Mark Childs, Kellogg Canada

Innovation. Every successful marketer understands the importance of evolving brands and introducing new products, packaging and ideas to keep a profile fresh....

Innovation. Every successful marketer understands the importance of evolving brands and introducing new products, packaging and ideas to keep a profile fresh.

Few Canadian companies, however, buy into this as religiously as Etobicoke, Ont.-based Kellogg Canada.

Want proof? It’s there in such initiatives as the development of Kellogg’s Vector meal replacement product, and the creation of an all-kid marketing team – the Jacks Pack – to help revitalize the Apple Jacks brand.

A pivotal player in this whole strategy of innovation is Mark Childs, the company’s youthful vice-president of marketing. A 14-year veteran of the Kellogg organization, Childs cut his teeth working in sales for the cereal maker back in his native U.K., before moving across the ocean in 1991. A three-year stint at Kellogg’s international headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich. saw him take a hand in revitalizing the Frosted Flakes brand. He took over as head of marketing in Canada in 1998.

A current promotion typifies the kind of work being done under Childs. Kellogg has partnered with kids broadcaster YTV to introduce a co-branded cereal called YTV Gigabytes. The multi-hued breakfast treat – which includes ‘Y,’ ‘T’ and ‘V’ shaped marshmallows – hit store shelves late last month and will be available until the end of the January. Inside the box are secret passcodes that give kids access to a customized Web game offering the chance to win an IBM laptop.

Two 30-second spots are running on YTV. The station’s Web site will also provide a direct link to a Gigabytes Web page.

When Childs talks about projects like the Jacks Pack or Gigabytes, he displays the electric excitability usually associated with children at play. He is passionate about Kellogg’s products, and demands nothing less from the other members of his marketing team.

Tim Cormick, director of co-marketing at YTV, has high praise for Childs and his colleagues. Their energy and imagination, he says, is evident whenever they’re gathered in a room to discuss a new marketing initiative.

‘Having been on the agency side, it’s rare where a client actually applauds a creative presentation,’ says Cormick, a former director of integrated marketing at Leo Burnett. ‘But there was that kind of enthusiasm from day one with Gigabytes.’

Cormick also points to a greater-than-usual willingness to experiment at Kellogg as central to the organization’s success. ‘They don’t have any real formal systems, outside the necessary ones. It’s not like ‘this is they way it has to happen.’ There are no sacred cows at Kellogg these days.’

As proof of this, one need look no further than the cereal maker’s approach to Gigabytes. Rather than dictate how the cereal should be advertised, Kellogg opted instead to let YTV develop the creative as it saw fit, Cormick says.

(The unusual structure of Kellogg’s marketing department – organized by demographic segment, rather than by brand – has also been cited as evidence of the company’s unconventional thinking.)

Strategy caught up with Childs recently to talk about the challenges of keeping an 86-year-old company thinking young.

Q. What do you see as Kellogg’s great strength as a marketer?

A. The marketing group at Kellogg right now is an extremely passionate group. But there are two other real things. There’s an absolutely strong bias to action. And there is a pragmatism that I think is extremely healthy. At the end of the day, we are a company that needs to be successful, that needs to see results. Often, I think, some ideas are just that – they are great ideas, but they don’t represent a business opportunity. [At Kellogg], there’s a really good balance between ideas and understanding the business opportunity. I think that is what’s making the difference.

Q. Where would you like to see improvement?

A. We’re extremely tight from a resource perspective. We have been for a few years now. There’s opportunity for us to go still further, but we’re already working at quite the pace, let me tell you.

Q. Kellogg, obviously, is a major youth marketer. What would you say are the great challenges facing an organization like yours in this discipline?

A. I think the biggest danger for a marketer, particularly dealing with younger kids, is not actually knowing who you are talking to. Spend time with the demographic you want to reach. There are a lot of things the textbooks and the research groups won’t tell you.

Q. The competition for dollars in the youth market has never been greater. How do you keep pace?

A. Your ideas ultimately live or die on whether they break through. Sure, there’s an impact part of breaking through – but engagement is, from my perspective, the biggest opportunity to break through. Do you pique your target audience’s attention? Do they want to be involved in what you say or have to offer? That’s pretty fundamental. You have to find more creative ways to be effective. Maybe changing the view that media is a 30-second commercial is one of the ways to do that.

Q. On this subject of media, do you find the avenues available for communicating with youth in Canada somewhat limited?

A. It depends on your definition of media. My perspective would be that even the smallest of promotional items has media value. If you change your view of what media is, then the opportunities are boundless.

The brand manager with YTV’s PsykoBlast [a concert event sponsored by Kellogg] came up with the idea of fluorescent yellow slap-on armbands with the Corn Pops logo. In my neighborhood, I’ve seen 13-year-old girls wearing those to pull their hair back. I think that has media value. It has media value at the concert when everyone is yelling and screaming and has their arms in the air for Christina Aguilera. And it has media value that endures after the concert.

Of course, I’d love to have more [traditional] media opportunities – but I do think there are a lot of untapped media opportunities.

Q. You have an ongoing partnership with YTV. How does that work?

A. YTV certainly has been a superb partner for us, in terms of going above and beyond just a media buy. At the end of the day, the creativity isn’t just a 30-second commercial. It’s [creating something] that hasn’t been done before. Ultimately, I think, media value is as much about engaging kids as it is about reach and impression.

Q. The public perception of youth marketing isn’t altogether favourable. Is this something that needs to be overcome?

A. As a youth advertiser, you have to take responsibility. If you market in a responsible way, I think what you do is actually help [address] the whole concern about improving a kid’s ability to become more media literate.

In the case of the Jacks Pack, there are 21 kids who understand now about marketing. One could take the jaded view that you are exploiting kids – but I don’t think you are. I think you’re giving kids an outlet to express themselves, to have an opinion and to share their opinion with their peers. And ultimately, because these kids have created a TV commercial, they now understand when they look at commercials just what those commercials are doing.

Q. Do you see unscrupulous forms of youth marketing out there?

A. In the U.S. there’s a lot of criticism of Channel One, which is the in-school satellite broadcast service. You can argue that this is potentially a negative. Should kids be advertised to in school? But then again, kids are creating that programming; kids are actually reporting that programming. They’ve actually received awards for the strength in their news coverage. So I think that is a superb opportunity. How many kids tune in to CNN? Probably not many. But news, as presented by their peers, improves their understanding of current affairs and what’s going on in the world. It’s a double-edged sword, for sure.

Q. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. What makes Mark Childs the best choice for head of marketing at Kellogg Canada?

A. [Laughing] Probably that I am a non-linear individual. First of all, I have a natural bias to be creative – and, I think, I centre myself on ideas. Strategy at 60,000 feet is a fine and worthwhile marketing practice, but what is the idea that’s going to cut the grass? I think I have a bias to that. If we’re going to talk about something, I think we should talk about something that we are going to do.

I’m a pragmatic guy as well. I came from a sales background [and] I understand that a marketing idea needs to work at the store level. It needs to work with a viewer who is watching TV or reading a billboard.