Q&A: Sterling Brands CEO Cantor On CPG Challenges, 'Excavation' Research

When Susan Cantor entered the world of advertising in 1989, “Field Of Dreams” was not only a hit movie but also could have described the CPG landscape, compared to today’s brand free-for-all. 

Since then, Cantor has worked with a variety of global CPG marketers in the walkup to her recent hiring as CEO of branding agency Sterling Brands, whose clients include Bare snacks, Corona beer, Skittles, Krispy Kreme, Pedigree pet food and Starbucks creamers.

In this interview with CPG FYI, Cantor talks about legacy brand rejuvenation, how “excavation” research fuels a holistic approach to brand marketing and the CBD-infused products craze.

CPG FYI:What accounts for the seemingly endless number of CPG brands competing for consumer attention over the past few decades?

Susan Cantor: It’s a variety of things: access to different ingredients, globalization, changes in the supply chain, access to new and different brands around the world and bringing them to new geographies. Another piece to that is a very fickle consumer who is bombarded with new messages and alternatives every day in probably every category.

CPG FYI: Legacy CPG marketers are certainly under the gun in many ways and are looking for ways to jump-start iconic brands. Talk about your work several years ago on Fig Newtons.

Cantor: At the time, people were abandoning the cookie aisle in favor of healthier habits. We did a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to determine what kind of messaging would resonate with consumers. The hypothesis was, talking about figs as antioxidants and then looking to other fruits that had those same qualities and imbuing those fruits into the Newtons brand. It was extremely successful.

CPG FYI: Sounds like what Campbell is now doing to rejuvenate V8 — by saying it’s been plant-based forever.

Cantor: I think companies that are results-challenged in many different categories have to look across their portfolios and say, “What do we have historically that we’ve underpromoted and not merchandised as product benefits? What do we have that would appeal to today’s consumer tastes?’”

CPG FYI:Sterling uses the term “holistic branding.” What does that mean?

Cantor: Holistic branding sort of creates a tension between enduring brand elements and then elements that can easily and wisely flex to reflect the culture, tastes and demands of an ever-changing world and an oft-changing consumer. 

Holistic brands need to articulate and promote values that deeply reflect their purpose in the world and inspire their employees on why they come to work every day.

CPG FYI:How do you go about collecting the insights and intelligence to accomplish this?

Cantor: I think so many of the tried-and-true customer research formats are ineffective today in helping to unearth pivotal insights. 

In order to build a truly holistic brand experience, you need a truly holistic research approach that allows consumers to deeply express their underlying —and maybe inarticulate — beliefs and attitudes, stresses that they feel, the desires they have for the future. I call it excavation research.

CPG FYI:Are focus groups still effective?

Cantor: You can do traditional focus groups, but you need to have nontraditional moderation. 

I have fielded qualitative research across the world that used stimulus representative of all the different senses — sight, touch, smell and sound — in order to help people express those inarticulate feelings they have about a category, brand or product.

CPG FYI:What is your take on the rise of direct-to-consumer brands?

Cantor: Every CPG company has to be considering DTC. If they’re not, then they have to strongly be considering the Amazon marketplace as a way to more directly interface with consumers. 

The complicated issue for CPG companies, of course, is that today the majority of their business is still driven by the big influential retailers who don’t want to see these products going direct to consumer because it immediately impacts their bottom line. 

CPG FYI:What about CBD in food and beverages?

Cantor: The CPG category definitely suffers from a kind of jump-on-the bandwagon mentality. As soon as an ingredient reveals itself to be highly appealing to customers, every CPG manufacturer on the planet will jump on it and infuse it into their products. In a world of quarterly pressures, an ingredient that is driving sales is going to be imbued into many, many different kinds of products. 

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