SmartBrief spoke with Ellen Davis, executive vice president of industry engagement at the Consumer Brands Association, about the success of the group’s virtual leadership series CPG Speaks. The educational sessions have offered countless insights from top CPG executives with the goal of helping the industry learn and adapt in order to continue supplying consumers with essential products during the coronavirus pandemic.
Where did the idea for CPG Speaks originate, and what are some of the major goals of the series?
You would have needed a crystal ball at the beginning of this year to predict what was about to happen. As COVID-19 hit hard, companies’ best-laid plans for 2020 began to deteriorate —which meant toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pantry staples and just about every other CPG product was flying off the shelves, creating unprecedented demand.
The Consumer Brands Association was already bringing leaders together through our regular exchanges, but so much was happening so quickly, we believed there was an opportunity for us to enable more people to learn from each other.
Within a matter of days, the concept for CPG Speaks came to life as a weekly virtual series featuring top industry CEOs and other executives speaking about how their company was maneuvering all the curve balls from 2020 and how they were leading their business through the changes. Thanks to our partners at PwC, we’ve been able to host CPG Speaks as a complimentary event, open to anyone who wanted to join.
Our primary goal was education, to provide a platform for an essential industry to learn from one another during a truly extraordinary year. And with thousands of attendees, that goal has been successful. But there have been additional benefits: We strategically used the series to foster deeper relationships with members and member prospects, culled insights to generate media coverage and bolstered the association’s finances by creating a sponsorship model that enabled us to see greater net revenue from this series than we would have from the in-person event that was canceled.
CPG Speaks features very strong leaders. How have you elevated the series to the level that you get CEO-level participation?
Consumer Brands’ agenda is focused on the C-suite; we have built an organization where CPG CEOs want to come together to network and learn. During the first few months of COVID-19, our President and CEO Geoff Freeman was having calls with 10-15 CPG CEOs every week and the insights were incredible. Many leaders were facing similar challenges and very interested in what was happening with their peers but were so focused on addressing their own business challenges they didn’t have the capacity to pick their heads up and learn. We knew if we could unlock those insights and share them with our members collectively, we could help the industry move forward together.
Because we already had the relationships, mobilizing the C-suite wasn’t a huge lift. The response from company leaders was incredible, and to be honest we’ve had more interest than we could fulfill. To date, CPG Speaks has featured 27 speakers – more than half of which have been CEOs.
What are some of your favorite insights so far?
From my background in retail and now CPG, I’ve become a real sucker for consumer psychology. I love hearing how about companies are adapting to consumers’ desire to shop safely and quickly through online channels, why consumer trust among CPG is at an all-time high and why people are gravitating toward familiar brands and the impact that shifting trends like increased pet adoptions are having on businesses (just ask anyone who makes dog food or kitty litter). Understanding where the consumer is — or, more importantly, where he or she is going — is really at the heart of the success of so many of these companies.
What are some of the major themes you’ve observed across the sessions?
As Kathy Widmer, company group chairman, North America & Latin America for Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, said in a session last week, “It is a privilege and a burden to be a leader right now.” This has felt like a shared theme among so many of the CEOs we’ve been able to hear from.
Whether the conversations have been about COVID-19, workforce safety, philanthropic initiatives or heightened urgency toward racial and gender equity, it’s evident that leaders in our industry care deeply about their workforce, their consumer base and the communities they serve. So many CEOs have spoken about an increased focus, renewed emphasis on corporate purpose, a reason for hope and ensuring authenticity that I have lost count. As the year has evolved the issues have changed — today, it’s about ensuring employees have the ability to be vaccinated with other essential workers while planning ahead for the days when COVID-19 is behind us. It’s been incredible to have a front-row seat to these discussions.
What’s next for CPG Speaks?
Our final session this year features CEOs from Church & Dwight, Freshpet, Milo’s Tea and Morton Salt, who will reflect on the challenges they’ve faced this year and share how they’re thinking ahead to navigating their businesses in 2021. Although this is the last session for 2020, we’re taking advantage of the momentum and continuing the series into 2021. Stay tuned for our 2021 lineup; we hope to “see” you there.
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