To survive, big brands should find their startup dreams

Leonid Sudakov, was formerly the CMO at Mars Petcare, but is now in charge of driving innovation at the division / Mars Petcare

Ahead of the 2018 IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, Leonid Sudakov, president of connected solutions of Mars Petcare's data and analytics division, discusses how with the right attitude and infrastructure to nurture innovation, even billion-dollar brands can disrupt the status quo.

No one has the monopoly on the dream. A talented graduate joining a hundred-year-old company has the power to make this world a better place, as does their friend in a tech startup. The best startups are powered by their founders’ dream to disrupt the status quo and to improve our lives in one way or another. Big brands can dream the same dream — and, most importantly, they can make it real.

The extraordinary opportunities of today’s connected technology and data are open to all. Match them with the expansive reach, considerable resources, and core capabilities of the billion-dollar brands, and together, you create a powerful force for change.

This is what I’m working on at Mars Petcare. Our purpose is to create 'A Better World for Pets', and we’re doing so by bringing the startup dreams into our core. A grocery pet food company just a decade ago, we are building a connected network of products and services to make pets and pet owners’ lives better. Today’s consumers have real expectations of the way their choices can and should work to improve their lives, and at Mars Petcare, it’s at the heart of what we do. This is why I decided to leave my job as a global chief marketing officer to run our newest business dedicated to using data, genetic science, and pet-centric technology to find, address, and resolve consumer pain points.

One example of the way we’re bringing together the startup mentality with our big-brand advantages is happening in Russia. This is a developing market for services where it’s still difficult to find a reputable vet. To help pet owners overcome this challenge, we developed from scratch a digital platform connecting pet owners with veterinarians. It provides unique transparency to consumers about vet practices and offers a new way for the vets to grow their businesses. Incubating this startup unit in Mars Russia allowed us to leverage the scale of the existing business, but use the unique incentives of a stand-alone disruptor. We see ourselves pioneering in the use of science and technology to bring positive change to our consumers’ lives. Real examples include Whistle, our connected collar business, and Wisdom Health, bringing genetic science to improve pet health.

So how do you use startup thinking to future-proof big brands? First, startups are built on the foundations of limited capital, few people, and little-to-no brand recognition. Large businesses tend to underestimate and under-utilize their existing resources, including the advantages of scale, finances, and influence.

Second, startup culture is built on 'failing up'. The traditional large corporate culture of self-preservation is a death warrant for innovation in all levels of business. It takes a lot of risk-taking to create life-changing experiences. Shifting the culture in this way requires managerial courage, resilience, and organizational savvy.

Lastly, customer obsession and agility are at the heart of startup operation; it’s only a few people between an idea and a decision to act on it. At older, bigger companies, bureaucracy and inertia are major barriers to reinvention, which make even the greatest champions of change give up.

Applying all these aspects of startup life to multinational corporations isn’t easy. While the end result is a deeper relationship with consumers — and I’ll be on stage at the IAB's Annual Leadership Meeting discussing this very need — it’s more than a marketing or advertising conversation. The whole enterprise must make a holistic shift of focus to finding solutions for customers’ pain points. As leaders we need to both set forth the strategic direction and ignite a real evolution of the company culture. Customers rightly expect brands to be fully dedicated to their needs. Today’s billion-dollar global businesses need to rebuild the customer obsession that unicorns have developed in their efforts to displace them.

Sudakov is scheduled to make a presentation at the 2018 Annual Leadership Meeting on February 12. He tweets from the account @LSudakov, and can you can follow him on LinkedIn here.

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