Conagra CEO on Pursuing the Relentlessly Changing Consumer
There’s been no shortage of challenges so far this year for CPG companies, and with the busy holiday season just around the corner, accompanied by a persistent COVID-19 crisis, those hurdles aren’t likely to ease anytime soon. Now, as the industry prepares for the future, it’s faced with a choice: worry about what’s to come or thrive in a brand new consumer environment.
Sean Connolly, president and CEO of Conagra Brands, joined CPG Speaks to share his perspective on this year and how his company has reinterpreted its many challenges as opportunities for brands to rethink innovation, the future of the workforce and keeping a finger on the pulse of the consumer.
The Fine Line Between Icon and Antique
In CPG, innovation is survival. Connolly emphasized that even the most historic brands can’t rest on their laurels and must continually adapt to stay relevant.
“Big, iconic brands can be evergreen, but only if you are perpetually modernizing them,” he said. “There’s a fine line between an icon and an antique. In order for an iconic brand not to become an antique, you have to be a student of what’s going on with the consumer.”
“The companies that have spent the most time in the last several years modernizing and refreshing their portfolios will disproportionately outperform others.”
This consumer-first mission drives Conagra to stay on the cutting-edge of changing tastes and is what Connolly believes is behind their success, spanning from legacy brands like Orville Redenbacher’s to newcomers like Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP.
“The companies that have spent the most time in the last several years modernizing and refreshing their portfolios will disproportionately outperform others,” Connolly added.
Cultivating an Entrepreneurial, Diverse Workforce
Part of keeping brands fresh is ensuring the people who work on them stay sharp. Conagra strives to provide an environment where employees are encouraged to bring new ideas to the table and to embrace innovation in their own careers. To do so, the company culture must be just as modern as the brands.
“In this environment, we have to start with being flexible. We have to meet people where they are, and we’ve got to adapt.”
“We’ve built a culture here that is highly collaborative, highly inclusive, very fast-paced and very entrepreneurial,” said Connolly. “In this environment, we have to start with being flexible. We have to meet people where they are, and we’ve got to adapt.”
Following a summer of hard, honest conversations about race in the United States, Conagra is embracing change at all levels of the company, listening and striving for better through recruiting, advocacy and development.
“We created a program called the Testimonial Speaker Series, where we’ve encouraged our employees who have felt marginalized or had experiences that others could learn from to tell their story in the spirit of educating others so they can be better equipped to help do something about it,” said Connolly. “Ultimately, it needs to be something all your employees can contribute to. There’s a long list of things that we will be doing to make sure we live up to that expectation of upping our game in diversity and inclusion overall.”
Embrace Relentless Change, COVID-19 or Not
From panic buying and empty shelves to overwhelmed supply chains and too many SKUs, the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on some of the industry’s weaknesses. But instead of trying to get back to business as usual, Connolly emphasized the importance of embracing the change and leaning into a more optimized business and a more satisfied consumer.
“The movement toward SKU optimization is upon us,” he said. “There are still a lot of outdated items that populate the shelves. Those tend to be the slower movers and if they go away post-COVID, that will create an opening for more new innovations. Ultimately, it will be a better assortment for the consumer, it’ll be faster turning for the retailer and it’ll be good news for the brands and the manufacturers.”
“I love to be a problem solver and when it comes to the consumer, the problem solving never ends.”
As the COVID-19 crisis eventually wanes, brands will be faced with a decision — to resume life as we knew it before the pandemic or to operate in a new environment, where changes in consumer behavior because of the virus far outlast the presence of the virus itself.
“I think the big lesson for us that predates COVID is you have to perpetually be looking externally, understanding that consumer tastes are changing relentlessly and designing what the consumer wants into your products on a nonstop basis,” Connolly said. “I love to be a problem solver and when it comes to the consumer, the problem solving never ends.”
Visit our website to learn more about CPG Speaks and to register for an upcoming session. CPG Speaks is complimentary for attendees, thanks to PwC and individual session sponsors. View the session in full here.
Published on October 13, 2020
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