CMO profile: How Lion’s brand director is building the enterprise of the future

Australian FMCG's consumer and brand director reveals the big consumer insights informing her transformational approach to marketing

Anubha Sahasrabuddhe
Anubha Sahasrabuddhe

“The credibility and integrity of marketers is instrumental to architecting an enterprise’s future, not just the future of a portfolio of brands,” according to Lion consumer and brand director, Anuhba Sahasrabuddhe.

And it’s this very business minded approach the internationally experienced brand and marketing leader is now applying to her role at Lion, one of Australia’s most iconic and longstanding FMCG organisations.

Building off professional learnings with other iconic brands such as Coca-Cola and Mars, as well as a love of change, Sahasrabuddhe has given herself the task of transforming the Lion organisation. To do this, she’s embracing both thorough consumer understanding and insight and big strategic vision with more integrated and demand-driven operating models.

Here, Sahasrabuddhe talks about her ambitions and the steps she’s taken so far to get there.

Learning to transform

Sahasrabuddhe took up the post at Lion in January after spending 20 years working outside of Australia. Having built her marketing credentials initially working for Coca-Cola locally, a desire to “go where the growth and dynamism was” saw her relocate to Asia.

“I got to experience every dimension of how to do business, to be a marketer and growing a business in economies that are galloping yet where the infrastructure and capability isn’t there,” she recalls. “I got my first real bug for and love of transformation during this time. I thrive in that ambiguity, challenge and opportunity.”   

Sahasrabuddhe spent a decade in mainland China and 16 years with Coca-Cola overall. From there, the desire to translate her experience to another business led Sahasrabuddhe to privately owned multinational, Mars Wrigley.

“What I learnt there was doing the right things for the long term, which you have more ability to do at a private company versus a public one with constant quarterly earnings announcements,” she says. “For the Mars family, purpose and how it infuses every aspect of the business – whether it’s creating a better world for pets in the pet division or bringing smiles and joy with confectionery – was so interesting to see. It was also interesting to see how hands-on the family were too; sometimes good, sometimes not so good. It was a real contrast.”  

Sahasrabuddhe’s third career milestone came when she took her experiences regionally and became global VP marketing, based in Mars’ Chicago office.

“That was building another skillset – not running day-to-day operations but figuring out future capabilities, operating models and innovation horizons you don’t necessarily have the luxury of doing when you’re running a market or series of markets,” she says. “I learnt a lot around those capabilities and gained respect for global, as well as understanding what learnings are re-applicable.

“I genuinely believe in dovetailing between those regional and global roles then bringing that down to operations and making day-to-day impact. I think the balance of that perspective, and the different skillets required you need to flex, is what I’m bringing to the role at Lion now.”  

Fuelling modern brand relevance

Sahasrabuddhe’s first step as Lion’s brand and consumer director has not been to focus on marketing, but the whole enterprise’s objectives and future direction.

“Lion’s brands come secondary to what business problem that they have to solve,” she argues. “As those come back to a focus on the consumer, I strongly believe the role of marketing is being the growth engine of the business.

“Value creation in the enterprise can only come from consumer understanding first, and second, translation of that into brands that deliver value. It sounds simple, but there are a number of businesses that don’t operate like that, either because they’re entirely financially driven or they’re manufacturing driven. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s a conscious decision.”  

Sahasrabuddhe’s starting point has been identifying what business Lion is now in.

“For 100 years, Lion has been a beer business and powerhouse and it’s an incredible legacy and stable of brands,” she comments. “But the exciting part for me is when you start to look at where consumers are going and what behaviours are shaping the new generation and those to come. That meant getting a seat at the table from the get-go to define what business we are in based on where consumers are headed.”  

How Lion attracts new consumers to its portfolio of brands is the direct consequence of these trends. “In a category like beer, which penetrates all realms and age groups, you can sometimes lose sight of the fact that recruitment is the lifeblood of every industry and category. If you don’t recruit, you won’t have a future,” Sahasrabuddhe continues.  

Undertaking a deep diagnosis of where Lion is and isn’t successful against a changing Australian profile has therefore been the starting point. Top of the priority list was understanding the changing demographics in terms of age.

“There’s two parts to that: The ageing population, then ‘genZennials’, who are increasingly non-Anglo Saxon,” Sahasrabuddhe says.   

The second prong to attack is local relevance and conscious consumers.

“The pandemic and a number of other global focus have created a situation where the importance of local relevance, provenance, transparency around product and delivery is so important,” Sahasrabuddhe says. “It’s such a great opportunity for Australian brands and businesses to proudly talk about that as a value proposition in what has been a hugely global world that’s coming full circle.”  

Third for Sahasrabuddhe is the concept of ‘positive choices’, a trend sweeping across all manner of FMCG brands.

“How does moderation and the contradiction of self-indulgence with health and wellness manifest itself? It’s about positive choice – not good or bad, but how you regulate and moderate for your own sense of lifestyle,” she says. “We’re seeing that in younger demographics particularly. For example, 30 per cent of the youngest demographic is choosing not to drink alcohol. That sober curious movement is one of several big forces. And if 30 per cent of your youngest demo from 18 to 40 are consciously choosing not to drink, what are the implications of that in terms of innovation, product portfolio and evolution?”  

