Mastering global brand building with Nestlé
Mastering global brand building with Nestlé
Aude Gandon is a true global marketer. As Nestlé’s first-ever Global Chief Marketing Officer, she oversees the company’s vast portfolio of 2,000 brands across 186 countries. In this episode, Aude shares why marketing and digital teams must work together, how she led the charge on the company’s 2050 sustainability roadmap, the importance of brand fundamentals, and how she’s using her platform to build a more equitable future.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Aude Gandon, the first-ever global chief marketing officer at Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company. In this role, she oversees Nestlé’s 2,000 brands across 186 countries, has brought together the marketing and digital teams into one, and recently led the charge on Nestlé’s 2050 sustainability roadmap. Aude is a true global marketer, having worked for some of the world’s most-admired companies—like Google, P&G and L’Oréal—across five continents; but, above all, she’s deeply passionate about using her platform to build a better future…more equitable, sustainable and purpose-led. There’s so much ground to cover, so let’s get right into it. Welcome, Aude.
Aude: Hello. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Heather: Absolutely. Well, let’s start with the question that’s on everybody’s mind. Why does Japan have so many flavors of Kit Kat— from matcha to baked potato to cough drop flavors?
Aude: I’m asking the same question. Kit Kat is really an iconic brand in a lot of markets and definitely in Japan. And, it’s an example of some of the leadership we have in our various markets. Japan and the Japanese team are starting to play with different versions of Kit Kat, which really became a big success. And from that idea, they basically are starting to develop new product and have created the Kit Kat Chocolatory, where you have some absolutely incredible, very high-end versions of Kit Kat. They renew the offering every season and every year.
They also have some of the best range of Kit Kat [flavors] in the world, which is having success outside of Japan. We know that a lot of consumers are actually going into the different Japanese areas in big cities, the Japanese supermarket, where you can find some export of our Japanese Kit Kats.
Heather: Do you have a favorite flavor, or do you prefer just the original?
Aude: So, I love the original. I think it’s one of the best confectionary products that exists in the world right now. I also really love the green tea version.
Heather: Perfect. Well, next time we’ll do this over green tea Kit Kats and coffee.
Aude: With pleasure.
Heather: So, my gosh, you have such a big, multifaceted job. We’ll get into some of the bigger initiatives that you’re leading; but in terms of our listeners getting a peek inside your world—and I know no day is the same as the last or the next—but what’s your day like today?
Aude: Every day is different, and it covers a lot of different subjects but also a lot of different teams. What I find exhilarating about the job is that I may have a meeting with the teams from the Philippines and then one from Nigeria. And we may be talking the next five years’ digital roadmap and the infrastructure we need to build with the IT team. It can be a meeting on the sustainability roadmap or on our nutrition roadmap—and also, of course, with all our partners, all our agency partners, all our media partners. So, every day is very different; and every day brings some kind of new, interesting subject and challenges.
Heather: What’s the team structure like? There are 2,000 brands in the portfolio. How do you lead marketing at such an incredible scale? And can you talk a little bit about the overall infrastructure in terms of what’s centralized and what’s decentralized to the countries or to the brands?
Aude: So, Nestlé is a very decentralized company. We are working across 10 different categories across 186 markets, so the markets do a lot—because each market has a different portfolio of brands. Not every brand or every category is actually present in every market. And that is really important in order to understand Nestlé. Depending from which country you know Nestlé, you may have an understanding of the company as a chocolate and coffee company; for another country, it could be a dairy, an infant nutrition company and a food and a pet-care company, as well. So, every country has a different mix of brands and categories.
Then we have zones. We have five zones: Latin America; Europe; North America with the US and Canada; AOA, which covers the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia; and then the last one, which is Greater China. Then, within the central team, we have category units, the different categories I was mentioning being Nestlé Health Science, food, dairy, beverages, waters, confectionary, and so on in the center.
