CMO Of The Week

CMO of the Week: The Hershey Co.’s Jill Baskin

When Jill Baskin, Chief Marketing Officer of The Hershey Co., needed a quick, quarantine-inspired campaign idea for one of her struggling brands recently, she looked in-house.

Earlier this month, Hershey launched a very COVID-relevant campaign for Ice Breakers. The idea behind the campaign, “mint before you mask,” spoke to the all-too-relatable idea that people are realizing their own breath could use some freshening while they protect themselves. 

The concept came from one of Hershey’s own assistant brand managers, whose fiancé is a radiologist and told him that mask breath is a real thing among healthcare workers. The team realized how relevant the concept was and thought it’d be a fun way to bring Ice Breakers to the forefront, especially as sales in that category had been declining as much as 40% to 50%, according to the company’s first-quarter earnings announcement. (Sales soared 30% for Hershey’s syrup, baking chips and cocoa, however.)

The work was created by Hershey’s in-house agency, C-Sweet, which was launched by Baskin after she joined the company in 2017. Though Ice Breakers typically works with Droga5, this idea was concepted and executed internally given the time constraints.

Baskin says that Ice Breakers had three weeks of media TV weight left to use at the time of the initial concept. Since the mint category has suffered in lockdown, the brand cut some ad spend, but the TV commitments had already been made. Hershey’s felt it couldn’t engage external agencies in this case, because by the time a brief, scope and fee were sorted out, the three weeks would have come and gone.

While Droga5 will be releasing more work down the road for the brand, “this is just the perfect example of the benefits of an in-house agency...I think that this particular project would just be impossible with any external agency,” she says. 


Baskin has grown to become a leader in the in-housing trend among marketers. “I get asked a lot about it,” by other brand marketers, she says. C-Sweet is still relatively small -- it started with just a handful of employees -- but has grown to include 35 people. While some brands still farm out social media and community management to agencies, The Hershey Co. handles social management and most of its PR work internally. It also handles all the work for Rolo and Heath internally because the budgets are too small to engage external agencies. Baskin says that 80% of the work that’s six seconds in length or less is handled in-house, while other work that’s 15 seconds or longer is generally still handled by external agencies. 

“I’ll never lose outside ad agencies because it’s important to have that outside point of view and have them looking at our business to find things we don’t see,” she says. 

While many brands drastically reduced ad spending amid COVID-19, Baskin says that the amount it’s spending hasn’t changed much outside of Ice Breakers, and that some of its digital dollars are going further than originally projected due to a drop in price.

“We did some options for the third quarter because digital and streaming are overdelivering and prices have dropped dramatically, so we’ll spend less because we’re spending to our impressions versus our budgets,” says Baskin. “Other than that, our mix has not changed at all. We’re pretty happy with what we’re doing.” 

This doesn’t mean that Hershey Co. didn’t have to make substitutions, or won’t have to later this year. The 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed to 2021, and the candy maker is a sponsor of Team USA. As a sponsor of the NCAA, Hershey Co. also lost ad opportunities with the cancelation of March Madness. And Hershey, like many other marketers who spend on the National Football League, may have to make substitutions if the season is cancelled this fall.   

But it’s not all dark spots on the sports front. Hershey’s brand Reese’s was one of only four sponsors for the highly anticipated ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. The five-week series was originally scheduled to run in June but was moved up to April to fill the hole in sports content due to coronavirus. It’s become a massive ratings hit for ESPN, with an average audience of 5.8 million viewers tuning into its first six episodes.

Baskin, a longtime CPG marketer who has held senior roles at Mondelez International and its predecessor Kraft Foods Group, caught up with Brand Innovators from her home in Chicago for an in-depth discussion on her in-housing philosophy, how Hershey works with emerging platforms, and how to plan a marketing calendar when it’s unclear if events like Halloween, Hershey Co.’s biggest holiday, can happen as they always have.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: You've been at Hershey for close to three years now. What made you initially want to take the role there? What excited you?

Jill Baskin: Making advertising is hard, and what appealed to me was the runway to make really great advertising and sell products, which is what makes me happy. At Mondelez I felt like there wasn’t that opportunity as much, because it was so diffused over so many markets and so many peoples making decisions. I wanted a role where a lot of it was in my control and my purview. The way Hershey was thinking about it at the time and wanted to set a CMO hub would really work for me and I would have the opportunity to really make great work. 


Q: By a CMO hub do you mean a more centralized structure with less bureaucratic layers? 

Jill Baskin: Exactly. I was also very much aligned with Hershey’s former chief growth officer, Mary Beth West. We worked together before at Mondelez and I knew we worked well together. I said to her, “I think there’s an opportunity in a centralized company like this to do an in-house agency,” and she agreed. It was a big opportunity as a CMO, and I’d never done it before.


Q: Prior to Hershey's you had jobs at other CPGs, but did you have any unexpected learning curves when you took this role on?

Jill Baskin: I’d call this a happy learning curve, but coming here I realized that candy is really easy to advertise. A lot of people give me credit for doing a great job and I hope I am, but the truth is candy really easy to advertise. Everyone knows what it is, everyone knows what to do with it. There’s no explanations. We all seek candy and we all want to eat candy. 

What becomes way more important in candy than other categories is visual identity. We lean very strongly into visual identity because short, quick hits can really work with candy. So having a really strong identity system and brand identity beyond visuals is key -- they need to be so honed and quick to understand. It’s easier, but you really have to nail the succinctness.

