20 Years and Lessons From Pasta Salad

How on earth did this happen?! It really doesn't feel like that long ago that I was starting out and trying to make waves in the marketing industry. But at the end of 2015, I turned 40 and ticked over 20 years as a marketing professional. So I figure that now means I am the grey haired (ish) and wise (ish) veteran.

Well a lot has changed! When I started out the fax, memos and pigeon holes were big and email was an emerging novelty. Then to build brands and grow businesses, mass marketing through mass media ruled. Digital was used to describe computers, electronics, etc but not yet as an adjective for marketing, media or business.

But a lot has not changed! The relentless focus on the customer and uncovering and nailing epic solutions for unarticulated needs … With a purpose driven brand … A brand that is unique and relevant … A brand that builds an emotional connection and differentiates based on the experience. This all remains pretty much the same!

From student academia to the salad bar

That adage that about networking also holds true. Thanks to Su Mon Wong, my Strategic Marketing lecturer at QUT Business School, I jagged a summer Marketing Coordinator job at Mrs Crockets. With a dream (… at that stage) to be the Global Brand Manager for an FMCG like Mars, I had landed in the right place.

Whilst Mrs Crockets literally ‘owned’ the salad bar in major supermarkets, this part of the sharing economy was no longer seen as desirable, particularly after a bout of negative publicity (amongst other things). One easy option would have been to push on doggedly with business as usual despite the growing reams of disconfirming data.

But inspired by European and North American market trends, the way forward was proactive obsolescence. By working with the major supermarkets, salad bars were removed and a new ‘fast fresh food’ aisle was created. This housed pre packed and ready to eat salads which was the experience that consumers craved (and this is still the case!)

Lesson #1 from 1996 : experience is everything ... still is!

From the salad bar to creamy pasta salad

Back in 1996, the classics of coleslaw and pasta salad made up the lion share of salad sales. But despite the huge growth in the ‘fast fresh food’ category, Mrs Crockets pasta salad sales were flat at best. A lot of time and energy was invested in tinkering with the core product … but this incremental approach fell short.

So marketing worked with technology to design a new product that was inspired by consumer needs. In this case, it was a food technologist rather than a digital technologist. And using popular modern language, this product design and testing process would have been defined as iterative, agile and collaborative!

pasta salad

pasta salad

‘Creamy Pasta Salad’ was launched with absolute attention to all elements of the experience … the shelving, the packaging, the labeling, the appearance and ultimately the taste. Sales surged and the original product was ‘discontinued’. And 20 years later, it's still a big seller (... albeit under 'home' brands which is another story) and my kids love it!

Lesson #2 from 1996: design must be amazing … still must!  

If customer-centricity was easy, everyone would do it

Almost every company ‘claims’ to be 100% focused on their customers. Just read any website, proposal, brochure, annual report, etc and you could literally cut and paste the lingo. But actions speak louder than words, hence why consumers place more trust in user generated content than crafted brand communications.

There’s never been a more exciting time to race at the intersection of creativity, psychology and technology. And the marketing function is well positioned to take a leading role. But the profession must evolve and embrace the the shifts in consumer expectations and behaviours. We need to rise to the challenge!

I knew at the age of 15 that I wanted to work in marketing. And the great news is that I still do. My historical reflection on pasta salad shows that change presents big opportunities so long as the focus is on anticipating customer needs. Now with my own venture, tackling strategic marketing and design thinking challenges across different industries makes it all the more interesting!