As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Craig Neely.
Craig Neely is the vice president of marketing for Mars Petcare North America, headquartered in Franklin, Tennessee. In this role, Craig leads marketing and innovation, and provides strategic leadership for the full portfolio of brands in North America, including PEDIGREE®, IAMS™, SHEBA®, CESAR®, NUTRO™, and GREENIES™. He also serves on the Pedigree Foundation board of directors, working to drive our ambition of ending pet homelessness.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have been with Mars Petcare for seven years and lead the North American marketing team responsible for our brands like PEDIGREE®, IAMS™ and SHEBA®, among others. Prior to my time at Mars, I led marketing for Corona and Corona Light brands at Crown Imports, LLC. In this role, I led all marketing and advertising initiatives, including the development and execution of Corona’s successful ‘Find Your Beach’ campaign. Prior to joining Crown Imports, I was the marketing director for Velveeta and Parmesan Cheese at Kraft Foods where I led marketing, consumer insights and new product development for the business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was the Brand Manager of Kraft Natural Cheese, we developed an innovative product that blended multiple natural cheeses, like Cheddar and Colby Jack, into one cheese block. It tasted delicious, but it slowed the manufacturing line to just about half-speed. The line manager at the plant threatened to never run it again after the first production. I learned a critical, early lesson in the importance of listening to cross-functional experts and completing a disciplined assessment of manufacturing feasibility. While the new product line was ultimately discontinued, the story has a happy ending — the very same line manager who threatened to stop production became one of my mentees, transitioned into the Kraft marketing team and, years later, is now a successful member of my marketing leadership team responsible for our Dog & Cat Treats brands at Mars Petcare.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Byron Sharp’s book, “How Brands Grow” accelerated my development as a marketer. Its unyielding focus on penetration as the key driver of sustainable growth and its emphasis on evidence-based marketing radically changed my approach to marketing. From dialing up the way we presented Corona’s iconic bottle and distinctive lime wedge a decade ago to my team’s current success creating ad campaigns featuring universal stories, like PEDIGREE®’s ‘Feed the Good’ campaign, Byron Sharp’s challenge to unsubstantiated marketing strategies helped inspire many breakthroughs and highly effective marketing plans across my brand portfolios.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As a marketer, I know data is our lifeline, and understanding what consumers want is the only way to succeed. What the data has shown in the last several years is that consumers care about purpose. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed the shift across CPG businesses, making purpose central to our work.
At Mars Petcare, our purpose — A BETTER WORLD FOR PETS™ — is at the center of everything we do. As an organization, this focus has had a transformative impact on our internal culture, as well as how we work with customers, partners, suppliers and consumers.
Most recently, we have leaned into our purpose to help navigate the uncertainties of COVID. Now more than ever before, people are turning to pets for support and companionship at a time when many are feeling isolated and alone. In response to the changing climate, our team quickly pulled together to help pets and pet parents through pet food donations, meaningful brand initiatives, and relief grants to cities and shelters through both PEDIGREE Foundation and BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™.
Driven by the need to continue to drive pet adoption while also keeping people safe, our PEDIGREE® brand developed and launched an initiative called “Dogs on Zoom.” We hosted virtual adoption events with shelters across the country to help find forever homes for dogs in need, while also keeping both consumers and shelter employees safe with contact-free adoptions.
On the NUTRO™ brand, we worked quickly and creatively to develop an ad called “Who Wants a Walk?” The spot was a light-hearted execution showing how many of us are using time with our dogs to help get us out of the house for a little exercise… so much so that even our dogs are getting tired of walks. The entire spot was created following social distancing guidelines. Our director actually filmed the ad within his own home using his family as both the talent and the production crew.
Despite this difficult year, having purpose at the core enabled us to be agile. We have quickly created content that is both relevant and sensitive to the current circumstances.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
At Mars, we’re guided by The Five Principles: Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom. These principles guide how we do business and are equally as important as our core purpose.
I’m personally most inspired by the idea of Mutuality. Across our business, and particularly in the marketing function, we are reliant on the strength of our relationships with our partners, both inside and outside of the organization, as well as our consumers. I feel strongly about being a team that our agencies want to work with — we do that by ensuring there are shared benefits to the relationship. Similarly, the relationship with our consumers is the ultimate driver of our business. By providing quality products and excellent consumer care, we can establish lasting relationships with our consumers.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many families experienced during this pandemic, my family and I have struggled to find ways to safely visit our family members, especially my out-of-state parents and in-laws. While FaceTime and Zoom create some level of connection, they’re poor substitutes for a grandparent’s hug or a big family birthday celebration for a young cousin.
I also found myself balancing my own work with the virtual education of my two daughters. It certainly wasn’t easy to balance everything, and we made our share of mistakes, but it was a nice reminder to take a step back, set clear priorities and recognize what was most important in each moment.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When COVID-19 first hit, we took a step back to re-evaluate our marketing programs to make sure we were prioritizing the right things and addressing the current needs of consumers and their pets. That meant cancelling some planned activations and shifting to create more timely and relevant programs that could solve a consumer need or bring much needed levity and relief to pet lovers.
