CMO interview: How innovation and marketing agility are driving growth at Freedom Foods

Freedom Foods GM of marketing and innovation shares how he's combining commercial acumen, brand strategy and innovative product thinking to drive rapid growth

Tom Dusseldorp
Tom Dusseldorp

Fuelling innovation

In a bid to bring the same level of innovation and growth to cereal and snacking, Dusseldorp’s first emphasis has been process. “It’s about going a bit slower to go a bit faster,” he says.

To date, he’s implemented a gate system for the business in order to priorities opportunities presented in the lucrative health and allergy foods categories, both as a brand, as well as through manufacturing partnerships.

“Rory Macleod, our managing director, has a very big vision for growing our capital base by investing in new technology and equipment, from packaging through to processing. That puts us on the radar for lots of larger organisations,” Dusseldorp comments. “We’re drowning in potential, so we needed to put framework around what we saw as benefitting our business and rather than say yes to everything, how do we say no.”

That framework has, in turn, helped the team turn attention towards Freedom’s owned brands, which had lost focus in recent years. While holding an enviable physical position in Australian supermarkets, Dusseldorp notes the brands have low overall awareness.

But equally, that’s exactly what’s allowing the marketing team be more innovative and agile: A lack of legacy brand baggage.

“With many FMCGs, the number one priority is always going to be established and iconic brands, which have been built over many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Dusseldorp says. “It’s about how they nurture those brands, stop or arrest decline in some cases, innovate and adapt but still in a very tight brand hierarchy and architecture.

“Look at the uproar around Arnott’s Shapes or Uncle Toby’s muesli bars, or when Coke tried to change the formula. We are a health food company that is unapologetically changing the way people eat for the better. The emphasis for me has been on getting the right R&D resources to develop the healthy foods of tomorrow, and if I get that right, it will unlock even more marketing spend as we’re generating more EBITDA and consumers are buying what we have to sell.

“Then we can invest in our brands more and more. “

Dusseldorp flags a host of further products coming out over the next six months, driven by the group’s channel strategy.

“The other thing is we’re not just Australian focused, we’re turning out to be one of the biggest cereal, milk and non-dairy players in China as well as North America, and both are key markets for us,” he says.

Through all of these efforts, consumer insight and data are important, but Dusseldorp is wary of relying on data to dictate where Freedom goes next. That, he says, comes down to taking risks and sticking with your brand purpose.

“As long we’re focused on that healthy product, and we’re delivering on key trends such as transparency within whole foods, and removing the complexity in the food we make, that makes us relevant,” he says.

But Dusseldorp is a big believer in digital, and says Freedom’s media spend is 100 per cent focused on digital.

“My point of view is to fish where the fish are, and we are very targeted about digital,” he says. “It gives us the ability to have an always-on approach. Campaign-based spending is great if you have significant marketing spends and require high reach and frequency, and can utilise the full mix.

“Our best marketing asset is not only our innovation pipeline and products on the shelf, in terms of how they’re on trend and if those propositions are interesting, but also how we reach consumers and spread word digitally in the most efficient way.”

On the agenda is also a new campaign, aimed at helping lift awareness of the core Freedom Foods brand. To help, the brand has recruited Australian icon, Jennifer Hawkins, as the new face of the three-year campaign, which will revolve around the theme and mission of making food better.

The changing role of the CMO

As a CMO, Dusseldorp says one of the biggest shifts in recent years has been the lessening reliance on agencies as the oracles of ideas and strategy.

“More and more, marketing is real time and quick - it’s either direct response to consumers, or a Facebook post there one day and gone the next,” he says. “Your ability to brief and strategise, and think and then get responses and approval, has never moved faster.

“It’s up to marketers to know business better than anyone and be able to directing a lot of that activity. That for me has been the biggest shift.”

At Freedom, this has seen the marketing team directly dealing with consumer questions and social media interactions, Dusseldorp says. “I’ve actually seen new products developed thanks to that new closeness of consumer. It’s invaluable,” he says. “You wouldn’t get that if you just had an agency managing that for you.”

The other big shift for Dusseldorp is marketing’s integration with the commercial function. “When I was in a global brand role, I was more brand strategy focused and not hugely commercial. Those roles are a little immune to commercial realities but they shouldn’t be,” he says.

“More and more, marketers are required to know the P&L, talk to commercial outcomes, innovate to those targets and make sure that’s at the forefront.”

And when it comes to innovation, it’s product and distribution Dusseldorp is increasingly turning his attention to in order to achieve growth.

“Marketing and product are integrated, one hand feeds the other,” he says. “It’s not good enough now for a food tech to take a brief from a marketer, and then go ‘here’s the food you have to have’, and the marketer then try and work with it. They have to work together on the why.”

A big area of innovation for Freedom is around the food itself, and the group is investing in new grains as well as emerging superfoods. “Not many companies are innovating the source,” he points out. “It becomes a marketing battle in the end because the foods are relatively similar.

“We are putting a lot of focus on innovation on new grains, and the superfoods coming out of CSIRO and Charles Stuart University, as there are a lot of amazing food innovations coming through the pipeline. That is exciting to a marketer like me because it brings new news where it has been the same forever.”

Another of Dusseldorp’s mantras is simplification. “I find a lot of people think innovation is to overcomplicate something, where actually the more simple something is, the more innovative it is. It’s the same with food,” he says.

“We see a lot of entrepreneurs come to our business, and have great ideas around food, the consumer and category, but it’s highly complex. This is food. The more simple you make it, the better chance you have that consumers will understand and buy. And once they buy and engage that first time, you’re 90 per cent of the way there.”

In the face of these challenges and innovations, Dusseldorp’s says modern marketing leadership requires a new level of agility.

“You have no idea what’s coming at you day to day, and the role is not defined anymore – there’s no simple way to put it in a box anymore,” he says.

He also sees the role as being one of inspiring people. “I can’t be successful without my people being successful,” he says.

“Marketing leaders need to not only get the board excited about vision and strategy, but the entire team, operations and people on the front line. You have to be the voice of the company internally and externally.”

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