NEW YORK: Brand owners like Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills and Coca-Cola are increasingly leveraging digital tools to engage consumers and boost sales.

Trade body the Grocery Manufacturers Association and business services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers interviewed leading executives to gauge developing trends in this field.

"The consumer we are trying to reach is watching much less television these days," Dennis Hickey, CFO, Colgate-Palmolive, said.

"Really, the big opportunity is: how do you reach consumers on a digital basis?"

"We are investing in this area on a test-and-learn basis by systematically evaluating new approaches, and when we see something that works, then we will expand our investment."

Don Mulligan, CFO of General Mills, argued this requires moving beyond the competencies typically characterising FMCG companies.

"It's a matter of staying very close to an industry that's outside of our core. And hiring the experts we need to translate the technology into practical tools for our brand marketers to use," he said.

General Mills is currently building an opt-in database facilitating instant interactions with shoppers, and the gathering of insights like preferred recipes and stores, which can be passed on to retailers.

"Retailers know in depth the buying habits of the customers coming to their stores. What they don't have visibility on are customers who aren't coming to their stores," said Mulligan.

Digital technologies may also be exploited in-house, such as through video conferencing or providing real-time analytics.

"We want people to have 24/7 access - we call it 'always on' - to the information they need to both update them on the state of the business and to make decisions," said Jon Moeller, CFO, Procter & Gamble.

"We want to have that in whatever format they find most convenient to access, whether that's a laptop computer, a tablet, or another digital device."

Dan Heinrich, CFO, Clorox, warned an indiscriminate strategy might yield more costs than benefits, and thus suggested judging investments "area by area" could prove advantageous.

While Clorox has forged ahead in certain respects, it has not yet created the kind of model it believes is essential to flourish in the new media age.

"We're really good at pushing data out to consumers, for example, if they befriend us on Facebook," Heinrich said.

"What we haven't gotten really good at is how to have two-way conversations, in real time, and in a timeframe that is convenient for consumers."

"We want to integrate what we learn from these conversations with consumer insight on the product level."

Duane Still, CFO of the Coca-Cola Company's Coca-Cola Refreshments arm, revealed the soft drinks group is attempting to enhance its position in a similar fashion.

"We are having conversations with our mobile technology partners to figure out the best way to identify when consumers are in stores and push out promotions to them," he said.

The MyCokeRewards online loyalty programme, boasting 15m members, is an evolving instance of this, but Still outlined greater ambitions.

"The grand slam would be if we could know not only that it is a caffeine-free Diet Coke being purchased, but that it was purchased out of the Fastlane merchandiser while checking out at a regional supermarket," he said.

As the number of mediums proliferates, a tightly coordinated approach to expenditure and execution will also be necessary.

"Our focus is on determining how we can leverage the available digital channels and make multiple digital channels work for us," said Bill Schumacher, CFO, Sunny Delights Beverages Company.

Data sourced from Grocery Manufacturers Association; additional content by Warc staff