We also found creative ways to connect with consumers about how pets can be a strong source of emotional support and stability, especially in times of need.
In May, we launched a free digital education tool called Pet Health Pal with our PEDIGREE® and IAMS™ brands. Pet Health Pal uses chatbot functionality to help pet owners navigate all the misinformation amid the pandemic, and provides useful information related to pet health and ownership. We worked closely with the Waltham Petcare Science Institute to ensure the platform was equipped with the latest and most credible pet care information.
We also rallied our teams to come together to support the animal welfare community through programs like the PEDIGREE® brand’s Dogs on Zoom campaign and One True Loyalty Program, as well as Mars Petcare’s FOSTER TO FOREVER™ program. These programs all provided support to families looking to adopt pets during this difficult time.
- That same month, the PEDIGREE® brand launched the Dogs on Zoom campaign, helping connect potential adopters with shelter dogs virtually — keeping both shelter staff and communities safe. A few weeks ago, the PEDIGREE® brand also launched its One True Loyalty Program which covers dog adoption fees through October when adopters purchase two 15-lb. or larger bags of PEDIGREE® dog food.
- Also in May, Mars Petcare launched the FOSTER TO FOREVER™ program, which encouraged foster pet parents to permanently adopt by offering starter kits with essentials to shelters around the country. This program was a collaboration across our Petcare brands like including BANFIELD™ and Banfield Foundation, PEDIGREE® brand and Pedigree Foundation, Royal Canin®, TEMPTATIONS™ and more.
We’ve also continued to shine a spotlight on the emotional and physical benefits of pet ownership through content from our NUTRO™ brand ad “Who Wants a Walk?” as well as the Mars Petcare BETTER CITIES FOR PETS™ program which works to make cities more pet-friendly.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s no secret that pets have played a really important role for a lot of people during this pandemic. Early on during stay at home orders, we heard stories about record rates of pet fostering, which was indicative of people everywhere looking to pets for comfort and companionship. My experience has been similar. When anyone in my family feels stressed or upset, we all seek out a hug from our Goldendoodle, Renzo. Having Renzo has also been great for maintaining some semblance of normalcy and a schedule of getting fresh air and daily walks.
To stave off boredom this summer, my daughter trained Renzo on a dog agility course. While Renzo isn’t going to challenge the Border Collies for agility supremacy anytime soon, it was a wonderful activity to provide both the pet and a young pet trainer with outdoor exercise, mental stimulation and fun times together.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The overarching positive that we’ve seen in this crisis is the deeply impactful relationship between people and their pets. As we look forward, we envision seeing this continue to thrive.
One of the partnerships that we have entered that has been the most personally meaningful for me has been the sponsorship by BETTER CITIES FOR PETS of a new facility dog at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. During a time when more people are looking for comfort and hospital visitors are limited, we’ve seen the healing power of pets come to life through Squid, the facility dog. After completing two years of specialized training, Squid joined the Patient- and Family-Centered Care team where he provides comfort and affection to support families and hospital staff experiencing the impact of intense medical situations. We’re thrilled to support the Children’s Hospital in offering this type of patient care program and we look forward to seeing the positive impact Squid has for the children, families and staff.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Over the past several months, people everywhere have been spending more time than ever before with their pets. I think we’ll see pet owners continuing to value the time they spend with their pets and wanting to share more aspects of their lives together. One way we’re tapping into this insight is through our upcoming SHEBA® campaign, where we’re asking pet owners to share their favorite moments with their cats — even if that moment happens to be when their cat wakes them up in the early morning hours craving a snack. The campaign will launch in October, and consumers can share on Instagram.
We’ll look to connect more deeply with consumers to understand how the pandemic has shifted their daily lives — from their own eating and exercise habits to those of their pet — as well as their buying habits. This will allow us to adjust our products and solutions to meet the shifted needs of pet parents.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
At Mars Petcare, we’ll continue to put the pet parent at the center of everything we do to ensure we’re offering products and solutions that uniquely meet their needs — in today’s environment and tomorrow’s. We’ll continue to explore new product innovation across our portfolio, ways of communicating with consumers and will continue driving forward our purpose as we head into 2021 and beyond.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
As a leader, this year’s challenges have been a strong reminder to stay agile and attentive to employee and consumer needs. It’s okay to pivot away from planned programming to address more pressing needs for those you serve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandfather was a steel-worker who worked in the blast furnace of Pittsburgh’s J&L Steel for nearly three decades, and he always ended his calls or visits with me and my sister with the reminder, “Work hard.” While not the most eloquent prose, he lived his life by this principle, and, in so doing, created life possibilities for his children who then created even more possibilities for their children. I do my best to live up to this expectation, and, to this day, decades after my grandfather’s death, my sister and I still end our FaceTime calls with the reminder, “Work hard.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Stay tuned for some of our marquee brand campaigns to kick off in the next few weeks including Cesar®, CRAVE™, IAMS™, PEDIGREE® and SHEBA®. You can also find me on LinkedIn.