Exclusive Interview with Jennifer Hale from Coca-Cola

Shopper Marketing, Coca-Cola and the digital onslaught

Just before the recording of our October webinar, Toby Desforges grabbed the opportunity to have an in-depth chat to Jennifer Hale, Coca-Cola’s Global Director of Shopper Marketing Strategy, about her exciting role.

In this exclusive interview, Jennifer gives us her definition of shopper marketing, unpacks the value that shopper marketing has created for Coca-Cola, and shares the barriers she’s had to overcome at the start of her pioneering role. She also touches on the major challenges faced by shopper marketers as e-commerce goes mainstream, and the necessary shift every shopper marketer has to make.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your role entails?

I live in Atlanta with my two teenage boys and have been here most of my life. I’ve been in my current role as Global Director of Shopper Marketing Strategy, for about six years and I would say that the question I probably get most often is: What do all those words in your title mean? It’s a mouthful indeed! I would say the easiest way to describe it is that I work with key stakeholders in the organization to help identify the core functional strategies that will get us where we need to go from a growth and shopper standpoint, over the next three to five years. So, it’s just a fancy way of saying that we really try to put things on paper to make sure that we’re working on the things that matters most.

As I’m sure you can imagine, as a global company, we’ve got people in countries all over the world working together. And so, whether I’m talking to somebody in Malaysia or Hong Kong or Thailand or Australia, I can say: “Okay, but does it fit within one of our four key strategies? And if not, then we need to think of something else, because these strategies are how we grow business and recruit shoppers.”

Tell us about how you got to this position?

My background was actually in Sports Marketing, leading more of an experiential and a creative team. You know, they say that everything happens for a reason – and that was true in this case. I met somebody who met somebody, and said “You should be working at Coke!”. And so I started as a shopper marketer with Coca-Cola, and did that for several years. I worked in different functions in the company prior to that – more on the experiential and brand side. So when I started with Coke, I knew immediately and said to my manager: “I see this big idea and I want to be global”. And that’s kind of how it happened – it was one of those timing and fate moments where it just all worked out.

This role was actually created, because we didn’t have somebody who was leading strategy, that looked at it from a global standpoint (both US and the international business). So, there was a lot of different things happening – “popcorning” going on, with some teams doing this, and others doing that. There was a need to say “Okay, but if we all rather go and do this, think of the total impact it will have to the business!” – this was part of my pitch to get the role.

What’s your definition of shopper marketing?

That’s a great question, as I think there’s a lot of misconception as to what it is exactly, and how shopper marketing is different from your retail marketing, your customer marketing or trade marketing. And really, the organization looks at us as a conduit. We are the the piece that holds everybody together. Our role as shopper marketers is to take what’s important to everybody and figure out a way to bring it all together so that it impacts the business and recruits shoppers.

I think it has taken a while for the organization to really see the difference and see where shopper marketing plays its role. In essence – I have to say that using insights to guide our next steps, is the (if not most) important thing. Insight is the key differentiator to shopper marketing, as opposed to just tactics and promotions.

“Our role as shopper marketers is to take what’s important to everybody and figure out a way to bring it all together so that it impacts the business and recruits shoppers”

What do you think has been the key contribution of shopper marketing to the system in general?

I would say, the number one contribution is that the shopper marketer’s role is more than ”let’s come up with a promotion to sell more Coca-cola”. Obviously, that’s the endgame, we want to share more coke with the world, but it’s more than that. We are the ones to approach the brand teams and say “Look, here’s an opportunity that we see that you might not have thought about, thinking through your lense. Or that can help you, if you want to sell more of this”. Or if the customer says that they need to recruit this person because they’re seeing a decline in the shopper – we’re able to take it all together, and based on numbers and facts, make suggestions. The number one thing is that it’s insights driven. It’s hard to argue with numbers! It’s not just, let’s do this pretty promotion, or let’s go digital in this area, because it looks like a good idea. If you can base that all on facts, and say: “If you do this, this is how you should talk to this person and this is how they’re going to receive this, and this is the impact of the business” – that’s hard to argue with.

An example I can recall; there was a passion point that nobody really wanted to buy into. It was kind of new and a little edgy. We were then able to say, “Look, here’s how many teens shop in retailer X. Here’s how many teens buy Coca-cola, and here’s how many teens participate in this passion point. Here’s what the end game is to the business and this opportunity”. And then of course being able to qualify it – that’s where the money is in shopper marketing.

What were the key barriers you faced when you started this journey?

People were looking for price pack promotions – they wanted to know what we were doing with price and that’s the only lense they could see through. We had to persuade them that it’s about insights. And then number two, understanding that you have to take a little bit of risk. You have to put yourself out there. Not everyone is going to say “yes” I think that’s right. But, all it takes is one time for you to show them that insight leads to sustainable growth, and it turns it around.

Another important thing from a shopper marketing point of view, is that the insights are sometimes harder to get than we think. It’s important to not be afraid to have that hypothesis to try and prove what you need to go out and do, and then present it to the organization.

Where do you see the major challenges being for shopper marketing, as e-commerce becomes mainstream?

We can spend hours on this topic! But, here’s my Reader’s Digest version: So, we all know that e-commerce has had a tremendous impact on brick and mortar. I would say, around 93 percent of shoppers are now buying fast-moving consumer goods online, whether it’s Amazon, eBay Alibaba or whatever. So, if you’re a traditional retailer, you’re saying to yourself, “Okay, well I’m losing out on potential sales here, where else can I make up the difference?” The difference is either going to be in non-edible consumer goods, like the toothbrushes and toothpaste, or edible. So, we see this tremendous shift in non traditional retailers really trying to figure out how they can grab a piece of that pie that’s still controllable. That being said, we have had to definitely take a step back. So, now when we’re looking at some of our foundational studies, or proprietary studies, we have to consider that there are micro moments throughout the day where people are making decisions about everything.

So how do you understand how they’re utilizing their micro moments? That’s really probably been the biggest shift we’ve had to make. Where we use to just asked a lot of questions about mission, adhesion and the traditional demographics and all those things in our studies – we now have to understand those micro moments. We have to understand how our target shopper is using his or her mobile device, and how that impacts their day. What solutions do they need in their day and how are you trying to get them through that mobile. What we see is that shoppers are looking for frictionless and if we don’t all start figuring out how to play in that needs state, it’s going to be really tough. So, from a shopper marketing standpoint you have to completely switch your headset to “Okay, this is the impact – we’ve got trip compression and how are we going to then flip it so that we can solve a need that every retailer is trying to figure out right now with the influx of e-commerce”.

Toby’s summary in closing:

What I love about what Jennifer just said, is that this is a shopper marketer in a major global business, saying that actually – the fact that people are changing their shopping behavior, does not preclude my team from being involved in understanding the dynamics of that behavior. I am an essential component in understanding that behavior and to getting to grips with the opportunities that our whole company needs to take. The message I would send to the greater shopper marketing community, is to recognize that you are part of this continuum. You are not part of the retail space that is boxed off or seperate. You are an integral part of the whole business.

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