The CMO Interview

Kraft Tests Recipe for Selling in a Recession

Key Is Finding Value, Solutions That Appeal to Strapped Customers

By Published on .

Kraft's chief marketer, Mary Beth West, maintains that you don't have to market differently during in a recession. You just have to understand your consumers better.

It's become particularly critical for Kraft Foods -- which is in the midst of a complicated turnaround -- to remind its customers why they should pay more for name-brand products when most of them are slashing their household budgets.
Kraft CMO Mary Beth West
Kraft CMO Mary Beth West

Ms. West was named CMO last October, and the company has continually vowed to increase marketing spending during her tenure. In the past year, Kraft has also reinvigorated its salad-dressing and Maxwell House brands following repackaging efforts. Analysts were clamoring for divestiture of both businesses back in August 2007.

Ms. West started at Kraft as an associate product manager on the Maxwell House business in 1986. Before being tapped as CMO, she ran the company's $3 billion beverage business. As president-North American beverage section, she oversaw the relaunch of Maxwell House with 100% Arabica beans and supervised other iconic brands including Capri Sun, Crystal Light and Kool-Aid. She led the Crystal Light On The Go powdered-beverage business to double-digit annual growth rates.

Ad Age: In times like these, how does Kraft keep consumers buying from the top shelf?

Ms. West: In some ways I'm not sure it's a different form of marketing when times are good, except for consumer pressure is a little bit different. The thing that's challenging is to figure in what value proposition we have for them and understand what's going to make them put money down to buy our product.

Ad Age: What are some examples of that?

Ms. West: Kool-Aid is a good comparison, where it was marketed as one-third the price of soda. In the case of Kraft Singles, we talked about it in terms of pocket change and a great grilled-cheese sandwich. There's DiGiorno, with the value equation built in: "It's not delivery; it's DiGiorno." It's a quality and economic benefit. We developed a digital application called 'DiGiornonomics' that compares DiGiorno to delivery.

Ad Age: You've also had some value-oriented initiatives on

Ms. West: We've been doing a lot with brown bagging [and the concept of] one bag, five dinners. The reaction we've gotten online is that a number of people are really interested in how to pull that off.

Ad Age: And part of the idea here is simulating a restaurant experience at home?

Ms. West: We've been able to take those ideas and offer the consumer more than a [cost] comparison but a solution for a bigger need they have right now. You can't give up all of your favorite experiences because you want to save money. It's more than just a food idea.

Ad Age: It's clear that more people are shopping at grocery stores and cutting out meals at restaurants, but how do you get them to actually cook?

Ms. West: The cooking thing isn't something people revel in. Eating is something that they do revel in. Some of the learning we've done over the past year shows that the difference between food recipes from the top of the database to the bottom [is how they're titled]. "Learn to cook stir-fry" is fast to the bottom; "Easy stir-fry in 15 minutes" is at the top.

"Cook" implies time and skill they may or may not have. But they know they have to put dinner on the table. They don't reject putting a little of themselves into it, but "cook" sounds like a process, more time. What's a sauté? Framing it more as a food solution and an idea of getting dinner on the table is what it's all about. Despite the economic environment, people don't have any more time than they did a few months ago. But helping them be able to feed a family with food they feel good about is a big idea.

Ad Age: Do you cook much? What Kraft products do you use?

Ms. West: I do, though I cook during the weekend more. And I use a lot of Kraft products. I'll make an easy stir-fry. Last night I made roast chicken, baked potato, edamame -- my kids love edamame -- and baked mac and cheese. I like to cook a little extra to have something for the week. My kids also love Bagel-fuls.

Ad Age: You've done some interesting digital projects this year, such as the Oreo "Double Stuff Racing League" with the Williams sisters and the Manning brothers. What's next in digital?

Ms. West: We're talking with Apple, and what we're going to do is provide digital assistance powered by Kraft. You can be in the grocery store, and from the grocery store you can download from the Apple store an iPhone application for recipes. So you can get the ingredients you need to make the recipe and get other great food ideas you're looking for. ... It's another great example of how to deliver real value, because even in the current economy, people don't have any more time than they had before. They're trying to get dinner on the table, and this is going to help them do that.

Ad Age: How do you feel about your agency roster?

Ms. West: We're feeling really good about the partnerships we have. The agency magic happens when you've got the right person at the agencies and the right person on the client side partnering with each other, and those are true partnerships that are based on the trust and accountability. It's one of those things when you know their strengths and weaknesses, they know your strengths and weaknesses, and you're willing to step forward comfortably.

Ad Age: Can you go to the grocery store and not work?

Ms. West: It's not just the grocery store. If you're going to be a great marketer, you must be observant of people everywhere. I do my best work when I'm at the airport, because I find that's sort of like the DMV: It brings everybody out. ... To best understand the consumer, you have to understand their lives completely. A lot of what we've been doing around that is taking the marketing people and the [research and development] people to experience that consumer first-hand. It's powerful because when they go back to design and develop new products, it's not you telling them what to do, but they know what the consumer is looking for based on their experiences with them.

Ad Age: What's your marketing philosophy?

Ms. West: Great marketing drives business. If it doesn't, it doesn't really matter. I think the foundation of great marketing is understanding consumers in a very holistic, fundamental way. I do think it's interesting [that] in the digital age, a number of people are connecting but not necessarily connected. As a marketer that's an interesting way to get to know your consumer. You can spend a lot of time getting to know them digitally, but there's nothing that replaces spending time with someone. ... The last part of my philosophy has to do with being able to take the quality of a brand [such as] Jell-O; you go back 100 years on Jell-O, and Jell-O's brand hasn't changed all that much over time.

Ad Age: So you start with "There's always room for Jell-O" and contemporize it? How?

Ms. West: Keep it current: "Every diet needs a little wiggle room." It's the same concept brought into 2008 in a contemporary fashion. ... You've got to stay current and relevant but stay true to what the soul of that brand is about. And that's where true great marketing can occur.
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