View from the C-Suite: Kellogg joins the plant-based race

VP marketing Christine Jakovcic explains the strategy behind the Canadian roll-out of MorningStar Farms veggie burgers.

Christine-Kellogg

Christine Jakovcic – who was named VP of marketing at Kellogg Canada a year ago this month  is heading up marketing during a crucial time for the CPG giant.

As part of its “Deploy for Growth” strategy unveiled in November, Kellogg has restructured its North American operations to drive growth in what some analysts have interpreted as a corporate turnaround, slated to begin this year.

At the time, Kellogg said it was exploring the sale of its cookies and fruit snacks to help “bring a sharper focus to its core businesses” – a plan that came to fruition last week with Ferrero Group’s acquisition of the Keebler, Mother’s, Murray’s and Famous Amos brands for $1.3 billion.

Kellogg is also looking to grow in Canada, where consumers are expressing interest in flexitarian diets and more plant-based options. This month, the company began rolling out its MorningStar Farms Veggie Burgers – the top-selling veggie burger in the U.S., according to Nielsen data – to Canadian freezer aisles.

Jakovcic, who came from Molson Coors Canada where she was CMO, now leads brand, innovation, insights, marketing operations and nutrition across seven product categories at Kellogg, reporting to Canadian president and CEO, Carol Stewart. She spoke with strategy about driving growth in the fast-expanding category.

How significant is this MorningStar Farms announcement to Kellogg’s long-term plans?

This is a big one for us. We are a player in four categories across our national business in Canada and this enables us to get into a fifth category. We are investing significantly in it and do believe we will be a leading player. It helps us drive our agenda on plant-based ingredients and on sustainability.

MorningStarFarms[MorningStar is] new in the Canadian retail market. We have sold the products previously in some non-retail channels, so people have been trying them, but not knowing it’s MorningStar Farms. [Our decision to commit to making the line entirely vegan by 2021 in the U.S. and 2025 in Canada] is directly in response to consumer trends. We continue to innovate as consumer needs change, and as consumers move to more vegan-based platforms.

What’s your go-to-market strategy for this line in Canada?

It’s likely going to be letting everyone see and taste the real plant-based ingredients. That is a big difference for MorningStar Farms relative to some of our key competition. We’re actually showing consumers the ingredients in the food. When you eat a MorningStar Farms burger, you can see carrots, chickpeas and all the ingredients that are plant-based. That is different from what some of the other brands are doing, where it’s more of a meat alternative and looks and tastes like meat. We, of course, want meat reducers to eat our burgers. But we have learned through research that our consumers are not afraid of vegetables and are actually excited to see what’s in the food they’re eating.

What should we make of the fact that the products are being sold in the freezer section?

That’s important for our strategy as well, because we believe that the freezer section allows us to be more convenient for consumers. The product comes in a resealable pack, which allows consumers to have as much as they’d like on any given day and put it back in the freezer [for up to] 180 days. [It's different from] what our new competitors are doing right now. There’s a portion that’s in the freezer, but it’s less than a third of the category. As new competitors are coming in they’re not going into the freezer section, from what we know. But we feel it’s important to give consumers that element of convenience.

The other big thing for us is that, because we’re using real ingredients in our food, we’re pushing into some really unique flavours – Harvest Vegetable, Spicy Black Bean and Mediterranean Chickpea. One of the things we saw in the Canadian market is that consumers do want more variety and interesting flavour profiles. Being able to launch in those three different segments is going to help deliver that for consumers.

How’s this different than what Kellogg has done with the brand in the U.S.?

In the U.S., we do have both the meat alternatives side and the veggie-forward side. Specifically in Canada, we’ll be leaning into the vegetable-forward side. Consumers’ tastes have changed and MorningStar Farms has been in the U.S. for over 40 years, so they have both sides of [the business]. Right now, we feel we have a very strong launch with just the veggie-forward side.

How does this launch align with Kellogg’s “Deploy for Growth” strategy?

It allows us to expand our portfolio and scale in Canada quite considerably. While we do compete in a number of categories already, this one allows us to be in a fast-growing category that fits with our business objectives and our corporate objectives: growing in the plant-based ingredients space, and supporting our sustainability platform. Specifically on sustainability, we all know that plant-based ingredients are so much better for the environment, because of the lower use of land and water to get those protein sources. But also sustainability from a health perspective, which is supported by the [new] Canada Food Guide.

The Food Guide has encouraged consumers to get their protein from plant-based sources and our burgers contain a significant level of plant-based protein through peas, beans and soy. So there are a number of different ways that we can address the shift.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up here to receive the latest stories.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.