All the right moves

Maple Leaf Foods worked hard to rebuild consumer confidence and its brand with an increased focus on product innovation and marketing It’s nearing the end of a photo shoot on a cold Thursday evening in December but Stephen Graham, chief marketing officer at Maple Leaf Foods, has as much energy now as he did at […]

Kristin Laird January 10, 2012

Maple Leaf Foods worked hard to rebuild consumer confidence and its brand with an increased focus on product innovation and marketing

It’s nearing the end of a photo shoot on a cold Thursday evening in December but Stephen Graham, chief marketing officer at Maple Leaf Foods, has as much energy now as he did at the start of the shoot two and a half hours ago. His upbeat disposition is enough to counter the grey, windy day outside.

He’s sitting in the lobby of the company’s ThinkFood Centre, a state-of-the-art product development and testing facility in Mississauga, Ont. Between frames, Graham gives a friendly nod and a hello to employees as they pass, addressing most of them by name.

“It’s for the cover of Pork Chop Annual,” he says with a laugh, gesturing towards the photo equipment. Some of the staffers share in a laugh, while others stand back and observe. It appears that Graham has a following.

“Stephen was the biggest reason I decided to leave the tech industry and come to Maple Leaf Foods,” says Brendan Kenalty, the company’s director of digital and social marketing, who joined the company from Research in Motion. Kenalty credits Graham for not only changing the way Maple Leaf Foods markets its products, but also the way the marketing teams communicate internally. Graham put in place regular company meetings to allow the entire organization to “bond” and maintain a “shared vision,” says Kenalty.

Over the years, Maple Leaf Foods acquired dozens of smaller companies and rolled them into five business units: Canada Bread Company, Maple Leaf Consumer Foods, Tenderflake, Olivieri and New York Bakery Company. Prior to Graham joining full-time in 2010, each of these units operated independently with separate sales and marketing teams. There was little to no communication or collaboration on the marketing side, says Kenalty. “One of the first things Stephen Graham did was pull all marketing together for a couple of days to get to know one another,” he says.

“At our first offsite meeting in the summer of 2010, we all discovered that not only did no one know each other, it was the first time many of us had even been in the same room together.” Graham has “brought a vision of what a consumer insight-driven marketing organization can be,” says Kenalty.

Graham, formerly CMO at Rogers Communications, started working with Maple Leaf Foods as a consultant following a listeria outbreak in 2008 that killed 22 people and prompted massive product recalls. That same year, the company posted a third-quarter loss of $12.9 million. In the fourth quarter, Maple Leaf said the recall cost the company an estimated $59 million to $69 million before taxes and profits were down 40%. The company also had a dramatic fall in the Marketing/Leger Corporate Reputations ranking—which asks consumers if they have a good or bad opinion of the company—dropping from 21 to 76 in 2009 and a further 10 spots in 2010.

With its reputation in tatters, the company set to work on rebuilding consumer confidence. In May 2010, Graham, who became CMO earlier that year, told Marketing, “I think you’ll see it come back, if we do it well. Confidence is not something that’s bought. It’s earned.”

It’s safe to say Maple Leaf Foods has earned it back. Over the past 18 months, the company has refocused and revitalized its efforts around consumer-focused product innovation. It introduced healthier and more convenient products across many of its brands including Schneiders, Dempster’s and Prime. And it made great strides with its aggressive marketing plan, as multiple brands can now be seen and heard across a variety of platforms—from traditional TV spots to online communities.

Maple Leaf’s strategy is paying off. Third-quarter results released in October 2011 showed overall profitability of $43 million compared to a $19.9 million loss for the same period last year. And in the 2011 Marketing/Leger Corporate Reputation survey, Maple Leaf Foods climbed 30 spots to 56th place on the top 100 list.

Graham’s presence at Maple Leaf Foods has “made a significant difference” in its approach to marketing, says Ken Wong, associate professor of business and marketing strategy at Queen’s University. “Product innovation clearly is what gave Steve the material he needed to build some brand reputation,” says Wong. “He’s been given great stuff to work with and done great stuff with it.”

