Interviewed on November 1, 2018.
In 1898, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was trying to duplicate “granula”—a proto-cereal so sturdy that it was most edible after being soaked overnight—when he stumbled on a process that led to corn flakes. Kellogg’s aim was to provide healthy food that addressed rampant indigestion and what he saw as the excessive sex drive of Americans.
Kellogg was not interested in becoming a cereal magnate. According to “How Breakfast Became a Thing,” an explainer by Pricenomics, “Kellogg was a true believer. During his lectures, he explained how people could make their own cereal at home. ‘You may say I am destroying the health food business here by giving these recipes,’ he said at one talk. ‘But I am not after the business; I am after the reform.’”
His brother W. K. Kellogg, however, was a savvy entrepreneur. Pricenomics writes that he built a company and an industry based on “two key ingredients: sugar and advertising.”
Today, Kellogg is a worldwide conglomerate with more than $10 billion in annual revenue and dozens of products, including cereal, snacks, and beverages. For a century, the company has had a central place in the culture, as evidenced by the part it has played at historic moments (not to mention Saturday morning cartoons). Kellogg Company employees packaged 43 million K-rations for U.S. soldiers during World War II. The astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon ate Kellogg’s breakfasts.
For iconic brands, finding the right mix of familiar and novel is challenging. At Kellogg, that task falls to a chief growth officer, charged with leading strategic change that drives growth. Yale Insights spoke to Clive Sirkin, who took on the role for the Kellogg Company after having been the chief marketing officer for Kimberly-Clark. He explains the role of the chief growth officer and the challenge of adapting an iconic company to shifting technology, markets, and consumer expectations.
Q: What is a chief growth officer? How does Kellogg define growth?
The chief growth officer’s role is to articulate a growth vision and turn it into a reality.
I break that down into three areas. One, ensuring we have a very clear sense of what success looks like and the destination. Two, ensuring we have the necessary capabilities and competencies in the individuals in the organization. Three, driving through the business to ensure the regions have what they need to deliver on the strategy and the plan.
For us, at a macro level, there are only two metrics of growth—top line and bottom line. There’s obviously a lot of levers to get here, but in very simplistic terms, organic growth and margin growth are the metrics of success.
Q: How different are the roles of chief marketing officer and chief growth officer? Is there something in the marketplace driving an evolution of the roles?
I think the underlying driver of the resurgence of the chief growth officer title is a perception of a lack of accountability of what I would call small-m marketing. I think there’s an appropriate frustration that marketing is not returning on the investment, not directly driving growth, but I would say that perception may rely on a historical idea of marketing.
Having talked to my peers, there’s a lot of different flavors of how people do their roles. You can find someone called a chief growth officer who is really behaving like a CMO, and you can find a CMO who is behaving like a chief growth officer. I think the words and the titles are less interesting; it’s the accountability and the levers to deliver on that accountability that is really the difference.
I’m responsible for marketing, insights and analytics, innovation, and R&D. If you truly want to be an effective chief growth officer, you have to control the levers that drive growth. For Kellogg, R&D is obviously at the center of it. If we’re not developing and creating and serving world class food that delights our consumers, all the other stuff doesn’t matter.
Q: When people hear Kellogg’s, they think cereal. How much does that represent the company today?
If you look at our company, around 40% of our business is cereal. More than 50% of our business is non-cereal. We’re the proud owners of the Pringles brand. We have Morning Star Farms, which is a meat replacement option—vegetarian/flexitarian/vegan—a massive trend that’s on fire. We have the biggest biscuit brand in Egypt. We have the biggest cookie and biscuit brand in Russia. We recently acquired Parati in Brazil, which is a magnificent cookie and pasta company. We sell hundreds of millions of dollars of noodles in West Africa with our partnership with Tolaram.
We’ve become a diversified portfolio of foods by design and, frankly, by necessity. And in the last 10-15 years, we’ve done a great deal of geographic expansion and portfolio diversification which will continue into the future. We are much more than your grandparents’ view of Kellogg. We do proudly retain our belief in where we’ve come from.
Q: You previously worked at Kimberly Clark. Are there common issues facing the leaders of iconic established consumer brands?
A big part of the work is changing behaviors. Kellogg, like Kimberly Clark, like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and all the terrific blue-chip companies, all struggle with the same thing: our past success institutionalized behaviors and beliefs. The role of a leader is to help people move beyond those historical beliefs because the environment has changed.
I’d say the biggest part of my job is change management. It’s creating an environment where people feel free and comfortable to change, which doesn’t mean anarchy; it means disciplined change.
What we’re not letting go of our underlying values. Our founder’s vision essentially said plant-based nutrition is the only way to go. It sounds like something someone would say in California today, but this was 112 years ago. Mr. Kellogg also believed it’s not just nutrition; it’s the whole person; it’s health and wellness. Those principles are as relevant today as they were 112 years ago. Our leadership is advocating for translating them into food, behavior, and mindsets that are relevant for today.
Q: How does digital change things for a food company?
Digital changes everything. Technology and data give us the ability to understand and predict human behavior better. They give us the ability to better understand our internal operation—connecting demand forecasting with supply. Technology and data changes dramatically our ability to reach our consumers both directly and through partners like Ali Baba, Amazon, Walmart.com, and Jet.com.
It changes radically the cycle time and ability to get what consumers want in their hands in 30 minutes and, soon, less, versus the weekly or monthly shop. It changes our ability to engage with them in real time, understand what they’re thinking, and be responsive. It changes our ability to enter the culture and the cultural discourse and be more relevant to consumers.
There isn’t an aspect of our business where data and technology aren’t profoundly changing and making more interesting and fun. The challenge for us is driving that change without choking on the massive amount data available.
Q: What should the dynamism within the company look like to consumers?
In the old days marketing meant an ad in Good Housekeeping or on TV. Today, the experiences we create with them—whether it’s at the shelf, in store, online, on a TV, and everything in between—those experiences need to be immersive, interesting, respectful of their intelligence, and provoking, versus being noise.
It’s like our basic human relationships. You need to be the same familiar person, but you need to constantly delight. What we put in the box, bag, or pack needs to delight them.
Q: What’s at the heart of the relationship between the brand and the consumer?
We tend to talk about the consumer. There are many consumers. People have different points of views. Beyond that, the same human can have a different point of view depending on the occasion, their state of mind, or their needs in the moment. It’s not a secret why Ding Dongs and Twinkies are having a resurgence.
Every brand has a purpose and a promise. We need to be really clear about what that purpose and promise is and then deliver. If we promise an indulgent chocolate chip cookie, deliver an indulgent chocolate chip cookie. Don’t try to make it healthy by taking the indulgence out. If we promise a sustainability-sourced, low-sugar, vegan cookie, deliver a sustainability-sourced, low-sugar, vegan cookie. Don’t confuse the two.
Be honest and true to who you are. Brands are ultimately promises made, promises kept. At a base level, that’s important.