CMO50 2020 #10: Andrew Hicks

  • Name Andrew Hicks
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company Woolworths Group
  • Commenced role June 2019 (joined 2008)
  • Reporting Line Chief executive officer
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 126 staff, 7 direct
  • Industry Sector Retail and ecommerce
  • 2019 ranking New to CMO50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    As a CMO, joining the group executive team of the Woolworths Group in 2019 was not only a positive step personally, but an important one cementing the marketing function’s contribution at the most senior level, Andrew Hicks says.  

    Not one to miss the opportunity to do more, the Woolworths marketing chief is using this executive platform to better express the role and importance of brand in directing decision making. It’s work that sees him ensuring a broader understanding of the commercial impact of brand building, differentiation and governance pervades the organisation.  

    And it’s led to Woolworths increasing brand value over the past year, becoming Australia’s Most Valuable Brand on the Brand Finance charts with a 5.4 per cent increase in brand value to $11.8 billion. This makes it the highest Australian Brand on the Brand Finance Global 500.  

    Hicks has also been leading development of group purpose as well as the Woolworths brand purpose. This includes providing tools to embed it and supporting respective leaderships teams at Big W, Dan Murphy’s and BWS to develop their purposes.  

    “As we strive to better serve the communities in which we operate, we have a greater need to align how we engage at a government, industry and community level,” Hick says.  

    “To help this, in July 2020, we brought together marketing and government affairs/industry relations to form a new team, brand and reputation. I’m excited to lead this team as it brings even more focus to the critical topics of brand and reputation across the Woolworths Group with an expanded remit and engagement across a broader stakeholder set.”  

    The development process began by interviewing teams and hosting workshops to try and understand what Woolworths was like at its best. Key elements in development included memorability and emotion and ensuring it was aspirational without being out of reach.  

    “We codified these observations and distilled them into a few statements, tested again with teams before settling on the final purpose,” Hicks says. “What is powerful about this approach is that it came from the team rather than being imposed on them.”  

    The pursuit of purpose every day ensures Woolworths continues to do the right things. “We believe in values-based retailing and are committed to making a positive impact,” Hicks continues. “In a people business like retail, our purpose acts as a cohesive force across a highly diverse team and gives us something in common we are all proud to strive to achieve. In the short term, it brings us together and helps direct our decisions and actions. In the long term, it defines us and the contribution we make as a brand to each other, our customers and the country in general.”  

    While the formal Woolworths Purpose program of work was in development well before COVID, it came to the forefront during the crisis, Hicks says.  

    “Whether it was bringing a little good by being the first retailer to have a dedicated shopping hour for the elderly, partnering with Meals on Wheels to deliver toilet paper to the vulnerable or honouring donations to our charity partners,” he says. “With the pace of change as things initially developed, it was very difficult for everyone to be across everything. We needed our team to be confident with their ‘inner compass’ directing their actions. Our purpose pulled us together and gave our team the necessary direction and freedom to act quickly, decisively and with care.”  

    More broadly, Hicks says dealing with the COVID pandemic has redefined Woolworths inside and out. “Seeing yourself as an essential worker and essential to Australia and customers’ ability to eat and stay healthy was one of the biggest impacts on any team member,” he says.  

    The combination of brand and purpose can be seen in action through the Woolworths Discovery Garden seed collectible campaign launched last September. Through the community-oriented initiative, the supermarket giants gave away tens of millions of seedling kits to families nationally. Hick says the aim was ensuring the next generation of Aussie kids learnt where their food comes from, in turn encouraging healthy eating habits.  


    Meanwhile, Hick says the most critical thing he’s done personally this year is lead dramatically increased responsiveness to an incredible array of communication tasks and challenges throughout the COVID-19 crisis.  

    “Our single priority was providing timely, accurate, transparent and helpful communication to customers in all forms to keep them safe,” he explains. “We stopped all promotional activity, which was complex to execute, in order to provide clarity of one message to the customer. We were very proud to be perceived as Australia’s Second Most Trusted Brand during Covid-19 [Roy Morgan] and the first supermarket.”  

    A cross-functional COVID communications squad initially met twice a day, seven days a week. Subsequently, rosters were introduced to preserve team energy. Hick says the team worked in an agile manner. Requests or issues would come from a central emergency management team, with marketing representation, then prioritised and aligned in the squad morning meetings with deliverables for the same day in almost all instances.  

    “Literally hundreds of pieces of point-of-sale were developed in days, continually updated and a full set of social distancing point-of-sale was developed, printed and distributed in a matter of days,” Hicks says.  

    “Besides speed, we innovated to respond to new customer needs. We were the first brand to introduce CEO updates to provide trusted updates to our customers and the community at large. The content was clear and honest with more detail than we’d ever ordinarily provide in the interests of giving certainty. We developed a digital hub and informative digital content to make it simple to find advice, trading hours and so on.”  

    Hick’s team was also deeply involved in developing propositions such as the Basics Box to the vulnerable, a Kindness Card, a dedicated hour for vulnerable shoppers and a Queue Tracker app - all firsts.  

