Traditional FMCG companies have become disconnected from their consumers and will fail to maintain competitive advantage unless they reconnect. That’s the view of Leonid Sudakov, the past global CMO of Mars Petcare and now the global president of its Connected Solutions division.
As its most senior marketer, Sudakov was instrumental in the company’s moves in recent years to embrace the industry and consumer trends for disruption, health, and wellness services. This includes its acquisition of Whistle—a connected dog collar—one year ago and its partnership with creative agency AMV BBDO on Flare Studio, an initiative to develop crowdsourced video content.
In November last year, Sudakov relinquished the role of CMO to head up Connected Solutions, a new business division which is home to its technology acquisitions and the hotbed for future innovation. In conversation with CMO.com recently, he explained the transition from CMO to his new role and the imperative to have a “high-touch” relationship with consumers that remains a driving force.
Sudakov: Mars Petcare is unique in the FMCG area because we operate a massive grocery business, a specialty nutritional business, and, in the past few years, we became a big force in the pet health area—we’re the world’s biggest employer of veterinarians and operate a large number of primary and emergency care pet hospitals. That creates a unique opportunity for understanding our consumers and getting close to them.
As we started to develop an ecosystem of products and services to create a better world for pets, we found an opportunity to respond to a major change in consumer behaviour, namely the digitilisation of their lives. This changed the rules of the game in our nutrition business and is starting to change the rules of the game in pet health.
It’s something that allowed us to start to think about positioning Mars Petcare not only as a leader in its business categories but also a thought leader. It’s no longer enough to just have physical scale. We need to build competitive advantage for the future, and that comes from proximity to customers and understanding their pain points better than anybody else.
We truly embraced the disruption mindset and, with this future in mind, created the new Connected Solutions business division.
CMO.com: What are the aims of the new division?
Sudakov: Connected Solutions gives us the opportunity to do two things. A big part is to incubate disruptors in the categories we operate in, which may then go on to become the future stars of the business.
The other thing is to use data and analytics to rebuild a high-touch proximity with customers. It’s important because, in the world of traditional FMCG companies where I come from, marketers have delegated proximity to agencies. As a result, we were not as close to their needs as some of the startups and technology companies have shown us we should be.
So we’re now working with startups that live this philosophy of being close to consumers. One of those is Whistle, which created a new category by developing connected collars technology. This allows pet parents to maintain a connection with their pets wherever they are and ensure they never get lost. It also provides data so owners can better manage their pets’ wellbeing.
Another example is Wisdom Health, our pioneering DNA testing and pet genomics business that strives to assist owners in managing their pets’ health and wellness based on their unique DNA profile.
CMO.com: What’s the challenge when integrating startups into the business and also introducing that mindset into the existing marketing function?
Sudakov: Whistle is a true startup—its founders are all aged around 30, and we need to make sure they can flourish in the context of a big corporate organisation.
For marketers in general, working with startups is a truly unique opportunity. In big corporations, marketing has become about big projects, long timelines, and lots of PowerPoint presentations. It’s based on a very theoretical view of the customer and, at times, has lost the high-touch approach I see over and over again among the startups I meet. This is what we want to bring back to the heart of the business in how we approach our customers—we want to be able to look out for and solve their pain points, and work with them to find the solutions they need.
That is why we believe in continuous learning and iteration with our customers. One example is Whistle 3, our most advanced connected collar in the Whistle range. It was introduced at CES and, for the first time, has allowed us to work together with customers to improve the product pre-launch. We’ve also tried to innovate in how we developed the advertising campaign, which has just been launched, using crowdsourced content from Flare Studios—the collaboration we announced with our creative partner AMV BBDO last year.
It’s very different to the traditional way we’ve built products and communications. The reality is that it’s essential for big companies to regain customer proximity to survive in the new transparent and well-informed consumer space. They need to live in the context of disruption and develop a new mentality of speed.
CMO.com: What impact does this have on how you measure marketing effectiveness?
Sudakov: Mars Petcare has always been clear on what really matters in terms of building relations with consumers. About 20 years ago, we made a significant investment in being able to connect viewership patterns directly with sales uplift for specific pieces of content, way before it became fashionable. This has been guiding our advertising spend in content for a long time, and we never got distracted by the idea of chasing social media likes, for example. So measurement now is a development of that long history.
What’s changed in the last few years is that we’ve moved beyond the traditional content types into more digital content. Our collaborations with Google and Facebook have been centred on how to measure the real sales effect of new content types quickly. Perfecting ways to identify content that works faster allows you to put your efforts and resources into the types of content that give you a real bang for your buck.
CMO.com: What’s the next big thing that will change your relationship with consumers?
Sudakov: The most exciting opportunities are from the new analytical tools, whether AI or something else, that will give us a view of individual consumer behaviour and allow us to translate all the disparate data points and signals into a coherent insight about their pain points. In the next few years, we’ll get even closer to solving their needs better by translating data into insight much better (and faster) than before.
CMO.com: Finally, as a former CMO and now head of innovation, what is it that has driven your marketing career?
Sudakov: I did a finance degree, then went into a marketing role which I loved, before doing a Master’s in corporate finance. As marketers, our seat at the table is defined by our ability to drive growth, and that’s what has always motivated me—the combination of looking at the business growth agenda strategically and owning that growth algorithm as a marketer.
Secondly, the speed of change in our lives as consumers makes me think about the change in our profession: What are the capabilities we need, as marketers, to grow our businesses in the new context of our consumers’ lives? That’s what makes our jobs so exciting. It’s not a stagnant profession. We’re at the forefront of translating the change in consumers’ lives into new business, especially in categories where we’re so close to important moments that mark them.
I’ve also been fortunate to work in a private company that looks at the long-term horizon and invests in a view that goes beyond the next quarter. It’s been a massive liberator. It also allowed us to avoid the so-called digital marketing inferiority complex, which can be a challenge for many marketers. In a business like Mars Petcare, I feel we’ve managed to keep our heads clear and focused on the future without losing ourselves in hot air ideas.