Q: It sounds like you've been investing more in e-sports and gaming.  What's the strategy behind that and other emerging platforms you're using? And are you planning more sponsorships like Reese's did with Twitch, which announced a partnership last year?

Jill Baskin: Almost every year we pick something we want to learn about, and get better at. That was the case when we did when we did a Reese’s and Twitch partnership. In general we were thinking we know young men are a good target for candy, but how do you reach them? Getting involved in gaming early to understand the different levels you can get involved with in gaming, we thought we could participate in an efficient and effective manner. We tried several different things, tested them out and then decided whether to go forward. It’s really a test and learn approach with new media. And based on how we can reach through who we can reach in that media. 

We’ll set aside a small amount of money where we aren’t so concerned about it. Often in our media team we are evaluated by our ROI, which makes sense, but we set aside some money where we’re more concerned with learning. 


Q: What were you looking at in emerging media for 2020? Or has that changed because of coronavirus and lockdowns?

Jill Baskin: It’s sort of changed with everything going on. This year wasn’t quite as determined as what we were going to experiment with in terms or media. But we really wanted to work with our platforms to see if we can develop better content directly with them. Rather than relying on our agencies to come up with a great Facebook idea, we wanted to work directly with them and work on creative ideas to use the platform in new ways.

From a media standpoint, it wasn’t so much a test and learn, but this year we made a big bet on streaming, which is paying off handsomely because streaming is going up so much.

As of last year, we enhanced our media mix modeling and were able to look at streaming services by their effectiveness and we did reallocate our spending based on that, and it just came in for the last 6 months and we’re looking at it closely to determine our buys because it’s easier to change up. That’s a big area of focus for us because we requested that IRI give us more granular data on the streaming services versus one single ROI for all streaming. So we are better able to determine which ones are better performing for us now.


Q: What’s your approach to advertising in new ventures like Quibi? 

Jill Baskin: We didn't invest with Quibi when they reached out a year ago or so.  We’ve had such great returns on other platforms that we just didn’t need to add it. I’d definitely consider it in the future but there was no need to be a first mover in my point of view. 


Q: Let’s talk more about in-housing. You launched C-Sweet to produce some of the work in-house faster and more efficiently. How much in terms of savings and ROI has moving some work internally provided? 

Jill Baskin: There have been significant savings. The company was willing to invest for a year and then I had to prove the ROI. There’s been savings in a couple areas: in C-Sweet and what we can do, but also we saved a lot in the design areas as well. We brought a lot of design in-house for work that had been done by agencies. Working on new product renderings when we’re working on innovation, we brought a lot of that in-house as well, because it just makes sense to do so. 

But I have to say, I probably wouldn’t do it just for the money saving. I think what it has done is three things: It has created an excitement in marketing that you cannot underestimate. People are so much more involved in the communications of the brand than they used to be. That’s almost the reason you should do it. 

Second, we are so close to our brands and understand the business in a way that an agency could try to but will not be able to understand it the way that we do. We know everything about how we’re going to market and what the timing is. You’d have to live in our space and breathe our brands to know what we know about our brands.  

And lastly, it turns out that we are more effective. When we’ve done testing on our social assets, our internal ones in general performed better than ones that had been brought to us by an outside agency. That’s why we wanted to do the 6-second work internally.

We can do things just so much faster. When it became clear we’d have to work from home, it just made it easier to be able to do some things ourselves.


Q: It looks like you have also used in-house talent to better determine how far spending goes in terms of digital media and programmatic. How do you want to structure your media regarding internal versus external resources?

Jill Baskin: Our media planning and buying is for the most part external. But we have gone from one agency doing all of it to different agencies doing different parts where we feel they are more efficient. We are going through a process of understanding what the optimum ecosystem would look like and we’re evaluating every part of the media system. I don’t think we’ll ever completely bring our media in-house. There are too many problems with that, but there are certain parts that I’d like to be more involved in than we currently are. And being Hershey-led is the way I want to approach media.


Has COVID affected how the company approaches potential new Hershey products due to changing consumer behavior? Has it inspired any new ideas?

Jill Baskin: I wouldn’t say it prompted any new products, but it did give us the opportunity to offer bundled shopping in digital ads for S’mores, which has a new campaign. We shot an ad for S’mores right before lockdowns happened, and it featured people, so we knew we’d need to adjust that and have a new S’mores ad. So we repurposed the shoot and asked the photographer to shoot a peopleless S’mores ad and that’s what’s been running. 


Q: Holidays like Easter and Halloween are important for Hershey Co. How are you navigating planning, especially for Halloween, when it’s not clear if it can be celebrated with trick or treating? 

Jill Baskin: Seasons are very core to the business. Right as COVID hit, we were right in the middle of Easter, which is our second biggest season behind Halloween. We changed a lot of our advertising to reflect COVID, but with a bit of humor. We shifted our social focus to talk about doing easter egg hunts at home, for example, and enlisted influencers to talk about how kids can still have fun at home.

For Halloween, we’re planning for all eventualities, and that means looking at how can we still make Halloween fun even if it’s at home. We don’t know what will happen -- if we’re going to be locked down, or if Halloween might be the first chance to see our neighbors. We’re planning for both. You can make Halloween ads about halloween without being about trick or treating, for instance.  

Maureen Morrison is a marketing and editorial consultant for Brand Innovators based in San Francisco.



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