And then you have what we call the function global teams—marketing is a function global team. The function teams are here to really develop all the vision and also a lot of the processes. The zones are really about making sure they can support the market and accelerate, making sure that we have the right brands, that we have the right product offerings. Even a global brand may have a different type of SKU or sometimes even a different recipe from one market to the next.
So, what we do is really adapt. You know, at the end of the day, food and beverages can be very local—local taste, local habits, but also local nutritional needs. For example, if we know that in a market there is a deficiency in iron, we would make sure that we would enrich some of our product with iron to be able to actually cover the needs of the local population. So that’s the level of detail that we go into in offering products from one market to the next.
Heather: It’s a level of localization that I certainly have never thought of. You think about different cultural sensitivities, but really getting down to the science of it is pretty amazing.
Aude: Yes, and it’s something that the company is very proud of and, historically, has always been the case. We have more than 200 factories in the world. So, we actually have factories everywhere and more than one factory in any given market, as well, which really enables us to produce pretty close to the market. That’s also what gives us the flexibility to have very different SKUs and very different recipes, so we can be as close to possible to the needs and tastes of our consumers. That is what sets us apart from a lot of the big food companies.
Heather: So, it almost seems obvious that you would have a central global CMO role, but this is a first for Nestlé. Tell me about what intrigued you about that and how the shape of the role and measuring the impact of the role has evolved since you took the helm.
Aude: Yes, it’s part of one of the challenges and the opportunity that really interested me. It was a time where Nestlé was really thinking—before you had what they called e-business, which was a bit of the digital capabilities and, I would say, more kind of pure traditional marketing separated into two different teams—and the idea was really to develop a new team that would embed the food funnel of marketing coming from consumer research to design, to brand building, to obviously major practices and so on, as well as building data analytics, audiences and, you know, all link obviously to eCommerce. So that was a big shift for Nestlé to step into. And I think the big challenge was potentially getting lost in a lot of different subjects; because, in a way, it’s a lot of different kinds of teams within a team—and, as you said, not being very clear on how we look at success and what are the KPIs.
One of the things that I quickly did was look at where we could make a difference, where we could have an impact. There are plenty of subjects, but what are the key ones where we believe we need to step in and accelerate? Obviously, digital was one of them. We clearly set up a roadmap, which is an official one that we share with our investors, where we want to have 25% of our sales coming from online, 70% of our media investment being online and at least 400 million of first-party data. As soon as you build this type of five-year objective, it really helps then to look at…okay, we are an FMCG company, we have brands, and so what do we need to do to be able to deliver on these big objectives at a global level, at a zone level and at a market level. So that’s the way I focused to make sure that it was simple enough and clear enough for the whole organization to know what we were trying to achieve.
Heather: That’s fantastic. Obviously, a lot of it is about future proofing the company and taking a lead there. Prior to this, you were at Google. I would love to hear what that experience was like, because you were in a number of different roles. What did you draw upon from that experience in this new role.
Aude: Yes, the five years at Google were fantastic to really understand the digital platforms and the products…and the world of data, as well, but also to be very, very KPI-driven. It was a fantastic school for that. I kind of knew where data was going. I was working on Android and Google Play and Chrome, as some of the brands that I was leading there. So, the whole future of cookies, of first-party data and so on was obviously at the heart of everything that I was already working on. So, I knew of where the future was going to lead us and the kind of new era of data and digital that we were entering. And then, having the ability to really put together a clear plan with a clear KPI that you can track, because that’s where obviously Google as an organization is fantastic at, really helped me. That’s definitely what I took from my years at Google.
Heather: Every organization has a unique culture. There’s been a lot that people talk about with regard to Google’s culture. Tell me about the differences from being at Google and going to Nestlé. What would you say surprised you?
