CMO of the Week: Kimberly Clark’s Zena Arnold

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As Kimberly-Clark’s Global Chief Digital & Marketing Officer since May 2020, Zena Srivatsa Arnold has spent her first year on the job embracing the hybrid nature of her role.

As Kimberly-Clark’s Global Chief Digital & Marketing Officer since May 2020, Zena Arnold has spent her first year on the job embracing the hybrid nature of her role.

“I think the reason I was brought here was to really think about how K-C could modernize our marketing and think with a digital-first mindset,” she says. “I don’t mean digital like a channel, I mean digital in the way that everyone is living these days. From getting insights, reaching consumers and making sure that your product is purchasable when people are in online spaces, it really extends to the full consumer journey.” 

Like most CPG companies, Arnold says Kimberly-Clark has historically thought about marketing as a way to drive consideration through buying ads. But as some of the company’s competitors have proven, the use of first-party data can be an effective way to build direct relationships even without a traditional commercial campaign. “In the past, it wasn’t possible to have a one-one with millions of consumers across the globe, but now data has made that possible,” she says. “So we’re thinking about how to evolve our skill sets, the tools and techniques that are needed and the ways of working with a much more agile mindset, testing, learning and experimenting.”

Arnold is helping spearhead that approach after a year of unprecedented demand for several of Kimberly-Clark’s flagship products, most notably toilet paper brands Cottonelle and Scott and paper towel brands like Viva. So intense was the initial demand for Cottonelle in the first weeks of the pandemic that the brand quickly created an initiative called #ShareASquare to discourage hoarding of its toilet paper and inspire community outreach, led by its own pledge of $1 million to United Way Worldwide’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Sales of Kimberly-Clark’s consumer tissue segment continued to soar throughout the year, and increased 21% in North America alone during fourth-quarter 2020. Worldwide, Kimberly-Clark finished 2020 with a 4% increase in net sales, to $19.1 billion. (As expected, first-quarter 2021 sales saw a dip compared to the initial wave of demand from Q1 2020, with consumer tissue sales down 12% worldwide and a total net sales decrease of 5% for the company.) 

Joining Kimberly-Clark marked a return to CPG for Arnold, who started her marketing career with six years at Procter & Gamble working on brands like Folgers and Olay, followed by a three-year stint at Kellogg overseeing its Pop-Tarts and Kellogg Masterbrand products. Most recently, she spent six years at Google overseeing various product marketing divisions from Google Play to ChromeBooks and ChromeOS.

Brand Innovators caught up with Arnold from her home in Chicago to learn more about Cottonelle’s anti-hoarding strategy, Kimberly-Clark’s sustainability commitments and how the company’s exploding ecommerce business will shape the years ahead. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: Given the unprecedented demand for many of your products this past year, from toilet paper and diapers to masks and respirators, how did your messaging evolve when supplies were running low to where your supply is currently? 

Zena Arnold: Given the huge spike in demand for our product, there were a lot of ways that we could have reacted to that. But one of the things that I'm most proud of with Cottonelle is we chose to share this message of #ShareASquare, to discourage hoarding and say that’s not what we want people to do. That's a fairly difficult decision for brands to make. Typically when you've got a ton of demand, you want to cash in on that as much as you can. But for us, it was really about this long-term message for consumers and our brands. We didn’t want to encourage excess purchases. It was the right thing to do to tell everyone, “It’s OK, we’re making it as fast as we can, the product is coming and there's no need to panic.” It's one of those things that later on we'll look back and see that the equity of the brand will grow with those kinds of messages, even if in the short-term that’s not going to drive more demand and impact on sales.

How has the tone in your messaging for flagship brands like Cottonelle evolved over the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic to where we are now with renewed optimism and public spaces opening back up?

Most of our brands are fairly optimistic brands, so we are returning right back to that. But it depends on where in the world you’re talking about. In some places, obviously, they’re in a lot more of a troubling state and things aren’t getting better, it does depend on the market and how we’re reactivating. 

We have a new brand campaign and an idea around Huggies that we launched during the Big Game earlier this year, and that was just a really great showcase of a very authentic yet optimistic view of parenting that I think landed really well. We are definitely in the phase of looking ahead and seeing the world is going to see a return to normal. And some of our brands will want to stand for the things that we stand for, so we’ll ensure that the messaging we have out there reflects that. 

Kimberly-Clark recently pledged to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint by 2030. How will you message that from a marketing standpoint?

Sustainability of brands and products is becoming more and more important to consumers. It’s been fascinating as a marketer to see it evolve over the past 20 years. When I started my career, it was this tiny segment of consumers who wanted some green messaging, but it wasn’t a mainstream thing. And now it's absolutely mainstream with a lot of consumers in a lot of markets. 

