As a classically trained marketer at Unilever, Procter & Gamble and The Smith’s Snackfood Company in Australia before heading multibillion-dollar divisions at Danone, Kraft and Mondelez across Europe, China and North America, Lorna Davis remains a fierce defender of brand marketers and their contribution to enterprise growth.
But today as senior adviser to Emmanuel Faber, the global CEO of French food giant Danone, and a global ambassador for the “B Corp” movement typified by public benefit corporations like Gap-owned Athleta, Patagonia and an array of food divisions at Danone, Ms Davis is blunt about the challenges facing the marketing profession.
Speaking from her base in New York, she says marketing has faced “two big crises” in the past 20 years and is now traversing a third.
“Certainly in my formative years in marketing, the brand P&L genuinely was where the power of the organisation was,” she says.
“As a brand manager or a marketing director, you really had full accountability for your chunk of business. You owned your actual factory lines and your label. You really did own that business P&L and that’s why marketing was such a big breeding ground for general management.
“Quite a few years ago that started to break down, mainly because of globalisation and particularly in industries where it made much more sense to centralise manufacturing and supply chains.
“So marketing with full P&L accountability was being chipped away pretty consistently. Some marketing people noticed that and some didn’t but that was the reality I think.”
The second “crisis” Ms Davis points to for the marketing profession was the “disintermediation of media”.
Her first foray into the c-suite was 20 years ago as managing director of Griffins Biscuits in New Zealand, just as the wild west of “internet marketing” was emerging.
Moving product off-shelf then still remained a “strongly image-driven” marketing exercise with a “single point proposition” from which a big, definitive TV commercial was produced to drive a yearly marketing and communications program.
“The powerbase started to shift generationally in the mid 2000s,” she says. “Now we’re in this situation where marketing as we knew it as a single message to a single target market has been thrown out the window and it’s about building a relationship with a consumer on their terms, in their channels with their particular nuanced information and it’s in a competitive landscape where you’ve got a whole bunch of scrappy people who are taking you off at every corner. Everybody has been struggling with how to deal with the matrix.”
Part of that struggle was also about marketers divestment of capabilities to external advertising agency partners, Ms Davis says.
“I was a big supporter of long-term strategic partnerships with advertising agencies. But one of the biggest challenges for marketing today is how much was outsourced. Maybe marketers lost the skills.”
Beyond her roles as CEO and president of various global consumer food operations, Ms Davis also served for six years as a global board director for the Stockholm-based Electrolux.
For all her concerns on marketing’s current complexities and challenges, Ms Davis remains a staunch defender.
Her last executive role as CEO and chairwoman of Danone’s merged $6 billion US dairy business, DanoneWave – which under her watch became the world’s largest certified benefit corporation, she says marketing “without doubt” is the most important business driver.
“I’m a way better leader in every other function other than marketing because I think it’s a lot easier to lead in areas you’re not good at. I’m not much chop at finance or HR so I know how to delegate well.
“I know how to ask good questions and stay out of the way. But marketing continues to be the most important business function in my mind, certainly for companies for which brands are important.”
And it’s those companies and their marketers that Ms Davis says are at a critical juncture. Brand owners have to take bold market positions across social, environmental, community and economic issues and stand by them.
Nike’s now acclaimed strategy with NFL footballer Kevin Kaepernick is the most recent example but Ms Davis points to Patagonia suing President Trump for stripping protection of public lands and Danone’s controversial position against genetically modified ingredients in its food lines as examples of “bold positions” that brand owners must take.
“One thing I’ve found very interesting about this whole purpose journey and a kind of back-end to marketing is this creation of a point of view,” she says.
“I’ve been challenged many times on our [Danone] decision not to use GM ingredients by people telling me the science is not equivocal. The point I’ve made is that from a food safety perspective, there’s nothing wrong with genetic modification.
“But our conclusion is that genetically modified crops are ultimately destructive to the land and that the bio-diversity that results from non-genetically modified crops is what we wish to see in the world. Therefore we are using our position as a purveyor of food. You have to go right back to how food is grown.
“Big companies have hidden behind an argument of giving consumers what they ask for and meeting consumer needs, which in my view is complete bullshit.
“It’s not in the natural DNA of big corporates and the DNA of big brands to have a clear and explicit and powerful point of view and that’s the problem.”
For Ms Davis, it also the single biggest opportunity for marketers to reassert their credentials.
“My point is that’s the gap for marketing people to take right now and I don’t think marketing people are taking the gap.
“If they want to survive and thrive and if brands are going to survive and thrive, that’s exactly the gap that they can and should take – the creation of a strong and powerful point of view around their brands. A point of view they’re willing to defend, a point of view that is not conventional wisdom.”