Aude: It’s interesting because I discovered some commonalities that I would have never expected. One of my biggest surprises when I joined Nestlé was the spirit of entrepreneurship. Again, because you have a lot of different opportunities, there’s a lot of markets, a lot of brands and so on. The company is actually amazing at giving the freedom, if you have a great idea, to work on the idea and really to launch it. That’s why we have so many brands and so many products, as well, because, if it makes sense for business or for the consumer, then there’s no problem in doing it. That was, for me, the biggest surprise and one of the closest [commonalities] that I experienced with Google, which also had a real kind of entrepreneurship, startup spirit.
The big difference, though, was the maturity of the company. I had the joy of being witness to the 20th anniversary of Google while Nestlé has existed for 150 years. So that already makes a big difference; it means that a company like Nestlé has been developing through so many changes in society, in the world and, obviously, in wars—because being a global company you can imagine there’s always been conflicts. Google is still at a very, very early age. So, there’s a very big difference in the past experience, what the company has already gone through, the different changes and challenges. And then, at Nestlé, you have some people who actually have gone through their whole career at Nestlé. You see experienced and expert employees of the Nestlé culture, who also have been working in very different types of jobs. That’s one thing that Nestlé also does—to really provides opportunities to employees to be able to go from one job to the next and really have a career that is pretty broad and also in different markets, as well. So, you meet Nestlé people who have had incredible careers, who have spent the past 40 years working in the five continents. Obviously, because of the newness of the company, you don’t have that at Google. So that’s been a big difference for me.
Heather: Well, it’s interesting when you talk about that legacy and that history of having grappled with so many things. We’ve often used the term “unprecedented” when we talk about this day and age. There is, I’m sure, something comforting in the fact that this organization has seen similar times and struggles. That said, you did start this role in 2020; and between the global pandemic and war and issues around supply chain and a focus on the climate crisis and sustainability, I think you’ve had your fair share of challenges and issues that you could have never anticipated. Tell me about that and how it has been to lead during this time, especially in a role that really is being formed as you go.
Aude: Yes, I think, like everybody else, it’s been a never-seen-before time. Even though Nestlé has had these years of experience, I think nobody went through a global pandemic before. So, that definitely was new. And, as you mentioned, there have been a lot of other challenges. When I joined in July 2020, I was taking over two teams and merging them teams into one team at the time where we couldn’t be 100% percent in the office. That was a bit of a challenge, because I first met a lot of my teams through Microsoft Teams. I didn’t see them interact with each other. I think when you start in a new company and you lead a new team, being able to see the human connection within the team is very important. That’s something that I didn’t have the chance to see. I saw a few of them interacting with each other, but I never saw the whole extended team. So, I spent a lot of time making sure that I understood their careers, what they liked doing, where they wanted to go…to really have an understanding of each individual and then, at the same time, understanding what needs to be done, what is the evolution that the team needs to put in place, and then organizing that way. And it worked. I think the team has been doing incredible work the past two years despite the challenges. I finally had my team together for the first time a week ago.
Heather: Oh, wow!
Aude: But I was lucky enough to have years of experience behind me. You know, that’s the fantastic thing about aging—at least it means that you have experience. I worked in different companies, I worked with different clients and I worked in different countries; so, I think I developed a muscle to being able to get the small signals on people and individuals. And I could refer to some of my past experiences as well. I think that really helped me counter what COVID was stopping us from doing. Again, we were lucky to be in Switzerland, which was pretty good at making our life as easy as possible compared to other countries.
Heather: There’s sometimes this notion that its lonely at the top. I’m curious as to how you are navigating that in this role. Do you have sounding boards or support within the organization, or do you look outside the organization for those things?
Aude: I have to say, everybody—the whole management—has really welcomed me. All the executive board members have given me the time. Our CEO, Mark Schneider, has been fantastic, as well, giving me the time that I needed. Also, my boss changed in my first eight months, just to add to the complexities.
Heather: Why not? Let’s just throw that in there, too.
Aude: Patrice Bula hired me and made himself available the first few months. We used to spend at least an hour or an hour and a half in his office every week, where I could ask every question and, also, get the history so I could really understand and put different things into context. Knowing the history of is really helpful in a company like Nestlé.