    “We also took the lead in preparing industry-wide advertisements asking customers to respect our teams and their efforts,” Hicks says. “We formed a partnership with the Kindness Pandemic to support our team with positive messages and initiated and orchestrated the Meals on Wheels partnership to deliver toilet paper to the vulnerable. We were part of employing ‘grounded’ Qantas team members with two of the team joining the marketing function.”  

    Being agile meant Woolworths was able to share marketing material produced for its supermarkets quickly with other business units such as Big W, BWS and Countdown.  

    “It is remarkable through these challenges how we as a team have pulled together to support each other, our customers and the communities in which we serve,” Hicks says. “And we did it with purpose, agility and compassion. We have truly shown we are at our best when we live our group purpose of ‘creating better experiences together for a better tomorrow’.”  

    Linked to the power of agile working practices was a redefinition of what it meant to be fast. “We removed hidden bureaucracy and embraced the team having more freedom in frameworks given the scale and urgency of what needed to be achieved,” Hicks adds.  

    Data-driven approach  

    Another decision made by Woolworths during the first wave of COVID-19 was to stop its weekly printed catalogue and pivot to a digital catalogue. Until that point, the digital catalogue was a simple copy of the physical one.  

    Utilising onsite search data for content and sales data, coupled with Google search trends, Hicks’ team expanded the digital catalogue to include additional pages featuring relevant recipe content and additional offers. The digital material was optimised during the week and data outcomes, such as consumers adding items to a digital basket or page views, were used to refine further the following week’s offering. Views of the digital catalogue have doubled on average, leading to improved sales outcomes.  

    It’s indicative of the broader number of customers embracing online shopping and feeling more confident in researching digitally. Hicks notes digital and ecommerce growth was already very strong for Woolworths but experienced a step-change in Q3 FY20 with the onset of COVID-19. Average weekly traffic to Woolworths’ websites and apps increased 66.9 per cent to 8.4 million weekly visits in Q3, and there were 10.1 million weekly visits in April to June, an increase of 79.2 per cent year-on-year.  

    This digitisation is something Hicks is convinced is here to stay. “The ability to be ‘alone’ at home yet connect to a multitude of local and global experiences digitally has been a big unlock for many. It redefines what an experience is and democratises it,” he says.

    “Often, this has also seen the experience itself intensify. We may be cocooning at home but it can be a very exciting, expansive place.”  

    What’s more, more consumers are focusing on our health and are more aware of what they eat, along with sanitisation. Again, these are trends Hicks sees being sustained. He’s equally convinced the spotlight on our humanity and the trend towards kindness will continue.  

    Customer-led thinking  

    As Hicks points out, delivering brilliant customer experiences is so interconnected in retail across marketing, buying and operations. To spearhead progression, he initiated and led the largest leadership training program for the marketing function Woolworths has ever undertaken.  

    The Synergy program is dedicated to building horizontal leadership skills partnering and agile skills and included a focus on influencing skills. The course ran in multiple full-day modules over six months, with every team member included in diverse cohorts to foster understanding and collaboration. The marketing leadership team had additional smaller training sessions to lead change from the top.  

    “Nothing great can be done without partnership - whether internally or with other organisations,” Hick says. “The power of collaboration is remarkable and it’s essential to business and brand success. Consequently, we invested in an ‘emotional’ skill and not a ‘technical’ one across the team. The vision was to liberate the marketers’ sense of what could be achieved by upskilling them in the art of partnership, influence and agile methodologies.  

    “I don’t believe we would’ve been there for our customers and Australians in the way we were through Covid-19 without these skills. It enabled us to embrace the pace and find more elegant, robust solutions.”  

    Being truly connected to customers and agile in responding to their needs is the key challenge for marketers today, Hicks agrees. “Customer change is increasing at an exponential pace and I think it will take new techniques and deeper empathy to truly understand customers,” he says.  

    “In an era of personalisation and digitisation, data and analytics, all of which are fundamental to success, it can be increasingly difficult to remember there is still a critical need for intuition and creativity. And a very different skillset is now required to act with the required and expected pace in responding to those needs.  

    “The ability to pivot plans, gather alignment, find partners and advance ideas from ideation to implementation rapidly is increasingly important to the modern marketer.”  

    Cross-functional collaboration  

    Another illustration of this in action is The Greenhouse, an innovative collaboration model that sees M&C Saatchi and Woolworths working in a unique manner in terms of both physical space and a way of working. Not only has the Greenhouse been central to producing communications outcomes in a highly collaborative manner, blurring the lines between client and agency, Hicks says it’s involved all agency partners at appropriate times. Woolworths’ MD and senior leads across buying, operations and insights also use the Greenhouse model to collaborate and align on key campaigns and propositions.  

    “This has led to highly integrated outcomes on broad topics like community engagement, where we have seen a considerable brand lead extend as a result of what we do in-store, online and in the communities we serve,” Hicks says.

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