2020 MOY: Behind Nina Patel’s creative marcom

How the Kraft Heinz marketer is steering the company's portfolio of brands to grow in Canada.

NinaPatel_HeadShotBy Will Novosedlik

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

Global CEO of Kraft Heinz Miguel Patricio recently delivered a mandate to his troops: “We want to be much better at marketing, customer insight, innovation, and communication.” Nina Patel, head of brand build and innovation at Kraft Heinz Canada, is on board.

“For me, all those are connected,” she tells strategy, adding that the new ambition also meant putting consumers at the centre of Kraft Heinz’ world.

The strategy is starting to pay off, and Canada is leading the way.

In April 2020, Kraft Heinz reported a net quarterly loss of US$1.65 billion, driven by a nearly $3 billion write-down on the value of some of its iconic brands. But here in Canada, the company tracked double-digit growth and gained share in 80% of its retail categories. Patricio noted that the Kraft Heinz Canada team delivered 2% organic growth, with “pricing turning positive for the first time in seven quarters and retail consumption growth in every category.”

The pivot to being more customer-centric required a shift in how Kraft Heinz goes about uncovering insights. It recently worked with agency Salt XC to launch a new capability within the marketing team called “The Kitchen.” The 100% internal agency is dedicated to acting at the “speed of culture, based on social insights,” as Patel puts it. Via social listening, The Kitchen tracks conversations about Kraft Heinz brands, which in turn helps drive the creation of content.

Patel also took on Patricio’s challenge to “do better at innovation” by creating a two-pronged approach. The first – full-on innovation – is for completely new products that are rooted in consumer-led insights.

One example was the launch of Kraft Hazelnut Spread in July 2020, a nut butter alternative made with no palm oil and less saturated fat. The spread was first teased out in June with an Instagram poll that asked people how they like their hazelnut spread – with or without palm oil. But even before the social poll, Kraft’s research team already knew the answer: 50% of category users would likely try the eco-friendlier spread if given the opportunity. The SKU resulted in a double-digit share position (against the likes of Nutella, which dominates the category) in less than a year, says Patel.

The second approach is a more incremental form of innovation, which Patel calls “renovation,” and is focused on future-proofing Kraft Heinz’s iconic brands. Renovations include re-positioning products, changing their formulas or modifying their packaging to better meet changing consumer needs.

For example, Heinz Baby was recently rebranded to Heinz By Nature, with a new messaging on pack: “Made from nature, close to homemade.” The brand’s baby food products, which includes an extensive selection of all-natural purees, taps into the insight that when it comes to infant food, nearly two-thirds of parents are drawn to “natural” distinctions, versus one half who were interested in “organic.”

Patel’s innovation mindset is not limited to products. If the campaigns of 2019 and 2020 are any indication, it also extends to marketing communications.

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A great example is Heinz Ketchup. Still bruised by the closing of its 105-year-old Leamington, Ontario manufacturing plant in 2013, Heinz Ketchup saw its affinity scores drop and social sentiment and loyalty soften over the years. For the first time in 150 years Canadians were asking themselves if Heinz was the brand for them. Patel and her team looked to re-ignite the emotional bond Canadians historically had with the brand and re-establish its iconic status by getting back to what they love about it.

For decades, people have been questioning how best to get the ketchup out of the iconic bottle. Working with Rethink, they decided it was time to break the silence and officially tell people how it’s done. The agency created a simple design modification by taking the Heinz Ketchup label and repositioning it to sit at a 31.578° angle to achieve the perfect pour. Perhaps the most effective part of the campaign – which saw media led by Starcom and PR by The Colony Project – was when it launched on social. Capturing consumer reactions of the redesigned bottle at shelf, it generated buzz well beyond Canada.

“It was like unlocking the Cadbury caramel secret,” says Patel, adding that, in the first few weeks, the campaign was covered by 340 news stations globally and search for Heinz Ketchup increased 400%. The brand only spent $15,000 on production, and yet it managed to generate 238 million earned impressions, she says. “Ultimately we ran it during the Superbowl because it was getting so much attention.”

And the business results? For the first time in six years, the brand has not only slowed declines but has seen its highest profits since 2016. Heinz Ketchup is up 2.9 points for a total of 50.8% share. Best of all, sales are up 17.9% year-to-date.

In another moment of marcom creativity, Heinz Ketchup and Rethink created an IMDb page just days before the Oscars so that it could get credit for the countless movies its red sauce has appeared in. When IMDb shut the page down, Canadians started sharing their favourite Ketchup cameos on social. Engagement rates were 52 times the average, and the campaign earned US$155,000 in media during potentially the buzziest weeks of the year.

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The pandemic has not slowed down Patel and her team’s creative momentum. When self-isolation became the norm in March, puzzles made a comeback. Famous for its slow pouring ketchup, Heinz created possibly the slowest-to-build puzzle ever – with 570 pieces in identical Heinz Ketchup red, produced in a limited edition of 57. Offering it to Kraft Heinz colleagues in other markets, Patel’s team got 17 countries to adopt the idea. All proceeds went to Food Banks Canada and the campaign received more than 1.25 billion earned impressions, and sold out in 11 countries.

This adds to other pandemic-related initiatives, including Kraft Peanut Butter Shared Space – in which the brand donated its ad space to local businesses that needed help letting customers know they’re still open – as well as Project Pantry, focused on solving food insecurity.

For the latter, on October 16 (a.k.a World Food Day), Kraft Heinz invited Canadians to join in the fight by purchasing a participating Kraft Heinz product at any grocery store in the country, which was then matched by a donation to Food Banks Canada. Pantry Day is now a five-year, $20 million product donation program meant to help bring meals to the tables of the 4.4 million Canadians affected by food insecurity. It’s the largest one-day food donation program in Canadian history.

Kraft Heinz Canada appears to be ticking all of the boxes in CEO Patricio’s call to action – thanks, in large part, to Patel and her leadership.

“I’m proud that we’ve made a significant step change by putting the customer at the centre of everything we do – whether that’s in communication, marketing or innovation.”