Bernard Meunier, my new boss, has been also a fantastic guiding light. I’ve been really looking internally, because the nature of the company is so different and so special. I can always, of course, reach out to people from the outside for some points of view; but, really, a bit of what I needed in a guiding light was also on the spirit, the DNA and, as I said, some of the context of why certain things are being done that way right now (and that sometimes would not make sense). Nestlé has a history of working for a very long time with the same partners, so I also had a lot of support from all of our agencies who’ve been working with Nestlé for years. They also provided me with very nice, unfiltered points of view on what they think really works and what they think could be better. That has really helped me, as well.
Heather: As you said, just to have that space to ask the questions. On one hand, you’re coming in and wanting to demonstrate your leadership; but part of leadership—and, I think, a key part of it—is being vulnerable enough to ask the questions. Sometimes, though, we might second guess ourselves in that way, because we think we should know it all—when how could we possibly know it all?
Aude: You’re right. And, I think, one of the biggest mistakes that we make is thinking that we shouldn’t ask the question. It’s always better to ask a silly question. We can all survive looking stupid once in a while, but you gain so much. First, I think you learn a lot; you get a lot of information that you may never have otherwise. It also basically shows people with whom you work that you want their point of view, you want their knowledge you want their expertise and their wisdom. And I don’t think anybody doesn’t want to be able to share that with anyone else. It’s very often underrated, actually.
Heather: Absolutely. I think we have to give ourselves that permission more. There’s a lot of talk about the changing archetype of the CMO and issues around data and technology, around the brand experience, innovation, sustainability, talent…it really can be everything. And I’m curious. Obviously, digital has been where you’ve really leaned in and brought, in a way, those roles together. So, it’s like being a chief marketing and digital officer. But if you were to take a step back and look around, what do you see as the most critical elements of being a successful CMO today?
Aude: First, all the marketing fundamentals that I think have been forgotten a bit the past kind of 10 years or so. I think the rise of digital and the digital platforms means that everybody—and I fully understand why—got completely obsessed about digital media and data. You saw the rise of the CDO versus the CMO, and there was a point where it became, “We don’t need CMOs anymore, we need CDOs.” And I think there’s a real kind of boomerang effect happening right now. I don’t think it’s one or the other. At the end of the day, we’re here to build brands that are relevant to consumers while adding value for the consumer. We need teams who understand what are the new products that our consumers would need or would like to be able to use, but it needs to be done in a context that is now digitally-driven and where data is more and more important and complex. The other thing is, what are your marketing fundamentals? What is your brand equity? What is your real consumer understanding? Your consumer insight? And then, how do you make sure that you build the right brand and the right message and then leverage that message in the right way in digital? For me, that’s the full funnel; you can’t separate it anymore. I think that’s what CMOs now need to be able to manage because it is marketing. I always remind everybody that digital is the tool. And so that’s why I think the big return to brand fundamentals, brand strategy, creative excellence, packaging design is key and needs to regain the importance it had in the 1990s and 2000s.
Heather: Yes, I think that, to your point, the best companies are newer, they’re agile, they’re digitally-led and they’re breaking stuff and learning as they go. I think that makes sense. But I like to hear that you are seeing the fundamentals as being important, if not more important than before. I think that’s a good bit of wisdom for people to keep in mind, that digital is a tool and it isn’t the strategy.
Aude: No, it’s not the strategy. Deciding if you want to be on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok is not going to be the strategy.
Aude: It’s knowing what is going to be your brand equity that is going to make a difference. Do you have the right product to answer your consumer needs? And then is your messaging interesting, fresh enough to be able to cut the clutter? That is the key, that’s the heart and that’s also part of what makes marketing so interesting—especially at a time when we have more and more media. It’s easier, in a way, to create a new brand and a new company then it was 20 years ago. That means that there are more and more offerings, as well. So being very tight and clear about what your brand stands for and how it’s going to make a difference to your consumers lives is even more important than in the past where, if you had a good product and you had enough money to have enough GIPS, it was already a big part of the recipe for success. I think it’s more complex today.
