Zena Srivatsa Arnold, Chief Digital and Marketing Officer at consumer packaged goods (CPG) giant Kimberly-Clark, speaks to WARC’s Stephen Whiteside for Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about building a value exchange with consumers, dealing with high demand during COVID-19 and why e-commerce is here to stay.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • Data and technology are enabling even massive CPG brands to take a “relationship-building” approach to brand-building, rather than just driving mass awareness.
  • Consumers are looking for a lot more than just a physical product. They want to understand and know what a brand stands for. They want to get brand information, education and sometimes community.
  • COVID-19 has increased awareness of the complex relationship between humans and the planet. There’s a lot of critical connections between health, safety and sustainability.
You joined Kimberly-Clark mid-pandemic in the spring of 2020. How has the company’s marketing strategy evolved as a result of COVID-19 – and did having an outsider’s perspective help you think differently?

We’ve been on a journey to evolve our marketing for a digital-first world for a few years now. COVID-19 just accelerated that process due to the rapid and big changes in consumer behaviors.

When I say “evolving our marketing for a digital-first world”, I mean moving from primarily an awareness and consideration-driving approach to more of a relationship-building approach. For CPG marketers, that hadn’t really been possible at scale in the past, but now data and technology are enabling it.

It’s just been fascinating to me to see how more and more the steps in the purchase funnel are blurring together and becoming faster and simpler, yet it’s also becoming harder and harder to get and keep a consumer’s attention. So, for us, we want to build meaningful relationships with our consumers based on a mutual value exchange.

Coming in during the pandemic was interesting on a lot of levels. I do think my background in CPG, and my understanding of how these businesses are run, combined with my recent experiences in the tech industry, provides a helpful perspective as we think about the areas where we need to focus for maximum impact and approach them with an agile mindset.

Zena Srivatsa Arnold, Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, Kimberly-Clark

How do you build a value exchange that appeals to consumers?

It goes back to digital transformation and enabling relationship-formation. The first steps is to set the vision of what it means to engage in a consumer relationship.

Over nearly 150 years in business, Kimberly-Clark made a physical product and sold it to consumers. But, today, consumers are looking for a lot more than just a physical product. They want to understand and know your brand purpose. They want to get brand information, education, and sometimes community. Your reason for being, and what you stand for as a brand, has become increasingly important.

It’s a lot broader than just the physical product proposition itself. And so we’ve been exploring what that entire relationship looks like to a consumer for our brands and the categories that we operate in – and, then, how we can best deliver on it.

As a company that makes many essential personal care staples, you had to deal with hoarding as the pandemic started. How did you approach that problem?

As you’ve probably experienced, and definitely heard, demand in many of our categories – especially toilet paper, for example – was really affected during the pandemic.

As a company, Kimberly-Clark’s primary priority was keeping our employees safe and, then, delivering these essential products that people really depend upon around the globe.

The marketers were confronted with this challenge of, “How do you build your brand when consumers can’t buy your product?” Just before I joined the company, our North America team launched the “Share a Square” campaign for the Cottonelle brand to discourage hoarding, with ads that said, “instead of stockpiling toilet paper, let’s stock up on generosity.”

Cottonelle donated money and toilet paper to the United Way Worldwide COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund, and really leveraged social media. We donated more every time the “Share A Square” hashtag was shared.

To me, it was this really great relationship-building moment because, as marketers, we’re normally used to driving sales, but this message was actually the opposite, telling people, “Don’t buy. Don’t hoard toilet paper.”

I think that really helped build brand equity and support in a responsible way given the circumstances. Broadly, I think the campaign taught us a lot about taking new and innovative approaches to building relationships with consumers, and how we can move really quickly to respond to what’s happening in our environment.

Have you noticed any major changes in brand equity, sentiment, etc. as consumers have relied on familiar, trusted brands during the crisis?

When it comes to a lot of our products, underlying consumer habits – like changing your baby’s diaper, managing your period, or using toilet paper – haven’t really changed that much. But some of the purchasing behavior has changed, because people are spending more time at home versus out in the world.

It’s hard to say that there’s one clear effect across our businesses; it’s really played out differently depending upon the brand and category. In some areas, consumers have been willing to try different brands and form factors because of their at-home behavior. For example, reusable period underwear penetration and trial has grown a lot in COVID times. In other places, there hasn’t been that much of the willingness to try. So, it has been different across categories.

But I think really what’s driving a lot of it is the purchasing behavior that has shifted so much.

What lessons from COVID-19 do you see as major opportunities for your business moving forward for the long term?

E-commerce, especially for a lot of CPG categories, is here to stay. I’ve seen statistics which indicate e-commerce made ten years of progress in less than a year. I know personally, as a consumer, we never used to do online ordering for groceries, and now it’s a staple and how we do most of our shopping. We experienced it, we tried it, and we liked the experience. So, I do believe that has changed and will continue to evolve.

Back to what I mentioned earlier, I think that the purchase funnel is melding and getting shorter. There are a lot of really interesting opportunities that are emerging in shoppable content, where you can reduce the time from when a consumer experiences your content, or an ad, to when they actually purchase the product. And that’s going to shape a lot of how the industry is going to evolve in the coming years.