But even as she points to a radically different consumer make-up to the one Lion has succeeded with in the past, Sahasrabuddhe dismisses the notion iconic brand cannot be relevant for generations and generations.

“It’s been drilled into me with every brand I’ve worked on. Just look at Coca-Cola, Doritos, M&Ms: These are gigantic global brands that have stood the test of the time. The key is how they flex and adapt to the changing situation,” she says. “I don’t believe you can change the DNA, but I do believe in context, culture and relevance. That is the real opportunity for some of our heritage brands at Lion - get the context and culture really on point. That’s how we will start to create the change and shift we need to in order to recruit those consumers.”  

The leadership roadmap

It’s taken six months to orchestrate this thorough consumer and market diagnosis. While the answers aren’t all there, Sahasrabuddhe is confident she has a sustainable plan for how to progress in 2022.

“That’s why when the Lion leadership team asked me what I want to do with the marketing function, I said actually, it’s a business structural question. That was an important conversation, otherwise all you do is reinforce the silos and you’re only addressing one part of the problem,” she says.  

Three aspects of leadership underpin the approach: Curiosity; courage and conviction.

“Curiosity was the starting point, which is where we’ve gone and challenged everything to get to the truth of the problem we have to solve,” Sahasrabuddhe explains. “Then we’re going to have to have a lot of courage to go in a certain direction, carrying that burden of legacy and history. We are privileged custodians of legacy, and you don’t want these brands to die on your watch. Then we have to have conviction to follow through.”  

One of the biggest learnings out of the diagnosis was Lion was facing a demand problem. This has informed a new team operating model blending the experience of the best of Lion with new thinking and capabilities. The new operating model was introduced in June and sees Lion embrace a ‘one demand’ team structure.

“If everyone has clarity on the role they plan in that funnel, we will have much more seamless execution of that at the top end of the funnel and the bottom and break down the silos,” Sahasrabuddhe says. “We restructured the entire demand organisation against that funnel: Marketing, customer solutions and sales. We also stood up new capabilities within that.”

“What’s exciting for me about our operating model redefinition is it goes way beyond marketing, but the genesis was marketing.”

With a firm conviction that the days of the generalist marketer are over, Sahasrabuddhe has also worked to balance specialisation capabilities required to serve consumer needs with a smooth operating team approach.

“Specialism has created quite a dysfunctional marketing organization in some instances. I felt we have lost the notion of integration, and of strategic leadership of a brand all the way through the P&L, with the requisite capabilities supporting the delivery of that business outcome,” she says. “So we structured the team to recognise specialised capabilities and put that through the funnel from idea to execution in a marketing sense.

“We also strongly believe we have the opportunity to do better work with our agency partners by structuring ourselves in a way where accountability for integration of idea and reach is with us – that’s on us. Not the village.”

This decision saw Lion appoint Thinkerbell as its sole creative agency partner in August under a new ‘Connections Model’. Thinkerbell have been on Lion’s agency roster for two years, most recently producing the ‘Unbelievable’ campaign for the Furphy brand. The agency now has sole responsibility for creative, sitting alongside existing media partner, Universal McCann.

 “When you are hiring and partnering with specialised agencies around you, honestly, the slips between the cracks of who is responsible for integration is a car crash I’ve seen too many times,” Sahasrabuddhe says. “It should sit with us; we know we work with less partners now because we have also lined that up in a way that makes sense.

“To me, that makes for a better work output – having a creative planner at Lion that can work with Thinkerbell’s creative planning team in a much tighter way, speaking the same language based on the business brief that comes from the brand team. That’s a more seamless way to get to great work that drives the business result and one the brand director is accountable for in its totality.”  

Sahasrabuddhe’s intelligence and insights group is now working with Thinkerbell and Universal McCann on a unified scorecard for success that breaks down any silos between agency and the client-side business and links directly to business objectives.

“We need to be able to do those leading and lagging indicators in a way the board will understand,” she says. “It comes back to that question of what my marketing investment is doing. We’ve always been able to manage and measure certain parts of it. But the totality of it will help us make the case for additional investment.”   

Getting buy-in at a broader organisational level was ultimately about presenting the case for change. “I’m a massive believer in laying out in the most simple and compelling way what the case for change is, with all the evidence around that,” Sahasrabuddhe says.

“You have to have the right blend of ‘urgent patience’; a combination of right pace but right depth because you have to get the business to a place where it aligns to that case, to then make the structural changes.”  

2022 game plan

So how will all this manifest in externally activity in 2022? Sahasrabuddhe is framing things in three ways: What needs to be fixed; what to accelerate; and what to transform. Fixes for instance include core beer product lines, which are the lifeblood of the Lion business and keep the lights on. Areas of growth potential include the world of craft beer and some RTDs beyond the core beer lines.

“The transformation is where we want to bring in the notion of co-creation with customers and partners on test and learn,” Sahasrabuddhe says. “Delineating the three types of ways to execute buys you the time and space to spy the disruptive things. There is no silver bullet, but if we get the fix and grow right, and as you start to see measured outcomes, it buys us time to figure out the disruptive stuff.

“You can get so caught up in the innovation of now – the next flavour, pack type, which is all important – but it’s about how we then create a model that allows for the two-speed world we have to live in.”

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