Brands of the Year 2016: Hellmann’s sustainable message

How the mayo is keeping its Real Food Movement fresh after nearly a decade.

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It’s that time again. We’re rolling out our 2016 Brands of the Year, so make sure to check back during this week as we take a look at the brands that had a big impact on Canada this year.

This article appears in the October 2016 issue of strategy.

In the era of rainbow bagels and bacon-flavoured everything, mayonnaise isn’t exactly riveting to foodies.

Still, Unilever’s Hellmann’s brand has taken the eggs, oil and vinegar of its creamy dressing and translated them into nearly a decade of sustained success, bringing it to the top position among its competitors and proving that it’s not always about creating a big splash, but rather, a strong movement.

The brand has entered the ninth year of its Real Food Movement platform, a marketing shift towards focusing on its real ingredients and undertaking community projects, grants and advertising centred on food quality over traditional product shots. Each campaign – from investing in urban gardens in 2007 to revamping a school kitchen and crushing the cafeteria’s deep fryer with a truck in 2012 – has been successful independently, but collectively they have laddered up to position Hellmann’s as a champion of quality food.

For 2016, the brand chose to focus on a simple but important question when it comes to what we eat: “Where Does It Come From?” The socially driven campaign, led by its agency partners Ogilvy, Cubocc, Harbinger and Mindshare, launched in July with an online video showing kids asking their parents where certain food items come from (stumping most of their elders, especially when it came to canola).

The brand then sent three families from Montreal to a canola farm in Englefeld, Sask. to learn more about their foods’ origins. The experience, hosted by celebrity chef Chuck Hughes – a brand partner since 2008 – was live-streamed on Facebook and Twitter to connect with parents in real-time, with more content supported online afterward. It wasn’t the first time Hellmann’s had used food origins as part of its marketing.

In 2009, for example, the brand created a short documentary focusing on food imports. But like all of its work around the Real Food Movement, this year’s campaign was driven by consumer research, taking the temperature of Canadians and finding out what they care most about, then executing in a new way, says Gina Kiroff, director of foods at Unilever Canada.

“Where Does It Come From?” was inspired by a survey of 1,000 Canadians that suggested four in 10 don’t know where their food comes from and two thirds want to know more.

The message resonated. The campaign gained 21.9 million impressions through social media and PR efforts, 379,000 views on the 90-second teaser video and nearly 2 million on the 30-second version. Hellmann’s used to have what Kiroff says was more of a traditional marketing target – “mom” was older, with a larger family. Its core target was more consumption-driven – those consumers actually making the sandwiches. While that remains important, it’s since broadened to people who want to advocate for real food.

That’s meant targeting a younger demo and being more gender-neutral, especially considering younger consumers tend to be more inclined to champion movements, Kiroff says.

With “Where Does It Come From?” that target was parents of young kids specifically. In its research, the brand found that four in 10 adults say kids today don’t know enough about where their food comes from. Parents also want to know more about the subject, prompting Hellmann’s to focus on parents learning with their kids.

Last year’s campaign took a more provocative approach, Kiroff says.

After discovering Canadians didn’t know much about the issue of food deserts, the brand chose to bring to light just how expensive certain fresh items are in remote communities or areas without access to affordable produce. Using the hashtag#MyTomato, Hellmann’s encouraged Canadians to share a photo of their tomato and its cost per kilogram to illustrate the sometimes vast price differences in Canada.

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While the brand still does shopper marketing and recipe programs focused on the product’s more practical aspects, its larger campaigns have been about championing a movement. Its approach has proven successful.

Last year, Hellmann’s held 53% market share in its category, a leap from 39% in 2006, when it was trailing Kraft’s Miracle Whip brand. Its key brand attribute – “made with real, simple ingredients” – has also grown each year, with more respondents agreeing that statement pertains to Hellmann’s. The brand’s research has also suggested a 31% increase in purchase intent among consumers who have seen Real Food Movement content over those who haven’t.

“If you look at our original results [pre-Real Food Movement], we were always the number two player,” Kiroff says. Consumer research had shown that 75% of Canadians pegged the Hellmann’s brand as not particularly healthy – or “junk in a jar.”

That’s what prompted Hellmann’s to go back to basics, embracing its quite literal product truth about its simple ingredients. A lot’s changed since it kicked off in the pre-Twitter world, but the Real Food Movement was always inherently social, and the ongoing campaigns are, like its mayo, still fueled by the same basic formula, Kiroff says.

It begins with a somewhat localized kickoff that allows for personal engagement with a smaller audience, then amplifying content that’s shared with the masses through paid support. Back in 2007 when the Real Food Movement began, for example, that meant investing part of its ad budget into helping people grow fruits and veggies as part of an urban gardens project, then taking content from that event and sharing it through more mass media channels.

Being more digitally led, though, has allowed the Hellmann’s marketers to be more nimble. While in the past, creative would be formulated, wrapped up and delivered to media partners, now its internal team can monitor the campaigns in real time and make adjustments on the fl y (such as which media assets or channels to divert investment to), Kiroff says.

Constant access to data, rather than relying heavily on media partners, has empowered Hellmann’s marketers to deliver more successful campaigns. The brand has occasionally changed up its product line, introducing “Carefully Crafted” to its portfolio earlier this year, a non-GMO version of its mayo that’s free of eggs, gluten and artificial fl avours and colours, aimed at bringing its flavour profile to those with allergies or certain dietary preferences.

Consumers aren’t likely to see Hellmann’s portfolio – and its marketing – deviate much from its core, but Kiroff says it’s still “innovating in the background,” focusing on things like free-run eggs and investing in farms for sustainable canola sourcing.