CMO interview: How MLA's marketing leader is using insights and commerciality to be provocative

Off the back of the debut of Meat and Livestock Australia's 2022 summer lamb campaign, we speak to its marketing chief about the approach necessary to capture the zeitgeist

There was never any doubt in Nathan Low’s mind the summer Australian lamb campaign would be provocative.

“We have a campaign every year that’s famous for being topical, capturing the zeitgeist, being engaging and entertaining,” the Meat and Livestock general manager of marketing and insights tells CMO. “People look forward to the lamb ad. As a brand, we don’t want to give that up, it’s too much of a free kick. But there is a responsibility that comes with it too.

“We are very careful about trying to be provocative, as opposed to deliberately courting controversy.”

Low admits it’s a fine line to straddle. “But it comes down to the real human truth behind what we are talking about. Is it something lamb has permission to talk about? And will people come along for the ride with us?”

This year’s ‘Share the lamb’ campaign certainly encourages this. The creative centres around a satirical longform TVC that celebrates Australia reuniting with the rest of the world after years of isolation brought about by the pandemic. Leading viewers through this rediscovery of the world outside Australia is a world explorer and his protégé, who use Aussie lamb to get the country back on the international map.

Other characters include long-serving lamb ambassador, Sam Kekovich, who instigates a national lamb BBQ rollout to generate a cutlet shaped smoke signal that can be seen from space. This huge BBQ bonanza helps trigger an influx of visitors back into the country. The ad also pokes fun at many political and business icons along the way, along with US conspiracy theorists.

The ad was once again created by The Monkeys, part of Accenture Interactive, and directed by Al Morrow from Rabbit. It launched on free-to-air and subscription TV nationally in early January and will be extended across digital, social and retail out-of-home channels by UM, with One Green Bean driving coverage across earned media and owned social.

For Low, was there was never a moment when MLA wasn’t going to go ahead with the lamb campaign, or directly address Covid in some way.

“But we did have those conversations for the 2021 lamb campaign,” he admits. “Covid had a huge impact on our industry, like many others. Food service was shut, retail was booming but in a completely different way. People’s consumption habits changed and they weren’t eating out. But they were creating fantastic meals at home. All the insights driving our thinking back then were no longer relevant now.

“We looked at whether we should lean into what was going on in the pandemic, or not. We also talked about where lamb brings people together, along with what’s driving people apart and what we need to comment on socially.”

The result in 2021 was creative focused around state borders closing, separating Australians from each other and turning the country into a nation of states. In this instance, lamb was used to encourage people back together and break down the walls.

“It felt like we had to say something about this. That’s what lamb does. So we did a lamb spin on bringing back the states together as the nation of Australia,” Low says. “Once you home in on that idea and realise it’s true and authentic to what lamb is all about, there’s no debate.”  

In describing the 2022 approach, Low gives a nod to the bravery of the MLA team to lean in and talk about Covid’s impact when many brands haven’t been. He suggests brands choosing not to directly comment on the pandemic have instead leant towards thematic, brand value-driven pieces focusing on connection.

“But for us, it was almost the opposite – we haven’t been as disconnected as we are now. So we needed to make a statement on that,” he says. “It was also important to shift the tone. The last few weeks have been different, and we didn’t foresee the challenges that opening up would have on labour shortages, supply chain and so on. But towards the end of last year, people were more focused forward and optimistic about the future.

“Australians are incredibly proud of punching well above our weight on a global scale. We love the fact everyone loves us. Which is how we ended up with the idea of what would happen when people forget about us.

“The bit we were very careful about was trying to take a much more positive, future-looking, optimistic tone. And I think we have done this.”

Another information source Low points to is MLA’s historical track record on the lamb campaign.

“The thing I’m passionate about and something that has always been important to me throughout my career is that real, authentic insight needs to be at heart of everything we do. When you are producing creative or brands are making some form of social commentary, it needs to come from an authentic place,” Low says.  

“We work with some incredibly talented people on these campaigns, both in our marketing team plus The Monkeys, who have an incredible track record on Australian lamb. But it was making sure we pulled it back to that truth.

“We had a couple of misses in the past and some huge wins if you look back at the history reel. We looked at the ones that were incredibly successful to understand what the key success factors were, then used those as our true North. It was about just putting some more structure and rigour around it.”  

