‘Innovation is the lifeblood of this company’: why Del Monte's CMO is heading up its R&D

The company launched an array of new products earlier this month

As food and CPG conglomerates scramble to maintain consumer relevance with acquisitions and agency model experiments, Del Monte Foods has implemented a simple yet radical solution: sit research and development with marketing, and hand the remits of both to one chief marketing officer.

Bibie Wu, a CPG veteran of 20 years, has taken on this dual role at the 133-year-old food brand. The marketer joined the company just over a year ago after its new chief executive, Greg Longstreet, sold her his “transformative” vision for the company.

“We are on a journey to reinvigorate the brand and to become even more relevant to today's families,” she told The Drum. “That’s really through two main strategies: transformational innovation and brand building.”

The latter’s groundwork was put in place last year under the ‘Growers of Good’ master brand campaign, which Wu insists is less of a tagline and more of a guiding mantra for the company, its staff and its partners. The second phase of the initiative will go live in the fall, with ad spend increases earmarked across social, influencer and digital, as well as broadcast and print.

‘Growers of Good’ was developed in partnership with Doner LA, the agency rostered with Del Monte at the time of significant leadership upheaval. Longstreet was handed the top job in 2017, the same year as Gary Thomas joined as chief supply chain officer. Wu was brought on board in February 2018.

The chief marketing officer describes her team and Doner as “catalysts in this journey together” with a partnership that is “integrated” and characterized by “pretty seamless communication.” It is a relationship that Wu has taken time to deepen, particularly to serve Del Monte’s transformational innovation strategy when it comes to consumer relevance.

In her capacity as leader of the R&D team, as well as marketing, the chief marketing officer is now making sure Doner has a seat at the table when it comes to innovation, too.

“We’re doing more sharing than ever before on our innovation ideas, not just [making them wait] for us to say, ‘Hey, we have this fully formed product, now help us launch it by putting together a campaign,’” she explained. “We want to get them in more at the ground level, so they can add their value with creativity and insights, as well.

“This push on innovation and how important innovation is going to be ... it will be the lifeblood of this company. I don't even think that if you rolled the clock back a year and a half ago there was really even the opportunity for an agency and a marketing team to work together this closely on innovation because it just frankly wasn't as big of a priority as it is now.”

Doner will, at the very least, act as an extra innovation resource without an extra cost to Wu, who has been handed an exciting but somewhat unenviable remit.

She has to work through the usual modern pressures heaped on chief marketers on top of making sure product and packaging innovations are being pulled through across multiple brands, too. She is also part of the team leading Del Monte’s ambitions in e-commerce, a channel that the company is experimenting with at a rapid pace. (Wu notes that, so far, Del Monte is “fully tracking if not over-delivering against our expectations” in the space, with growth recorded as “well into the tens of double digits.)

How is she managing it all?

“Honestly it's like one of the most exciting things that I've ever had the chance to do in my career,” she said. “For 20 years I've worked connected at the hip with R&D ... so I definitely feel like I've come in speaking the language.

“But what I would say is I have an amazing R&D team and vice-president of R&D [Loren Druz] who reports directly into me. I'm probably not going to be able to out-R&D him, and that's not my role. My role is to make sure that everyone's aligned on what the business vision and business strategies are, and that we approach opportunities with an enterprise mindset.”

Structurally, Wu has helped in Longstreet’s relatively quick breakdown of silos between marketing and innovation. Since this dismantlement happened roughly 16 months ago, when she first arrived at the company’s San Francisco office, the work has been coming out thick and fast: the master brand unveil was followed this month by the reveal of seven new products, which aim to reposition the company outside of “the center aisle” in consumers’ minds.

Additionally, the company aims to expand outside of the grocery store and into convenience stores and warehouse clubs, as well as e-commerce.

This process of “breaking out of the can,” to use Wu’s words, sounds ambitious, not to mention expensive. But it may also be necessary when assessing the wider market.

Kraft Heinz, in comparison, has regularly been accused of underinvesting in its brands and innovation departments and this, alongside its preference for zero-based budgeting, has led a number of analysts to pin its flailing financial results on its marketing department.

Longstreet, a former marketer himself, has no plans for the same accusations to be leveled at Wu and her two-pronged team.

“I think in the past there was a lot of focus [at Del Monte] on perhaps investing in trade and promotion more, and while that still has a role within the overall marketing mix, we all acknowledged that the long-term solution is to get consumers more engaged in our brand and our products,” Wu said. “That means evolving our product portfolio and our offerings.”

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