What’s been the toughest challenge as a marketer during COVID?

There are many challenges, I’d say. On a personal level, taking on my current role in the middle of a pandemic has been one of the toughest challenges for me as a leader and as a person. Working remotely, trying to build relationships with key leaders and our global teams, all virtually rather than in-person, has not been easy.

Managing through these challenging times as a human, keeping my family healthy and happy, keeping my own mental health in check: All of those things have not been easy in these times just due to all the macro circumstances surrounding us.

As marketers, our biggest challenge has been dealing with all the volatility that has come our way. Circumstances didn’t just do a seismic change once; they’re in a constant state of change.

In addition to the changes in buying behaviors from COVID, we are faced with commodity cost increases, supply-chain challenges, and labor shortages which are happening in many places in the world. So, there are many external forces we have to deal with that are always in flux.

But what I do think what that has taught us is, “Hey, we can change quickly,” because we had to when all these things came our way. And, I’ll say, in more traditional CPG companies, we haven’t always thought that way. We’ve been more focused on driving efficiency with rigorous processes, less so on agility above all else.

Now, because we were forced to deal with all of these changes coming our way, we’ve become a more agile company. And that’s proved to everyone in the organization that we can move quickly on all our business challenges.

How is Kimberly-Clark approaching the challenge of sustainability, which is an increasingly pressing concern?

It is a huge and important challenge, and not just for us as a company, or for businesses in general, but for us as humans on this planet.

I really love the approach that we’ve been taking at Kimberly-Clark. It starts with our purpose: “Better care for a better world.” And “care” really underlines everything we do: caring for our people, our consumers, our customers, the communities we operate in, and the environment.

Over this last year, COVID-19 has increased awareness for many people of the complex relationship between humans and the world around us. And there are a lot of critical connections between health, safety and sustainability.

Amidst all of these changes, Kimberly-Clark, in 2020, launched our 2030 sustainability ambitions – and here, again, I’m really proud of the impact that we want to have in the world. It’s all about improving the lives of a billion people in underserved communities around the globe with the smallest environmental footprint. In that, we’re focusing on some of the areas where we can make the greatest difference, including climate, water, forests and plastics.

What are some of your success indicators where sustainability is concerned?

Going back to those key four areas, we’ve identified actual goals that we want to hit. So, for example, by 2030, we intend to reduce the use of plastics in our products by 50%; reduce the use of natural forest fiber in our products by 50%; cut our greenhouse gas emissions in half, as well as reducing our water footprint in water-stressed regions by 50%.

I think a key piece of it is setting the goals, and getting the entire organization thinking about that endpoint vision of where we want to be.

Then, to make it real, we are integrating sustainability objectives into our business and capital planning processes. We’re thinking about the impacts and priorities of our supply chain, our brand teams running the business day-to-day, the innovation teams looking at upstream development, and how we incorporate actions to get to these end goals.

We measure and track our progress both annually and in detail for the specific work that we’re doing. We disclose all of our information on our progress in our annual sustainability report, which is a great way to keep us accountable for moving towards these goals

Are you finding in research that consumers are making sustainability a priority when they are considering purchases?

Consumers’ preferences for natural and environmentally-responsible products have been growing for many years, a trend that has accelerated due to everything we’ve experienced over the past year.

Consumers, especially younger ones, are so much more informed and educated about the choices that they’re making and the products that they buy. And to them it’s about bettering their own health and wellbeing, and planetary health and wellbeing, with both of those elements connecting together.

There’s definitely a stronger focus and desire from these consumers to know what brands and businesses are doing to reduce emissions, removing plastic from the oceans, and protect forests, while still also continuing to provide really high-quality products that offer value and performance.

So, I do think it’s been an area of growth, and more and more consumers are choosing with their wallets to show their support of the environment.

How do you effectively communicate the company’s environmental credentials to consumers while avoiding any kind of “greenwashing”?

It is a challenge: consumers know our iconic brands – like Huggies, Kotex, Cottonelle – and the performance and the value that they provide. They are less familiar with Kimberly-Clark as a company. So, we have to draw a connection between our corporate sustainability goals and our brands.

We’ve started to do this in several different ways. For example, in 2019, our Huggies brand in the UK established its “Tiniest Footprint” program, which calls for phasing out plastic from our baby wipes line by 2025, as well as making the brand’s packaging recyclable. And Huggies removed 359 tons of plastic from its total wipes portfolio in 2020 as part of this initiative.

The Huggies team also introduced Huggies Natural Biodegradable, a new plastic-free wipe launching across Europe that is free of all fossil-fuel based materials. Through this program, we’ve also made an effort to engage consumers by asking them to do their part by recycling the product packaging.

It’s really important that we take the time to figure out how we tie our sustainability goals and performance back to the brand equities, and [how] we can speak about them in a meaningful way for the consumers of those brands.

Are you modifying your advertising production, your creative supply chain or distribution to be more sustainable?

Our main focus areas at the moment are on the places where we can actually take action and make an impact. So, I can’t speak to any specific initiatives at this time involving our agency partners, but our corporate goal is to reduce our environmental footprint across our entire value chain – whether that’s product development, manufacturing, marketing, or distribution. We need to consider what we can do and how we can partner with people to realize our sustainability ambitions.