We’ve taken a number of important steps like that pledge, and we’ve also launched some new products with sustainable benefits – Huggies Special Delivery diapers now have a baby-side liner and waistband made with fibers derived from plant-based materials such as sugarcane. And in some of our markets like the UK we have a new initiative for diapers on the Tiniest Footprint with Huggies, where we’ll be sharing our actions with consumers and what impact those actions have in the world when we switch ingredients of the product — this is how much we were saving in plastic a year for an average family. Those kinds of things have really sparked and are growing ever more important. We will absolutely be telling consumers about what our brands are doing.

What actions have you taken as a marketer to advance Kimberly-Clark's diversity, equity & inclusion commitments this past year, whether it's more diversity in your marketing or hiring more diverse teams behind the camera?

It’s been such a big year for awareness and action, which is both painful and gratifying to see that it’s coming to the forefront so much more. We’ve done a number of things here at K-C, I’ve been really proud that the team has developed what we call brand responsibility principles and guidelines. We as a brand have always had media safety, brand health guidelines, but thought of it more in the brand safety terminology. What we wanted to shift to was this idea of brand responsibility, the money that we spend in marketing — which is considerable — we should be thinking about how it’s affecting the people in the ecosystem and ensuring that we’re not being in negative spaces, so getting those responsibility guidelines for our organization was really helpful. 

We had a stake in the ground of what we could look at and think at, we took a lot of action behind it, depending on the market, the situation and the actions taken are really different depending on where you are in the globe. We had training and immersion sessions to bring thinking to a lot of our marketers around underrepresented groups. We joined Mindshare along with our Kotex brand to form an inclusive Black Community Private Marketplace (PMP) to help promote a lot of really great content for underrepresented consumers. We also did one for LGBTQ consumers, and a lot of our brands took some great actions as well. 

One that I particularly love here in the U.S. — Cottonelle launched a partnership with BLKHLTH to talk about colorectal cancer which happens at a higher rate in the African-American population. We used the opportunity to use our brand spend to drive awareness, as it’s a subject that a lot of people don’t want to talk about but it’s really important that they do. 

There’s a long way to still go, I don’t know if anyone's figured it out, but for us it’s important to make efforts in this space, have action out there in the world, and keep going because we won’t be able to go the distance that we need to unless we keep constantly improving.

One thing that CPG brands in particular have been able to help accelerate is the use of strong language to combat racism - being antiracist, not just taking a stand against hate. How has that manifested in your efforts?

One of the things that had so much impact here at K-C as an internal initiative was we had what we call Caring Conversations last year. Ater the murder of Geroge Floyd, we had people from all levels of the organization come together for these conversations, and it was so amazing to see the vulnerability that people shared and the openness with which they shared their experiences. Everyone who was in these sessions came away with this deeper understanding, which represents one of the core values in our mission which is caring — caring for the consumers, caring for the world. All companies have to figure out how to have these conversations, and you also have to do it in a way that feels authentic to your company, and really not have it be something that feels performative. It needs to really be authentic and I think we did a really great job of that. 

Other things we're working on as part of those brand responsibility guidelines is we’re working with all of our agencies and various partners to see how they’re doing when it comes to representation for the people working on our business. We’re looking internally and asking: do we have the right representation on our brand teams? There’s a way to go, but it’s about making a few concerted actions.

Given the dual digital focus of your role, where are you with Kimberly-Clark’s efforts to build a better cookie for online advertising? 

We’re on a journey. I think the most holy grail of data is first-party data and giving consent, and I think the key to getting that from consumers is a value exchange — what are we providing to consumers? Part of the mindset from creating ads to a relationship is it’s not just about serving a message, but how can I give them something - a product, information, something that is valuable to you, in a moment of time that will make you happy to want to connect with me? That’s really where our focus is, how do we grow those relationships, how do we get that first-party data to find consumers in other places? 

How do you see the shopping behaviors consumers have developed during the past year from the pandemic evolving long-term?

Shopping online is probably the biggest behavior change that we've seen. We saw such a big increase in our own online sales. Our categories prior to the pandemic weren’t really major online, and during the pandemic and people not wanting to go to stores, it was a big shift. That’s absolutely something that’s not going to go back, the barriers to doing that for a lot of people are gone. It’s so simple and easy to order your groceries and have them delivered, but with home being such a critical part of consumers’ lives, we’ll see some seesawing back and forth. I think you'll have a lot more people out and traveling, thrilled to be back in an office, but I do think eventually it’ll settle into a more hybrid space in the long-term, and provide a lot of opportunities for our products.

With the accelerated growth in your ecommerce business, have you considered owning your own shopping portals or will you continue to lean on your retail partners? 

We haven't yet, but we’ve been having great results and relationships with a lot of our retail partners and seen these huge spikes happen there. It's absolutely something we would consider if we could get to that really great value exchange, and I think given how consumers are interacting with e-retail, you’ve gotta have an important and differentiating reason to be there and be successful. I don’t believe if you build a website they will come. So yes, we’re thinking if that value truly comes to be, then it’s something we would consider, but we’ve seen some great success with our current partners.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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