CMO profile: How Gerard Smith is building bridges to fuel growth

Noumi chief marketing officer talk about the reset the Australian FMCG has gone through and how it plans to propel growth locally and globally

Marketers are the ultimate bridge builders, strategically placed to drive collaboration and cohesion across their organisations, experienced marketer and FMCG business leader, Gerard Smith, believes.

“We [marketing] are the function that often becomes the go-between lots of other functions. And you have to get them excited,” Noumi’s chief marketing officer tells CMO. “Those other teams also have to trust marketers. That means building bridges – being friends with sales, operations, the finance teams. You are going to rely on them, particularly when things go into execution mode. Because getting the organisation to invest capital into a business case where you think there might be opportunities is a pretty big leap of faith.”

This connective tissue is also vital given marketing is the function most consistently dealing with ambiguity, Smith continues. “You are having to make quite big decisions with imperfect information,” he says.

“You have to take the best understanding and assumptions and make quite big calls. You therefore need to be curious, constantly thinking about how you do things, keep checking them and secure the help of lots of other people.”

This fusion of collaboration and curiosity, coupled with strong strategy and structure that defines the playing field but allows adaptive play, is the philosophy Smith has brought to the Noumi business.

Smith joined the ASX-listed FMCG just shy of a year ago as part of a new-look executive team tasked with resetting, transforming and growing the organisation. The former Freedom Foods has undergone substantial change over the past three years, triggered by rapid but ultimately unprofitable growth and stalled third-party investment plans. A turnaround program culminated in selling the Freedom Foods cereals and snacks business to The Arnott’s Group for $20 million in December 2020, followed by a recapitalisation program in May last year.

Smith came armed with a wealth of FMCG marketing experience, including two-and-half years at Lion Beer as marketing director and 11 years at PepsiCo including five years as Australian CMO and VP and head of global snacks brands based in New York. His resume also includes brand and marketing roles with Nestle and Primo Foods. Prior to Noumi, Smith spent 18 months with TAFE NSW as general manager of marketing.

“I’ve had an amazing career so far, which certainly exceeded my expectations as a boy growing up in the country,” Smith comments. While it’s primarily been marketing roles, he cites the opportunity to turnaround a PepsiCo business in New Zealand as GM as a particularly formative one.

From there, Smith was asked to go to New York to help PepsiCo better globalise its snacks business. Describing it as a “humble leadership role”, Smith says he focused on getting “a collection of fierce, independent markets across the world to constructively work together”.

Credit: Gerard Smith

“It was about creating greater synergies of scale, rather than be the centre telling markets what to do,” he says. “We set up a collective to figure out how we work together and sequence things at the same time, so all marketers were aware of what we were working on and dividing up work from the agenda items across this group. We divided up work among different key markets. And we would share as we went through – people would pick up programs as we went along. That was fantastic.”

These local and international experiences gave Smith two important insights. The first is a sense of marketing and where it sits in the overall organisational picture. The second is the importance of collaboration and diversity.

“I was able to travel and get cultural appreciation for many countries, different types of consumers and employees who came from different backgrounds. That’s something you remember – there are a lot of things that make people different, but also a lot of things that make us human beings across the world,” he says.  

Resetting the Freedom Foods / Noumi business

These experiences give Smith unique ability to tackle Noumi’s revised growth trajectory locally and internationally. Today, the company operates in four key categories: Dairy, with a focus on added-value dairy; plant-based milks, divided into out-of-home and retail; consumer nutritionals, such as sports protein powder; and B2B, incorporating specialised, nutritional ingredients such as lactoferrin, a high-functioning protein.

“It was an exciting, challenging remit,” Smith says of the opportunity to become Noumi’s CMO. “The old Freedom group had gone through some challenges, then the Freedom part was sold to Arnott’s. Effectively, we needed to reset the company. A new board came in, then a whole new leadership team.

“Then came the plan to say how we reset the business and set ourselves up for transforming and growing. This was a super exciting challenge. We are an Australian-listed business, with our heart and soul in Australia, but we’re operating in great growth categories and several other markets around the world. It was inspiring to feel you can really make a difference.”

One of Smith’s first tasks was orchestrating and communicating the new company name and vision. Work had commenced but no name had been finalised when he joined. Yet the entire organisation’s commitment to reset to transform then grow was clear.

The made-up name ‘Noumi’ came out of the vision, to imagine a healthier tomorrow, reflecting a combination of ‘nourish me’ and the notions of healthier individuals as well as planet.  

“There was a leadership-level rolling out of this, which was important internally,” Smith says. “Having to do this as an internal and external company name is as much about engagement, internal comms and PR as it is about being the face of the company. There was a huge amount of stakeholder work, going out to constituents, explaining to them who we are, what’s different, what it means and what to expect. It was as much setting expectations of who we are as a business and how we’re going to partner going forward.  

“But there’s nothing like a new name and visual identity to help set and clearly define the future. It’s like a visual and material change to say this is the new company.”  

