet about once a week to go over the marketing program. We don't prepare decks; we prefer to have a conversation. It could be about TV advertising, about a shopper program, a digital effort, strategic discussions or a certain brand. Sometimes we'll have him and [Mr. Knudsen] and occasionally Al Bolles, our head of R&D, in the room together. I want everyone to have full visibility and transparency as to what we're doing on the marketing front.

Ad Age: How important is it to own the P&L?

Ms. Chow: I don't own the P&L. For me I believe that I am effective at what I'm doing because I partner so well with brand teams that own the P&L/control the P&L. Discussions shouldn't be about control but about, what are our objectives and the common goals, and where do we want to take our business, how high is the bar we want to set? As long as you're tied in with the head of the consumer foods business, it's a moot point -- we both want the same thing.

Ad Age: Tell me about what's happened with Healthy Choice. Is that brand your real point of pride since arriving at the company?

Ms. Chow: I would say the whole company is proud of Healthy Choice because it's the turnaround for the brand. We started with the food that our RQI, or research quality innovation team, put together in record time -- amazing new entrees, they updated a lot of existing SKUs made quality and taste better. We knew from marketing improvements we needed to do something dramatic and spectacular.

Ad Age: What did it entail?

Ms. Chow: We wanted to make sure people would sit up and take notice, and the packaging graphic really got us rallying behind it. The scope of the package approach with exclamation graphic updating the brand, cueing that it's a very delicious brand -- people knew what it was. It made it feel more contemporary because we knew some recipes we'd had in the past, the Salisbury steaks of the world, these were far more contemporary. So we wanted items more in keeping with the times and taste profile of today's consumer.

Ad Age: You've been experimenting with social media in your marketing department for several years, but you recently got your executives involved. How did that come about?

Ms. Chow: In one of updates with Gary, I told him we were testing social media and gave him some examples I'd like to take into the staff meeting and show his direct-report staff. We were supposed to get 30 minutes but got an hour because there was so much interest. Our CFO actually said, "Can you guys train us on how to use this?" ... So we booked a six-hour training session for Gary and every one of his direct reports.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the research quality innovation team.

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