He adds that Graham has “enormous experience in the management of brands and the translation of those brands into advertising and promotional activity.” Since beginning his career at Procter & Gamble in 1979, Graham has carved an extensive executive resume that includes stints as worldwide vice-president of marketing at AT&T and group marketing manager at Coca-Cola.

In 1999, during his time at AT&T, Graham was ranked No. 1 on Advertising Age’s list of “The 50 Most Powerful People in Marketing.” “Graham, 43, struck gold last year with the introduction of the wireless Digital One Rate. The flat-rate plan changed the way wireless service is marketed, shifting the balance of power from the manufacturers to the providers,” said Ad Age.

Yet even today, Graham doesn’t try to sell himself, or his long list of accomplishments. When it comes to Maple Leaf’s progress, for example, Graham says, “it’s the hard work of a lot of people across the marketing teams, but more importantly it’s the hard work of all the people across the company.” From sales staff to food-safety inspectors, Graham recognizes the importance of each department, and every employee. That’s always been his style.

David Martin, who worked with Graham at Toronto advertising agency Scali McCabe Sloves in the early ’90s, uses a hockey analogy to describe Graham’s work ethic: “He was very much not the guy who needed to wear the ‘C’ letter on his uniform,” says Martin, an associate creative director at the time. “He always wanted to pass the puck and share the credit. It didn’t matter to him to get the glory or get the attention—he was building something that was bigger than himself. He was very gracious and very unselfish in that respect.”

Graham was president of Scali when it was named Marketing’s Agency of the Year in 1993.“He’s a very positive thinker,” says Martin, who is now president of Vancouver-based Hyphen Communications. “He’s always going to take the high road on something, whether it’s crisis management or if it’s working through a tough business problem. He’s always going to see the glass half full.”

And business problems don’t get any tougher than one of the worst food-borne disease outbreaks in Canadian corporate history. While some may have found the task too daunting, joining the company as CMO gave Graham the opportunity to work his marketing magic. With Maple Leaf Foods, he saw the opportunity to help rebuild “what is already a great Canadian company,” he said in a 2010 interview with Marketing. “I enjoy making a change. I enjoy helping to transform companies.”

Following the outbreak, the company put a crisis communication strategy in place including a TV campaign featuring the company’s CEO Michael McCain issuing a candid apology and touting his company’s commitment to food safety. At the time, Maple Leaf Foods was praised for its openness and quick response. The food company set the gold standard for crisis leadership and reputation management, says Terry Flynn, assistant professor of communications at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

When dealing with the crisis, Maple Leaf Foods didn’t hide. The company was communicative, transparent and demonstrated good leadership, says Flynn, who uses Maple Leaf’s response as a case study in his crisis communication courses. Flynn also praises the company for maintaining its open relationship with consumers, post-crisis. “Maple Leaf Foods really turned this crisis into an opportunity to refocus the initiative of the organization to things that matter to the customer,” says Flynn.

One way Maple Leaf Foods worked to regain consumer confidence was by marketing their products as making lives better or easier. In response to Canadians’ desire for healthier, more natural food, the company introduced Schneiders Country Naturals line in 2011 made only with recognizable ingredients like lemon juice, sea salt, celery extract and vinegar—all of which are clearly labelled on the front of each package instead of on the back, as is custom. The launch was a follow-up to its Maple Leaf Natural Selections deli meats that are also filler- and preservative-free. In March 2011, the Natural Selections line was awarded Product of the Year, a Canadian consumer-voted program, in the “Fresh Deli” category.

Maple Leaf Foods supported Schneiders Country Naturals with a 30-second television commercial from John St. that focused on the wholesome ingredients that go into making each product, while Buffalo Springfield’s “What It’s Worth” (performed by Canadian musicians) played in the background. When it came time to pick a song for the commercial, Graham says there were several options, but the line “there’s something happening here” helped “signal we’re moving [forward].”

