Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Nathalie Noël

It's not easy to convince your boss to spend a big chunk of change on telling consumers to stop using your product. Especially when you have to answer to thousands of dairy farmers across the country. But that hasn't stopped Nathalie Noël, director of marketing at Montreal-based Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) from taking risks and championing some out-of-the-box ideas to help get her products noticed. Most notably, she fought for last fall's zany 'Stop Cooking With Cheese' campaign, by AOR Cossette Montréal.

It’s not easy to convince your boss to spend a big chunk of change on telling consumers to stop using your product. Especially when you have to answer to thousands of dairy farmers across the country. But that hasn’t stopped Nathalie Noël, director of marketing at Montreal-based Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) from taking risks and championing some out-of-the-box ideas to help get her products noticed. Most notably, she fought for last fall’s zany ‘Stop Cooking With Cheese’ campaign, by AOR Cossette Montréal.

Noël, 40, successfully eased farmers’ concerns about the reverse psychology concept by presenting extensive focus group research and arguing that something surprising was necessary to break through in the cluttered media environment. Plus, the concept had the added topical appeal of hitting on the social phenomenon of more and more adult children taking their time leaving the nest.

‘I have 16,000 bosses across the country. It’s a political environment, for sure,’ Noël explains, adding that she secures approval from 12 elected farmers who form DFC’s promotions committee. ‘At the end of the day, these people are dairy farmers. You have to explain everything, and be very concrete. We do research to support our decisions, and we have to convince them using what we know about our target.’

Boss Ian MacDonald, DFC’s national director, marketing and nutrition, credits Noël’s interpersonal communications skills and strong eight-year track record of successful DFC promos with helping her get the committee on board with the reverse psychology concept. ‘The farmers were a bit skeptical,’ he recalls. ‘She demonstrated that it was more than just a TV campaign, and how it could be leveraged with other media…. They have a good deal of confidence in her.’

The farmers’ trust paid off big time, and they’ve been resoundingly vindicated for supporting the concept. Without any PR push, the campaign scored news coverage by dozens of outlets across Canada when it first launched last fall, then again in March around the release of the Matthew McConaughey movie Failure to Launch about a thirtysomething man who still lives with his parents. The campaign has even been spoofed on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, confirming its impact on Canadian culture. The DFC committee has already approved Noël’s plan to build on the concept in a new campaign set to launch next fall.

This isn’t the first time Noël convinced the DFC to step outside its comfort zone. In 2003 she opted to take butter in a different direction and move away from its positioning as better-tasting than competitors, which she felt was becoming less effective as a differentiation point as faux-butter products improved their formulas. ‘Naturalness is the differentiation for us – [competitors] cannot say natural,’ she says. ‘The natural platform instead of taste was a harder sell [to farmers]. But, the taste benefit is not as important as in the past.’

The resulting execution from Cossette depicted a pound of butter in a water bottle, with the tagline ‘From a natural source.’ ‘It was really a breakthrough execution,’ recalls Maryse Sauvé, Cossette Montréal’s VP account services director. ‘She came back to us and said: ‘I want more of this.”

The Cossette team wound up pitching 18 campaigns to Noël, and they worked collaboratively to arrive at the current ‘Natural Attraction’ concept, which features vegetables with claws reaching for butter. ‘Working with Nathalie is like working with a team member,’ says Sauvé. ‘She’s the type of person who wants to be challenged. We get into arguments.’

The campaign has been well received, and Noël has just gotten the go-ahead from her farmers to build on the concept for a new campaign this fall, which will include FSI, print and outdoor executions.

In the meantime, Noël is busy maintaining her many relationships, from cheese and butter brand managers at big cos like Saputo and Kraft to her agencies, farmers and internal team. She’s constantly talking about getting into the mind-set of her target: busy, working moms who worry about serving their kids wholesome meals. She has a photo of ‘Lisa,’ a composite of her bull’s-eye (a 38-year-old working mom), pinned to the corkboard beside her desk to serve as a constant reminder of who her efforts need to resonate with.

It was this focus on serving the target that prompted Noël to spearhead the complete overhaul of DFC’s website, Dairygoodness.ca, last year. It went from a cluttered, hard-to-navigate patchwork to a user-friendly, mom-focused resource that includes dairy-centric recipes, health tips and a cheese encyclopedia. ‘We had to [think about] our target – why will they visit, what can we offer them,’ she explains. Since the revamp, web traffic has gone up significantly.

The website’s educational bent, particularly the encyclopedia, addresses one of the DFC’s key tenets. ‘We strongly believe the more people know about cheese, the more they will consume it. And we have the numbers to back that up,’ Noël explains. With this insight in mind, she launched ‘The Pleasure of Cheese,’ a biannual magalogue with cheese info and recipes in 2002. Originally available at retail, it’s now distributed as an insert in magazines like Chatelaine and Canadian Living after being muscled out of stores as the big retailers launched their own magalogues.

Noël attributes her tendency to think beyond traditional marketing communications to her eight-year stint at Mississauga, Ont.-based promotions agency Mosaic (called Sales & Merchandising Group at the time.) While there, she launched the Pepsi Challenge in Quebec, and also worked on retail promotions for DFC. She opted to move to the client side at DFC for the chance to see projects from beginning to end, as opposed to just the end at Mosaic. Her first task was to implement an in-store program to boost dairy sales. ‘I was in charge of building a relationship with retailers. At that time, [DFC] was more media-driven,’ she says. ‘DFC is a funny beast – we don’t control the product, the packaging or the price. We have to think outside of the box.’ She worked with dairy brands to build in-store promotions, and sussed out sponsorship opps to leverage.

Luckily, sponsorship marketing is one of Noël’s key strengths. MacDonald points to her efforts to secure and leverage Olympic sponsorship rights from 1998 to 2004 as a particularly outstanding initiative. ‘She built [the DFC Olympic program] from nothing…. At the end of the sponsorship, we were in the 80% range for sponsor recognition,’ says MacDonald. ‘She created a lot of touchpoints within the program – retail promotions, advertising, athlete appearances, etc.’

As for cheese? Don’t worry; we’ll be seeing more of that grandma this fall. ‘Cheese will be the solution,’ Noël reveals cryptically. ‘We’ll keep our grandma. She’ll be more pro-active.’ Here’s hoping ‘pro-active’ will entail some Sopranos-style Granny-ing. If that won’t get your kids to leave home, we don’t know what will.

FIVE QUESTIONS

Favourite current TV show

Desperate Housewives is good, and it’s related to our target. And, CSI, because it’s related to my background. [Noël studied microbiology at university.]

Favourite vacation spot

I love to travel. It’s anywhere I haven’t gone before.

Favourite website

My competitors’ websites. There’s a lot you can learn from them.

First job

A trampoline instructor at summer camp when I was 17. I was jumping all summer long.

Number one thing you look for in an ad agency

People who believe in your product.