Alongside a fresh set of values was Noumi’s new sustainability plan, which Smith’s team architected. This focuses on the ‘healthier tomorrow’ commitments towards a healthy planet, business and lifestyle.

“Because marketing is generally a function spending its life collaborating and building bridges with other functions, taking on sustainability was quite a good, natural fit for marketing. We can help to see the overall picture then get key different disciplines to come in,” Smith remarks. “A lot of sustainability levers sit with operations part of the business, thinking about the farmer through to production, processing and supply chain. But marketing is a good place to put the framework together and enables it all to come together. It’s marketing role to collect all the pieces together, in a cohesive way, that we can communicate internally and to key stakeholders.”

With Noumi’s defined business objectives came the ability to sequence growth plans, go deeper, and pick the right battles, categories, markets and brands to push forward with, Smith says.

In Noumi’s case, the strategy includes operating in growing categories such as plant-based proteins, as well as taking dairy products further into international markets and more occasions. For example, the company is one of Australia’s big exporters of liquid milk into Asia and China. The Milklab brand, meanwhile, is a leading brand in the café segment and is being expanded into key markets across Asia. Noumi also owns the Australia’s Own brand, again representing both dairy and plant-based milk products.

“We have also just embarked on quite sophisticated nutritional protein. So we have the bones of a good business,” Smith says. “It was my job to clearly define what are the growth areas and get to the right projects that will unlock growth in key markets and categories.

“We operate both in dairy and plant on the beverage side, and there are growth trajectories on both sides. There is still a lot of consumption in developing markets for dairy, which is an attractive space and we’re looking at how to innovate there.

“You see highly developed markets like Australia and the UK, where we are big dairy consumers and we’re adding more plant-based products. We see these are increasingly interchangeable. You watch the behaviour and consumption of people in their 20s – they’re not all anti-dairy or pro-plant. They might have dairy on their cereal but put oat or almond milk in their coffee or have a coffee with dairy milk. It’s this fluidity and flexitarian space where things I think will evolve.

“But Asian markets are traditional soy markets and only over the last two generations have got into dairy milk, making dairy still quite aspirational and premium.”

Helping finetune growth plans are increasingly coordinated Australian-based, China and southeast Asian marketing teams. Previously, international business units had marketing teams reporting into the GM in those markets. To ensure the best mix of local and global thinking, Smith has established all marketing under one global team. This ensures the marketing manager on Milklab, for instance, oversees Australia while supporting other markets Noumi enters into.

“Structurally, that was the biggest change. But as structure follows strategy, the first thing was clearly defining clear categories, brands and markets, and what is the Rubik’s Cube of the four big categories and key markets,” he explains. “It was then about the right brands.”  

For Smith, it’s vital CMOs clearly define the structure and big platforms that are going to drive growth, while being prepared that many initiatives underneath will change as they gain more market knowledge and insight.

“If you can keep hold of a framework, then the team doesn’t suffer from as much anxiety because they know the overall roadmap,” he says. “You do have to give your team that sense of safety and ability to try things that may not work, while challenging how to do things and how to make it great.”

“We now have one overarching growth plan everyone works on, then people have different roles within it.”

Changing tastes

Off the back of this, Smith hints at several new launches in the dairy and plant categories coming shortly. Already, the team has reframed the Australia’s Own brand as its lead brand for retail and across both dairy in order to give it “new life and energy”.

“Under that brand, we will have a dairy pillar about added-value dairy products… so what nutritional ingredients and other things can we add to make that more suitable for consumers and occasions,” he says. “I also want to see how far Milklab can go. We are opening up new markets and in overseas markets already, but it has more stretch both locally and internationally.”

To support these approaches, Noumi has worked with two key partners to build its data and insights muscle. One of these is Tetrapak, which Smith says has a wealth of market and consumer data.

“This allowed us to unpack category consumptions and key drivers plus different occasions for each key market,” he says. “This informed a very good market map and model from a consumer market basis to identify where to play, then start to figure out how to.”

Noumi also leverages media agency, UM, and its regional footprint to understand market nuances and category behaviours across advertising, spending and more.

“Knowing we’re a brand from Australia, it’s also about what would be a good angle against some of the brands there,” Smith adds.  

Under its sports supplement brands, Noumi has also built a fledgling ecommerce presence, which Smith is keen to extend to unlock another source of growth. But the opportunity he’s arguably most excited about is Noumi’s B2B business.

“We sell some fantastic ingredients to lots of companies. We haven’t really ‘marketed’ B2B in a great way or thought about ourselves as a B2B business. I’d love to get our profile of some of these nutritional ingredients to great food and beverage businesses around the world,” Smith says.  

“The ingredients are known scientifically, but R&D directors may not know some of the use applications of these ingredients. What if I have a beverage and can add this in and take my energy drink to the next level, for example?

“It’s about promoting our name and capability, so we have a bigger market for some of the ingredients. Then it’s about how to be a good B2B marketer. It’s a big untapped opportunity for us.”

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