So, there is lots of progress to be made there. The great part is that most companies have established sustainability goals and are aware that this is a really important area that we can partner on.

How would you describe Kimberly-Clark’s strategy for building brands in the e-commerce world?

As I mentioned, our overall vision is to evolve our marketing to be more about building relationships with our consumers versus just mass advertising.

As we’re thinking about how we develop these relationships, we need to consider what is the mutual value that makes it worth their while for consumers to engage with us. This naturally leads into the e-commerce space: how can we make buying our products simpler for consumers?

Today, we work with almost all the major retailers around the globe – whether they’re e-commerce pure-players, brick-and-mortar retailers, or hybrids, which more and more of the players are getting into. In some of our markets, we do direct-to-consumer offerings as well.

It’s really important to ensure we have great experiences across all these platforms. And that’s just come into sharper and sharper focus as shopping behaviors have shifted so much over the past year.

Working with third parties, there’s a lot of e-commerce real estate you don’t have control over. How can you ensure consistency and a good customer experience despite that?

It’s challenging at times. However, a lot of our retail partners are experts in how to sell and they know how to do that well, and serve their shoppers really well. So, working with them on how we can have the right types of brand experiences for our products has been good. And we’ve seen a lot of great advances in what we’ve been able to do as retailers become more and more sophisticated as well.

Your job combines both marketing and digital elements. Do you think that joint role gives you an advantage as you build up e-commerce capabilities?

I believe it’s indicative of all of our marketing existing in a digital-first world and, increasingly, a commerce-enabled world. So, just thinking about our marketing as being that full-funnel relationship focus, rather than just about mass awareness and consideration, is a key element for a digital transformation.

What are some of the metrics for e-commerce as you try to balance immediate success indicators with brand building?

It’s exactly that: It’s both about the short-term sales performance, because that’s critical, and also the longer-term brand equity. We measure both of those things.

The exciting piece of e-commerce is that there are lots of other metrics, like consumer or customer experience scores, where you can granularly look at each person’s experience, and then use that information to optimize the experience for them and personalize it in the future.

What channels are currently most impactful in terms of powering e-commerce sales – and are there any approaches you are particularly interested in going forwards?

As I mentioned, we’ve been doing a lot of work with our retail partners to drive sales of our products on their platforms.

I’d say we’re most ahead of the curve on this in China. There, the major e-tailers share a great deal of shopping behavior data with brands, so we’re able to set up really sophisticated data science-driven models. These not only drive awareness and consideration, but actually purchase and repeat purchase as well.

We don’t get this data in other markets. So, I really love the China team’s approach. We call it “marketing as math’, and that’s just starting to build in other markets. But I’m encouraged, and I think we’ll all go the route of having more and better data, because all of our e-tail partners are thinking about this, and how they’re able to grow. Key partners have been enabling self-service platforms, and we’ve been piloting with a lot of them, and seeing great results.

With online cookies set to be phased out, is first-party data playing an elevated role in your thinking?

We’re focusing on driving first-party data, not just because of the landscape changing with the cookie-less world coming – though, that’s a good deadline to push us to action – but really, at a strategic level, it’s essential to building those deep and meaningful connections over the long term.

It’s really about forming relationships via value exchange beyond just the product. And being able to personalize your communications, and your offerings, to your customers and your consumers is really important to that.

Does the e-commerce customer base differ from that in the offline space?

This is an area I don’t have a lot of broad data on; it’s different by market and brand.

Maybe one of the big differences between online and offline shopping behaviors is the function of search – both paid and organic – since you don’t have that in the bricks-and-mortar experience.

There’s also the really exciting – and, I’ll say, still nascent – area of personalizing the experience for shoppers that’s possible in digital but not really in brick-and-mortar. I think we’ll see this getting more and more sophisticated in the CPG or food/drug/mass e-retailers in the future.

What is top of mind for you going into 2022?

I think that all of the changes that we’ve seen so far are only going to continue – back to that point of change being not just inevitable, but constant. For us, it’s really all about building strong relationships – whether that’s with our consumers, our customers, or retailers. There’s a lot of opportunity.

I’m excited by a lot of the work and the things that are happening – not just what we’re doing, but the way the industry is moving. Every part of the marketing supply chain is really thinking about and building out stronger data and tech capabilities on their platforms, so there’s a lot of great work happening.

And I think there’s going to be a lot more interesting and alternate commerce channels that come up as well – things like shoppable social media and content that are just really starting. So, exciting times.

What are the big challenges for 2022?

Well, I think that all the volatility is going to continue; I don’t think it will be over on December 31st. So many of the macro forces we’ve been dealing with will continue to be a part of our environment.

One of the things I’m focused on is: How can we drive change and have people stay energized in this world of immense change? It’s hard when so many things are changing so quickly. Keeping all of our marketers energized and engaged, then hitting that right balance of enough change but not too much to overload them, is a key focus area.

That’s very exciting, but also could be overwhelming, and so we need to figure out how to manage the change so that we can move with it rather than being overcome by it.