Heather: …and then, as you said, issues around sustainability and other things that people are really looking for companies to step up. We were talking earlier, and you mentioned there’s been a shift to glass in many cases for packaging; and when the pandemic hit, there was a shortage of glass because of the vaccines. These kinds of intricacies and the connectivity between all of this makes it very challenging. Tell me a little bit more about the roadmap that you helped create and the day-to-day things that you’re doing to try to move toward that vision in 2050.
Aude: Yes, absolutely. Nestlé has been active on sustainability for years, simply because, for example, Nestlé works with farmers. So, the company obviously understands the need to ensure that we are going to be able to continue to grow nutritious ingredients so that we can provide quality nutrition to everybody around the world. The big step was to establish a new roadmap for the next 25 years and to really decide, okay, there’s been a big push, for example, on climate and on net zero; then, there’s a big push coming on plastic. It’s kind of an external push that really heightens a certain issue and then puts pressure on all companies. And so, suddenly what we wanted to think about what is important to us, to the product we produce, and to our consumers and where we can really make a difference. That’s how we really kind of kickstarted our 25-year roadmap, which is all kind of baked into regeneration—which is really important, because regeneration is key when you work in the food industry. It’s all about regenerative agriculture, and farmer livelihoods are extremely important. So how are we actually going to make sure that all our food systems will be better than they are today? And then, how do you zoom out? That’s why we have the plastic roadmap and a net zero roadmap, but we also decided to make clear commitments to communities and individuals. So, we have launched a cocoa plan, and we have a coffee plan with farmers. We work with 200,000 coffee farmers around the world…
Aude: …with 600 agronomists. We really help them, making sure that they learn how to better manage water, for example.—because we know there’s a water scarcity. We are also going to make sure that we help them understand that, if you are growing coffee trees and plant other trees between the coffee trees, it will give you better coffee, it will take care of the soil and it will also create extra income—because you can grow fruits, for example, among the coffee trees. Those are different practices that we are putting in place for all the coffee farmers because it’s very important for both nature and climate but also for the livelihood of the communities. Also, for example, to help stop child labor—which can be a problem in some countries where families need income—we have built a whole plan where we paying a very fair price to the farmers but are also giving 50% to the wife of the farmer. We know that when you do it that way, it really helps give balance in the family. And also, it really helps make sure that the children continue to go to school.
Heather: It’s painting the picture of “sustainability” in so many dimensions that I think most people don’t really think about. And that’s a good pivot to a topic that I know you’re very passionate about, as am I, around gender equity, both equity at home and equity in the workplace. You are a mom, as well as an amazing leader in business, and you’ve said that you’ve worked and lived in many different places around the world but that everywhere it’s the same story as it relates to equity. Tell me about that, and tell me about some of the experiences you’ve had as a female leader in this world, building your career.
Aude: Yes, I’ve been lucky, I’ve been given so many amazing work opportunities, and I’ve always had the support of my husband. When you start thinking of having children or you see your peers eventually having children, you start to see them disappearing from the workforce. And very often it’s because the financials don’t work anymore. It’s usually at the time in your career, while you’re in your soft spot, that you start to get into more senior roles. But they’re not senior enough to be paying enough for all of the costs that the career demands. You have long hours. You may be traveling. So it means that you need to have the whole childcare organized so you can be at the meetings and you can be traveling if you’re being asked to. And, very often, that’s where your compensation is sometimes a bit of a challenge for all of the extras that you need to be able to pay in order to be available. That really saddened me—to see some very, very talented young women who, when they were looking at the finances, thought, “It doesn’t make sense. I would rather stay home and look after my children,”—which is wonderful, if that is your choice. But when it’s mainly driven by finances, I think it’s a bit of a shame.
