September 28, 2021

The new wave of consumer sector leadership

Simon Walton, Head of the Consumer Practice and leadership specialist at Berwick Partners, explains how FMCG companies should adapt to the sugar tax and changing consumer behaviour.

Simon Walton (Photo Credit: Edward Moss)

The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector is experiencing unprecedented disruption from new health regulations, changing consumer behaviour and the rush of challenger brands. As a result, the pressure is on organisations, even the blue-chip giants, to improve their agility and boost their competitiveness.

Coca-Cola got ahead of the game early in response to the sugar tax. Seeing the new legislation as an opportunity to turbo-charge its R&D and marketing, its team launched new Diet Coke flavours via the ‘Early Adopter’ campaign. This was not only legally compliant, but captured consumers’ attention with bold marketing, driving huge commercial results – Diet Coke sales ended up surpassing classic Coke for the first time ever.

From the big heavyweights to fast-growing SMEs, the term ‘adapt or die’ has never been more appropriate. Remaining successful in FMCG is far beyond product, and more about people, than ever before.

Leadership opportunities

In such a dynamic market, it’s no surprise that some FMCG leadership positions are gaining more traction than others.

Today’s consumer is extremely digitally savvy, less loyal and more socially and health conscious. This, alongside a continually evolving legal landscape, means the marketing function has to work much harder than ever before. Complacency is no longer acceptable. Brands that previously relied on a product-driven mass communication sales approach, now need modern marketing leaders with the ability to create and foster personal connections between their brand and their end-users.

Either through developing or hiring talent, organisations must place a focus on ensuring they have agile marketing leaders capable of communicating in proactive, innovative and diverse ways with consumers. A prime example is Kellogg’s new Sales Director Chris Silcock. Having led the successful launch of low sugar initiatives at Coca Cola, he is now on a mission to boost health-conscious sales at the cereal brand.

Beyond marketing, we’re seeing the proliferation of M&A and investment activity in FMCG. For big corporates, it offers a chance to snap up the competition from challenger brands or enter growth in a new market. For the SMEs and entrepreneurs, investment can be a launch pad for further growth with access to experienced teams and working capital for R&D.

With this in mind, organisations aim to secure and invest in leadership with a track record of successful M&A. Whether it’s a sharp-minded private equity professional with specialisms in recognising fast growing FMCG SMEs, or an individual with a background in leading smooth mergers between two clearly defined brands, FMCG organisations of all sizes may benefit from having this talent on board as the buoyant M&A market is expected to continue.

Changing recruitment requisites  

As the mould of new wave FMCG leadership continues to evolve, so too should the approach to recruitment.

With that being said, the sector is well known for its risk adverse nature. Often, brands favour ‘safe’ candidates with backgrounds in FMCG, or from obvious transferrable markets such as packaged goods or retail. This is in the belief that these individuals possess the most appropriate skills for the job. Yet, the best talent may not be the obvious choice, nor even in the same country.

This is because many of the challenges presented by digital and changing consumer behaviour have also shaped other industries. Just look to the likes of transport and logistics, where the speed and quality of services have radically changed in response to digitally savvy and demanding consumers.

Another great example of leadership from unlikely places is Halo Top, which has taken the world by storm with its high-protein, low calorie ice cream. The $2bn business, which outsold Ben & Jerry’s in 2017, was set up by former lawyer Justin Woolverton, despite having no industry background whatsoever. Talent from a broader range of sectors and backgrounds may offer welcome thought, ideas and experience when leading successful initiatives fit to tackle the future of FMCG.

Even location is no longer relevant. Technology has enabled any talented leader to be successful from almost every corner of the world, so brands must think outside their own geography when on the hunt for talent. Finlay Beverage Group Commercial Director Andrew Beasley delivers significant value for the London-headquartered beverages brand from his home location in the Netherlands.

In such a complex, dynamic and fast-paced environment, FMCG brands need to adapt or die. This means acting boldly in the pursuit of talent, recognising that following conventional routes and hiring the norm is fruitless. The consumer sector is changing, and its leaders must change with it.