“When you hear the chime of the guitar… it’s true to the brand,” adds D’Arcy Finley, senior director, marketing strategy and corporate branding, Maple Leaf Foods. “It’s rooted in tradition, but it’s also optimistic and forward-looking.”

The launch also included a sampling program and the “Picnic Anywhere” Facebook promotion that awarded a Canadian community $100,000 to transform a public space into the “ultimate picnicking destination.”

Alan Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto applauds the advertising efforts around the company’s Naturals line, saying it’s exactly right for the brand positioning. “The whole point about the style is its straightforward simplicity because that’s the right brand personality for something that doesn’t add ingredients or chemicals [in the processing]… The style matches the product proposition,” he says.

Maple Leaf Foods continued to play up its wholesome image across its grain business with a package redesign and support campaign for its Dempster’s brand, which is operated under the Canada Bread Company banner. The list of ingredients is now on the end of the package (rather than the back panel), and the bag tie is in the shape of a wheat sheaf. The new look, which includes the positioning “Canada’s Bakery,” is a “celebration of the ingredients,” and, thanks to a cleaner design, helps showcase the freshness of the bread, which can be helpful in the cluttered category, says Ashley Bast, senior marketing director, pantry and customer brands for Canada Bread Company.

People often lump Dempster’s in with heavily processed foods found in the middle aisles of grocery stores, he says. “Little do they know we bake it fresh every day and deliver it fresh every day.” The effort was supported by a TV and print campaign from JWT, in addition to a new consumer website and social media efforts including Facebook and blogger relations.

In October, Dempster’s teamed up with Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby for year two of a promotion that included point-of-sale displays in more than 3,500 grocery stores across the country, a contest and an online game housed within the brand’s Facebook page. “Our first promotion was extremely successful in the marketplace… We received strong feedback from our consumers and our franchisee partners,” says Bryan McCourt, marketing director at Canada Bread Company. The effort was followed up weeks later with a one-minute television commercial that compares Crosby’s game-day preparation with the work of Canadian farmers growing wheat and grains used in Dempster’s breads.

In June, the company launched a 30-second TV spot for its Prime chicken label to show how great food can bring families together to create lasting memories. The ad is made up of vignettes featuring different kinds of families—a mother and daughter, a boyfriend and girlfriend, a family of four—of varying ethnicities. All are seen bonding at mealtime.

“We’re all living very hectic lives, but dinner for a lot of people is still sacred,” says Andrew Pollock, senior vice-president marketing and innovation, consumer foods at Maple Leaf Foods. “It’s the time of day when you have a pause and can connect with the people in your family… And that’s absolutely the mood we tried to convey.”

Past executions focused more on brand attributes like the fact that Prime is produced from 100% all-vegetable grain-fed poultry. The new commercial shows how the line has evolved beyond chicken breast to include frozen meals as well, adds Pollock.

Over the past year, Maple Leaf has ramped up its online presence for all of its flagship brands, led internally by a team of five (including Kenalty). The company has participated in Twitter parties for its Dempster’s line of breads. It also has category-specific blogger outreach programs to help generate recipe and product ideas. One program, to drive trial of Olivieri, offered coupons on Facebook. Within 24 hours, 10,000 coupons had been downloaded by fans. This year the company launched eight new consumer-facing websites and increased the number of Facebook fans across its various branded pages by more than 400%.

By all accounts, consumers are responding to the company’s increased focus on product innovation and marketing. “All of the key attribute ratings around trust and taste and a good brand, all of those numbers have gone up dramatically,” says Arthur Fleischmann, president of Toronto ad agency John St., which works on all of Maple Leaf’s meat business. “And I think it’s because Maple Leaf Foods has a much more cohesive approach to communication.”

With this year’s accomplishments in mind, Graham is still reluctant to bask in the glory of the company’s recent successes. “What you see today is the product of the work of a lot of people,” he says. “It’s the reflection of the work that 20,000-plus people do, it’s not a reflection of what a few people do.”

How do you think Maple Leaf handled its crisis? Has it totally moved past its PR woes? Post your thoughts in our comment section.

The story appears in the Jan. 16 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today.

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