2020 MOY: No mess too big for Susan Irving

To survive the pandemic, Kruger's CMO turned CPG tropes on their head.

2020 MOY Susan Irving

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy. 

Susan Irving expected year one at Kruger Products to be “smooth sailing” when she arrived at the company in January 2020. The first twelve months of her new post had been sketched out with her predecessor, Nancy Marcus, who was retiring in March as CMO after nearly 20 years with the CPG brand.

Irving was new to the household paper business, but had spent the last fifteen years at PepsiCo, working across many of its food and beverage brands. She was familiar with the CPG category’s modest yet reliable growth and had a clear view of the trends shaping the future of the industry.

But soon enough, those expectations were shattered by a pandemic that sent panic-stricken Canadians to grocery stores and pharmacies in droves to stock up on staple products. Demand skyrocketed for certain brands in Kruger’s portfolio, which includes Cashmere and Purex toilet paper, SpongeTowels paper towels and Scotties facial tissues, forcing Irving and her team to scrap their long-term plans and re-write them on the fly.

2020 MOY Susan IrvingAs the global CMO of a Canadian company, Irving held the decision-making power. “Every company I’ve worked for [in the past], I could plan to do something original, but I always had global or U.S. lift-and-shift to fall back on,” Irving says. “There’s none of that with Kruger. When you work for a Canadian company, the buck stops with you.”

In the ensuing months, Irving reminded herself of Marcus’ parting advice that, while the paper business is unique in its own way, “CPG marketing is CPG marketing.” Irving recognized that she could avail herself of all the usual levers – pricing, pack size, product quality, advertising – to steer the company through a period of disruption. But she also knew the circumstances called for a new, more purposeful approach. She embraced her marketing instincts and flipped category conventions on their head in the process.

Early on, Irving understood what the company needed to navigate the pandemic: insights and plenty of them. But info was scant, at least at first. She had watched as marketing departments grew more reliant on testing and data in recent years, and now these valuable guides were being made powerless by an unknown virus that was transforming consumer behaviour by the day.

Two things helped Kruger circumvent these unusual circumstances.

Internally, leaders from marketing, finance, logistics, sales and R&D came together cross-functionally, working more closely than ever before to find solutions. Irving says that while decisions should always be based on as much fact as possible, sometimes you simply “need to hold hands and you need to move.”

Externally, Irving engaged Deloitte to help revise Kruger’s strategic priorities. Beyond offering thought leadership and insight into evolving consumer trends, the consultancy helped Kruger – a more than 100-year-old family business with a strong office and meeting culture – adapt to the new virtual work environment. Using Deloitte technology, Kruger began hosting online breakout and brainstorming sessions, which Irving says aided its transition from “a world that was very consistent to a world where you’ve got to be ready to pivot anytime.”

At the outset of the pandemic, Kruger pulled back its campaigns to avoid driving demand for already sought-after products like toilet paper. It was also concerned that existing creative no longer aligned with consumer sentiment, Irving says. But it still wanted to show support for Canadians, its employees and frontline workers, so it didn’t go silent.

“I felt like it was the first time in my life that I was actually going through and feeling what my consumers were feeling,” Irving says. “Because we all needed to move so fast without research, we were relying on our gut a little bit more… [As an industry] we’ve been so focused on data analytics and research, which is still important. But when you’re in a pandemic, you don’t have time.”

In April, Kruger CEO Dino Bianco heard of a nurse who had gone to a store only to find it was sold out of the paper products she and her family needed. But she didn’t have the time (nor the energy) to run around searching for essentials. At that moment, Bianco and Irving resolved to find a way to get products into the hands of those who needed it most.

Kruger Products L-P--Kruger Products Rolls Out National Give-BacThere was just one problem: Kruger couldn’t afford to take any trucks off the road and divert them to supply frontline workers with its products. But, as luck would have it, Irving ran into Virginie Aubert, a friend and VP of marketing at Mercedes-Benz Canada, whose company also wanted to help. “Within an hour, she called me back and had a fleet of [Mercedes-Benz] vans across Canada and drivers all set up,” says Irving.

The encounter sparked “#RollingItForward,” a partnership that helped deliver Kruger products to 30,000 healthcare workers in hospitals across Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The effort, jointly handled by John St., Strategic Objectives and T1, was supported with ad buys, social and PR that generated 90 million impressions, helping the company outperform the category and nearly double its competitor’s growth during the campaign period. Irving says it’s an example of what can happen when you’re “leveraging your network [and] working on gut.”

Irving’s instinct also came to bear when Kruger was preparing to re-launch its “Pulling for Canadians” commercial for the second year in a row. With scenes featuring Canadian families, the product-heavy spot reminded viewers that the company’s Scotties, Purex and SpongeTowel products have been made locally for more than a century. “It was a beautiful… celebratory made-in-Canada ad,” she says of the John St.-created spot. “[But] given how Canadians were feeling, it did not fit with the times at all. Consumers who saw that ad would have thought we were tone deaf.”

The team decided it needed to drive trust with consumers, says Irving. So while John St. was working on 2021 planning for Kruger’s brands, it engaged Broken Heart Love Affair (BHLA) on a multi-brand campaign for Cashmere, Purex, SpongeTowels and Scotties.

Unapologetically Human

Defying norms in a category that often puts product functionality first, BHLA delivered “Unapologetically Human,” a campaign that features few branded products and instead centres around consumers’ shared humanity. The work, which launched in August, celebrates the not-always-acknowledged fact that “we all cry, make a mess, step in gross stuff, have snot, bleed, use the bathroom.”

“Instead of talking about softness, instead of talking about the functional benefits of why you use these products,” Irving says the idea was to position the consumer as the hero and showcase how Kruger has always supported Canadians.

According to Kruger, the campaign exceeded benchmarks on awareness, uniqueness, brand positivity and appeal, as well as purchase motivation and engagement across English Canada and Quebec. As of October, Nielsen data showed Kruger brands trending upward across categories, with increases of 3.2 points in bathroom tissue, 1.2 points in paper towels and 0.8 points in tissue.

The campaign has run in the U.S., where Kruger sells its White Cloud paper products, and has been adapted for South Asian and Chinese media channels here in Canada with help from Ethnicity Matters, with revised spots featuring new music and scenes that reflect the target audience.

Kruger-hindi

The work didn’t stop there. In September, Kruger launched the “Big Assist,” a national fundraising initiative to help families cover the costs of hockey registration, which garnered more than three million impressions within the first two weeks. A month later, it returned with its Cashmere Collection runway show in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the first time in 17 years, the collection debuted during a Facebook Live event.

Without a clear view of the future, Irving says Kruger continues to work with Deloitte and its agencies on scenario planning – with plans for mild, moderate and severe COVID scenarios – so that it can respond quickly depending on how the crisis progresses.

“Prior to the pandemic, I was talking about trust and bringing more purpose into our brands. Trust and purpose will continue to be important; health and safety are going to continue to be important. I don’t think that’s going to go away,” she says.

Kruger has updated the softness claim on its Cashmere packaging and plans to stay mum about that until the message is more relevant to consumers. But Irving expects to see brands eventually return to talking about functional benefits once COVID’s arc straightens out. “Consumers are going to want this balance [between purpose and functionality] after what they’ve gone through.”