Insights and rigour

Having spent 15 years at Unilever earlier in his career, Low is no stranger to marketing structure and rigour. One of the ways he’s put his stamp on the role at MLA since joining 18 months ago is to bring more framework to what the team is doing.

Nathan LowCredit: MLA
Nathan Low

“Then it’s about letting the guys cook and creating an environment where creativity is valued, and where we embrace risk,” Low says. “The great thing is MLA with the lamb campaign has a large appetite for risk. We know that’s what help makes it successful. There is an element of feeling empowered to push boundaries. My role as leader of the team is ensuring everyone working on the campaign feels that too.”

The fuel to Low’s fire is insights. Across MLA’s marketing team of 50, at least 30 are working on insights. This includes market data reporting, such as collecting sale yard data nationally and reporting on price and markets. But Low is also working to increasingly leverage that data to craft insights both more commercially and consumer orientated.

Item number one on MLA’s five-year plan is to have data and insights at the heart of everything the organisation does.

“My focus coming in was not so much changing a lot of what we have been collecting, but on insights adoption,” Low explains. “This is about working with the industry to help them understand all the information they have at their fingertips. It’s about partnering with and educating them on how to use that to make better business, brand or market optimisation decisions.”

In endeavouring to make this happen, Low is treating his insights adoption mission in the same way he does a marketing challenge.

“The first job was to drive awareness of what we’ve got. Secondly, it was to drive understanding of how to use that,” he says. “We have partnered with industry to generate case studies, then we use those to educate others on how it can benefit their business. The more people become familiar with insights, the more they want to use them, and usage becomes exponential. My utopia is that in 2-3 years’ time, these organisations don’t need us to translate insights for them.”

One key focus is helping the industry better understand which markets to play in. Low notes that with finite product, demand for Australian lamb and beef is higher than volume and the industry needs to make smart commercial choices that generate the highest return. To help, the insights team builds market attractiveness models that look at barriers, segmentations in markets, sales channels that identify the value each market has for a particular animal, cut of beef, fat score, grain or grass-fed product, and more.

“That is fascinating work to do as a marketer because it’s about as commercial as you get. It’s marketing and insights but also pure business development,” Low comments.  

“That excites me. Marketing is at its best when it operates as a commercial function. It’s exactly what my team does at MLA. I find that very rewarding. I see marketing’s role as driving growth.”

2022 priorities

While the annual Australian lamb summer campaign remains centred around an iconic TVC and earned media, Low says the team is moving away from a burst approach to advertising this year.

“We want to make sure we leverage the momentum we get out of the lamb campaign, so you will see more regular activity coming,” he says. “Within the broader media campaign, we have other elements that allow us to be more flexible.

“For example, last year and two weeks in, we rolled out a tactical outdoor campaign showcasing a caricature version of the state premiers sharing a lamb cutlet. We will do something similar this year. I think we’ve taken it to another level from a media perspective. It’s again very topical and it will allow us to keep the campaign in the news and get that earned coverage, which is such a key element of this campaign every year. It needs to drive a much bigger impact and stretch our budget a lot further than many traditional campaigns would.”   

For MLA’s beef products, meanwhile, Low is looking to capitalise on the strong Olympics 2021 campaign, 'Australian Beef. Feed Your Greatness', which featured Australian Olympic athletes and focused on the functional role the red meat plays in their diets.

“We need to keep building nutrition credentials and the role of beef in a healthy diet - that continues to be a focus going forward,” he says. “Beef is more a cornerstone product and at the heart of the [fresh meat] category, which means you have to be more all things to everyone. Lamb is more of a flanker brand, which has strong personality which go along with the sensorial attributes of the product. That gives you the license to play more.”

From a channel point of view, Low is also excited to see food service getting back up and running.

“They are going through big challenges at the moment, but I’m excited to see that get back to its best and we will do a lot of work in that channel,” he says. “That’s important because it’s the shop window for us – beef and lamb showcased at its best. We have a lot of partnerships and collaboration we’re looking at doing across the food services industry.”  

Yet Low is also quick to point out how consumers have diversified their meat consumption off the back of the pandemic, opening even more opportunities there too.

“For me, 2022 is about more of a balance – there is more diversity of what people cook at home, but there’s clearly still demand for restaurants. The back end of 2021 proved that,” he adds.  

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