Marketing All-Star: Ciara Dilley

Even before COVID-19, product innovation in the CPG space was hyper competitive as brands and retailers grappled with SKU rationalization. For female-led startups, the challenge was exponentially more difficult.

Cue the pandemic and things turned upside down — even for giant marketers like Frito-Lay North America.

Ciara Dilley, who is vice president, transform brands & sustainability, already had a full plate considering her roles in product innovation, female empowerment and sustainability as it relates to the company’s packaging.

Nonetheless, Frito-Lay continued to launch healthier snack options while increasing its support of female-led companies under Dilley’s various WomanMade female-empowerment initiatives — including the annual Stacy’s Rise competition for food and beverage startups led by women.

The following interview with Dilley has been edited for brevity.

MediaPost: How has the pandemic affected product innovation in snacks?

Dilley: Many categories have thrived because consumers are looking for new ideas, innovations and products. Like new snacks, just to help alleviate the boredom and add a little bit of joy to their every day. And consumers are on social media more than ever. So they are hearing about new products much more quickly and, as well, they can just click and buy them there and then.

MediaPost: So Frito-Lay didn’t curb its new snack introductions?

Dilley: We’ve had our strongest-ever year of innovation. Launches like Cheetos popcorn, Doritos Flamin’ Hot Limon and, one of my favorites from my team, the Smartfood/Captain Crunch mashup.

MediaPost:Tell us about the trend toward healthier snacking.

Dilley: We’ve seen, particularly in the last six months, an enormous increase and acceleration of growth in healthier snacks and it’s really across the country with all consumer demographics. Sometimes, it’s to lose the extra weight they might have put on during their time at home. For many consumers, it’s really “I need to strengthen my defenses for the future.”

MediaPost:So what did Frito-Lay add to its healthier snacking lineup?

Dilley:Innovations that we’ve seen work really well this year are things like baked Ruffles Flamin’ Hot, with lower fat and less calories. For our Simply line we launched Cheetos white cheddar jalapeno. In our more progressive, healthy snacks like Off The Eaten Path, we launched white cheddar veggie puffs, and under Bare fruit snacks a pineapple and coconut chip medley.

MediaPost:Retailers were already trimming SKUs before the pandemic. Did that make it harder to gain shelf space for new products? 

Dilley:At the start, consumers were panicking and stockpiling things that offered them comfort and reassurance. At the same time, retailers’ direction to us was “make sure you can supply the top sellers.” At one stage, we cut about 21 percent of our SKUs and, yes, some of our healthier snacks — particularly the ones that are smaller and newer — did suffer. But the great thing is, as things settled, the consumer came back and demanded that we get those back on the shelves. And retailers realized that many of those SKUs were highly incremental. 

MediaPost:Tell us about WomanMade.

Dilley:WomanMade brings together all of the female-empowerment initiatives we have across North America. That could be from a brand, our foundation or a corporate initiative. We do a lot of work with The Hatchery in Chicago, which is an amazing organization. We support their female founder track. Or it could be our progressive supplier diversity program, led by our procurement team, which is trying to increase the amount of products and services that we purchase from diverse companies, including female founders. 

MediaPost:How did the annual Stacy’s Rise competition for female-led startups in food and beverages respond to pandemic related challenges as they relate to small business owners?

Dilley:We went from five founders to 15 this year, but then we also added another 15 specifically for black, female founders. So we went from five to 30.

MediaPost:What are your priorities regarding sustainability?

Dilley:We as a company have made a commitment to have all of our packaging either recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. The biggest challenge we have at the moment is our basic chip bags and the traditional way they are made, particularly with the metallic layer that protects their freshness. We are looking at plant-based materials and industry compostables. We would love to move to biodegradable. So that in the most extreme example, if somebody threw a chip bag onto the side of the road, it would biodegrade over time. So then you’re not reliant on what the consumer does. You take that power, or lack of it, out of their hands and you take over for them.Steve Elwanger

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