Aude: I’ve definitely seen it in the UK, when I was in the UK; and I’ve seen it in the US, as well. Maybe a bit less in France, because I think the country has a lot more social services and is a bit more affordable. I think it’s something that we really need, as we want more and more female leaders. We need both the governments and the companies to be thinking about it, because you shouldn’t have to make a choice at a given point in your life. You need to be able to do it all—and that is something that I think we haven’t completely answered yet. I think it’s still a challenge today. We saw it during the pandemic. There was the whole discussion of how many women left their jobs because, suddenly, they were the ones who had to do the work and had to do the homeschooling and so on.
Heather: There was something you said earlier about having it all, and there have been long debates about whether women can—however you define that. Do you think that that’s possible? Do you feel like you’ve achieved that? And any thoughts on how we can change things to get people to a place where they feel like they really can do both.
Aude: I always say, when I’m asked the question, that you can’t have it all at the same time. So, it means that you need to be very clear on what needs to take priority at a given time. Between the family and work, I didn’t have time for anything else because, you know, I was working a lot. When I wasn’t working, I wanted to be with the children. Going out was not something that I wanted to do. So, I made choices at a certain time in my life. But I think it helps when you’re very clear about what you’re trying to achieve; it helps to know that you won’t be able to do everything, and that’s okay. I missed some key meetings or some key opportunities, but I knew at that time that home needed to be the number one.
Also, don’t obsess with the work/life balance, I don’t think there’s really a work/life balance. When you are lucky enough to have a job that really interests you, gives you energy, makes you feel like you are growing and learning every day and you’re working with fantastic people—and you have this personal life, which is also fulfilling you—then something, a day, a week, a month is going to balance itself. But it won’t be a work/life balance—like how many hours am I going to dedicate to which—because I think that doesn’t work either.
Heather: I think that’s so smart, taking the big-picture view—understanding that there are choices, that there are sacrifices—as long as you’re doing that with the understanding of what you really value and what you’re really looking to do, then it is possible. So, I can go on forever, but I know that you’ve got a number of meetings after this. So, I thought I would just end with a question that I ask all my guests. This is Icons in the Making and, truly, I do think that you are an icon in the work that you do, working for amazing brands—but I’m curious. Who is your icon?
Aude: Oh, thank you. It’s really kind of you. My icon is a French architect and designer, Charlotte Perriand. She has done incredible work. She was born in 1903, and I think she died in 1999. She was an extremely creative, modern architect and designer and was really focusing on creating functional living spaces, because she believed that better design helped create a better society. The mix of artistry, creativity, at the service of function is something that I really believe. And I think it’s the same when you work on brands. There needs to be function to be relevant to the consumers, and then you need the creativity. This woman used to work for extremely well-known designers. She was working for the group—they were all men—and most of the famous pieces of furniture that they designed, or even buildings that they designed, were under their name—but she was the brain behind it. So, it’s an interesting case of this fantastically talented woman, extremely forward-thinking, and we didn’t know that she was behind some of the creations. For anyone who is listening, go on Google and look at Charlotte Perriand. You will see some of what she has designed and will think, “Oh, I know that chair. I just didn’t know it was her,” because it was basically under the name of a Le Corbusier or a Pierre Jeanneret, who were some of the very famous designers at the time.
Heather: I love that. And we’ll be doing the same. To take a page out of her book in terms of being a bit fearless and utilizing your talent in the best way—but with a twist of getting credit where credit is due and owning and celebrating your superpowers, which is something I think many, but women in particular, have a hard time doing. So, with that, thank you so much for your time and for all of your insights. Also, a special thanks to Emma Cofer, who is near and dear to my heart, to your heart, at Lippincott, but also had been at Google and Nestlé with you. She connected us, and I’m really grateful for that.
Aude: Thank you, Heather. It was fantastic exchanging with you.
At the end of the day, we’re here to build brands that are relevant to consumers.