Changing consumer demand patterns and volatile commodity costs are calling for leaders who have a broad view across many different disciplines.
Organizations know that if they can identify and satisfy consumer needs, they will have the ability to grow market share and maintain margins even as consumers become more cautious.
In our experience in developing and placing consumer leaders, we find that the organizations which attract them have clarity on three main questions:
- How do I get consumers into my franchise?
- How do I keep them loyal to the brand?
- How do I keep them for the long term?
- Deep consumer insight
- Ability to develop new products which hit the mark
Kraft Foods provides a good example of a company that is getting the answers right. Midway through a three-year turnaround plan, they have achieved solid net income growth while maintaining margins, due largely to astute investment in brand strengthening and product innovation.
Some companies = talk a good game about innovation, but industry leaders dramatically increase their pipeline of products, offering differentiation that will command a premium in the marketplace.
ConAgra in North America has also dramatically changed its approach. Under CEO Gary Rodkin, the company has significantly increased the number of new products in its pipeline.
Another example is Premier Foods, the United Kingdom’s largest food company, which has transformed the role innovation plays in the business mix. Innovation is now part of the company’s culture across divisions and functional areas, with major emphasis on identifying consumers’ future needs and aspirations, as well as lifestyle changes driven by the changing economy.
Increasing pressure from consumers has driven greater interdependency among the innovation, manufacturing, marketing, sales, operations and logistics functions. Companies are now looking for broader, more commercially-minded talent in all positions, both in the C-suite and in key disciplines.
When consumer goods companies look for an executive to head innovation, they no longer restrict the search to traditional career paths in the engineering or research and development disciplines. Increasingly, they look at candidates with marketing backgrounds who can demonstrate in-depth consumer and customer insight, brand building skills and successful interaction with other functions.
Packaging innovation, for example, has traditionally focused on structure and costs. Today, it is more about building in utility, sustainability and the aesthetic element that “speaks” to consumers at the point of purchase. While this trend has been under way for some time, we have seen it accelerate in the past few years.
In product marketing, consumer and trade marketing roles are merging. Companies now find that senior level executives in this discipline need to be able to embrace all aspects of marketing. Across the globe the retail sector is consolidating, nowhere more so than in North America.
There is now a premium placed on marketing executives who can create customized programs for national and regional chains such as Wal-Mart, Kroger and 7-Eleven. Increasingly, these programs are concept and insight-driven and broader marketing skills are required to develop and implement them.
We also see increased demand for high-quality sales executives who have a broad commercial and strategic approach and many companies recognize that they have significant talent shortfalls in the next generation of senior sales leadership.
Staying ahead in hard times
The economic slowdown in the world’s major markets presents both a challenge and an opportunity for consumer goods companies. Tough economic conditions place additional focus on leadership and the need to coach and motivate teams to deliver exceptional results. This has increased the demand for executives with experience working in turnarounds, in resource-constrained environments, or in companies that have successfully met the challenges of being number two or three in their markets.
In mature markets, the slowdown has also led to a heightened focus and investment in developing markets. Companies looking to achieve more growth in these markets are seeking different kinds of executives than in the past. Not so long ago, these roles were put in the safe hands of “journeymen.” But today, rising stars are increasingly being appointed to these international assignments, which provide them with fast-track experience and exposure to a range of experiences and challenges that would take much longer to acquire in a bigger, better-supported, mature market.
Some organizations and human resource leaders are scrambling in response to short-term pressures, and in tough times the first casualties are often development activities and investment in people. It is in times like these, however, that more forward-thinking organizations show conviction and courage. They recognize that demographic trends are going to exacerbate the limited supply and increasing demand for top leadership talent. Further, history tells us that organizations that have made a thoughtful investment in talent enjoy positive returns even in a downturn and significantly outperform their competitors over the long term.