Written by Steve Boehler with special guest Chip Schuman
The folks at Sargento Foods face tough challenges on a daily basis. They are a mid-sized food company going to market against some of the largest food companies on the planet. They are outspent in marketing and face off against larger R&D budgets and much larger headcounts.
Despite all of this, they are winning! Year to date Sargento dollar market share in a heavily fragmented category is 12.5 (+0.6 pts vs. year ago). During that same time period Kraft Brand (now owned by Lactalis) share was down -0.4 points to 8.6 vs. year ago.
In addition to their cheese category success, several Sargento innovations have been recognized with industry awards over the last few years:
- The Sargento marketing plan for Balanced Breaks Cheese and Crackers (partnership with Mondelez) was awarded the Bronze Reggie Award in Partnership Marketing in 2022
- Sargento Balanced Breaks won the Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation Award in 2017
- Sargento Balanced Breaks won the IRI Top 10 New Product Pacesetter Award in 2016
- Sargento Ultra Thin Slices won the 2014 Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation Award
What is the key to all that success? To learn a little more, we caught up with Sargento Senior Vice President Chip Schuman to find out what marketers everywhere could learn from Sargento’s success.
Chip, Sargento has flourished despite facing a myriad of national and regional competitors, including one of the largest food companies in the country. What magic has driven that success?
Chip: It boils down to three foundational factors:
- a talented team,
- a disciplined long-term view, and
- a passionate commitment to brand building and innovation
Our philosophy at Sargento is to hire good people and treat them like family. I think part of the “magic” of our success is a talented team of people who come to us with really great experiences from a variety of leading CPG brands. A great team combined with our strong culture has been a formula for success.
Second, we take a disciplined, long-term approach to the business. We follow a rigorous strategic planning process and are very clear on where we are headed and what the priorities are for the business. The disruption over the last couple of years due to Covid, supply chain challenges and inflation has forced us to be flexible and nimble. But throughout the twists and turns we never lost sight of the long-term vision and we made sure that our teams remained committed and focused against our long-term goals.
Finally, the biggest piece of “magic” is our passionate commitment to the Sargento brand and innovation. Our leadership team believes in the power of our brand and we are consistent and strong with our marketing investments. Innovation is in our DNA and we take a best practices approach to researching, developing and marketing new products which has been a key contributor to our strong performance in the marketplace.
What have you learned about being a modern marketer in an industry (CPG) with limited direct consumer relationships?
Chip: We see it as our responsibility to be deep subject matter experts on everything related to cheese consumers’ purchase behavior and their attitudes around meal preparation and snacking. We employ lots of innovative quantitative and qualitative tools to mine for insights including focus groups, ethnographies, shop-alongs, need states, market structures and even our own proprietary consumer panel.
We are also building our expertise in data and analytics. There are so many great sources of data in the digital world and we are really tapping into that data to learn more about consumers and to reach them with relevant and in some cases custom messages along their purchase journey.
Our understanding of the consumer and the category leads to revenue driving initiatives that bring value to our retail customers and drive category growth.
What watchouts can you share with other senior marketers?
Chip: The biggest watch out for senior marketers is to stay ahead of the curve. It’s so important to have a continuous learning mindset. Marketing is changing at a more rapid pace than ever with digital transformation empowering consumers and changing the role of marketing. The days of pushing out messages into the marketplace are behind us. Now with digital advancements, the rise in social media and other emerging technologies, consumers have greater access to information and they can make faster decisions. Consumers are truly now at the center.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is the senior marketer’s responsibility to educate the rest of the organization. With all the changes happening it’s important that we bring the rest of the organization along in our learning journey.
Most new products fail, yet Sargento has had phenomenal success with new products. What can other marketers learn from your experience?
Chip: It starts with a deep understanding of the consumer and the category. We really do our homework and make sure we stay on top of trends and understand what’s important to consumers. We do research to understand what challenges they face in meal preparation and snacking, digging to find their unmet needs. Then we have a pretty disciplined stage-gate process with lots of consumer checkpoints along the way.
I think another element that has contributed to our new product success is our philosophy to treat a launch as new for at least two years. New products need to be nurtured and I see a lot of launches fail because marketing support and focus shifts too quickly. You can never eliminate the risk (new products are risky) but you can reduce risk through some of these approaches.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Sargento company is the culture. What have you learned about how marketing can best partner with other key company functions to be on-culture yet still lead and be a proxy for the voice of the customer?
Chip: I think it’s marketing’s job to align company and brand values with consumer values. It’s important for a brand to stay true and be authentic. It’s easier than ever for consumers to see through brands that aren’t being authentic. Sargento is a third generation, family-owned company that cares about its people and our broader community. We have a passion for Real, Natural Cheese and the power that our products have to bring people together. Family values, caring for your community and the power of food to bring people together are core values that align well with today’s consumers.
Given what you’ve learned in Sargento’s ongoing transition as a modern marketer, what do agencies need to do to best partner with and support clients today? How can clients get the best work from their agencies?
Chip: For many brands, agency support models are getting more complex. At Sargento we have several agency partners plus we’ve been building out our own in-house capabilities so for us it’s all about integration. Making sure that all the teams are working together on big, clear 360 ideas that connect across all the touchpoints.
The best way that agency partners can support us is through great collaboration and teamwork. We view our agency partners as an extension of our team, part of our family. They play a critical role in developing our strategies and we include them as much as possible so they really understand our brand, our business and what makes us tick. We’ve found that to be an effective way to get everyone’s best work.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to 30-year old Chip?
Chip: The biggest piece of advice I’d give to my 30-year old self is to focus on building a network. I am active in a variety of marketing and business share groups where I’m collaborating with other marketing leaders on an almost weekly basis. I use my network to help break through challenges I’m facing, to get advice, to find inspiration and to share best practices. It’s amazing how many commonalities there are to the challenges facing marketers both within and outside of my industry. I wish I had known the power of networking earlier on in my career.
Chip Schuman is Senior Vice President of Consumer Products at Sargento Foods, Inc. Chip started his career at Sara Lee Baking Company and eventually moved to Sargento where he has spent the past 19 years leading important consumer marketing initiatives.
Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.