The comfort food industry had a very good year. But even locked-down seekers of eating therapy eventually crave variety. Apparently, Bob Evans Farms is on it. The company famous for freezer aisle staples, like mac and cheese sides and countless sausage varieties, recently launched a new line of breakfast options and even mac and cheese riffs. CMO Thyme Hill joined Brand Insider this week to discuss how product development is central now to CPG marketing. As well, we reflected on the trend in values-driven branding from the perspective of a company that has long been identified with military and veteran causes.
MediaPost: Bob Evans has a lot of comfort foods in the mix that did well during the pandemic. How did you respond to this demand?
Thyme Hill: We did offer tons of recipes and ideas on different ways to use some of the consumer favorites, while still putting a twist on it. We got a really good response off of it. We also have some new products. White Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese came out in Walmart, and that was very much timed to a period where consumers were looking for different tastes to kind of mix it up.
MP: Was that product planned pre-pandemic or developed in response to the market?
Hill: It was a little bit of both. We had been exploring some flavor extension for a little while and a few different types of different flavors. But as we saw the pandemic coming on and started to understand what this was going to mean for people, we did lean in to that cheddar, ranch, bacon potato in order to be able to pursue the mac & cheese.
MP: Are there particularly successful campaigns in the last year that you think demonstrated some of the places where you were leaning in?
Hill: For the past six years we've done a program called Our Farm Salutes. This is our opportunity to give back to military servicemen and women and their families who survived along with them. We continued to tell consumers about [it] and asked them to get involved with us. And we saw just really great response. It's not just a reflection of who we are but, frankly, a really big pride point of mine to be a part of.
MP: Even though grocery stores stayed open, the customer journey clearly got more digitized even for CPG. How did your media spend and format choice change?
Hill: If you think just about breakfast for a second, you have less people that were going to the office but still needing and wanting breakfast -- and, frankly, eating it in higher amounts then we saw pre-pandemic.
And you had more on-demand shopping. That had us leaning more into driving people through click-and-collect, and some of those very technology-rich applications. So that was definitely what we saw as an opportunity and a change that we made to where we leaned in from an advertising standpoint.
MP: So even in digital you are focusing on getting at the point of purchase, rather than doing big branding ads and making the Internet aware that Bob Evans is on their store shelves?
Hill: So definitely when it comes to digital, it’s closer in. And we do an awful lot at the store and the point of decision. Although we do a lot there, it can be someone sitting at their computer loading up their grocery cart.
We do still see for our mass media, TV, for instance, that that's a very effective vehicle for us. It is one of the most effective and even efficient ways for us to capture new households. And so we don't see ourselves necessarily departing from what you might call a traditional media, but you do see us doing more as it relates to these close decision points certainly in the digital space.
MP: Since there was so much more streaming going on during the pandemic, were you moving any of the traditional linear and cable money into streaming?
Hill: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, right now, when we say television, for us it doesn't necessarily mean a box, [with] so many people now moving towards streaming.
MP: How do you measure all of that? How do you compare and contrast and decide where you're really moving the needle?
Hill: We do a lot around measurement. I think if you talked to any CPG marketer, they’ll probably tell you the same thing, that there's a lot of triangulation that happens.
We use some AI tools and also our consumption data that we have going back about three years, and that AI tool is constantly updating. And that system, we bring [it] into our programming, so that we can get as near in a read as possible and establish some attribution.
It's not easy. I'll say thank goodness for technology and some advances in that area, but it does allow us a pretty systematic way of looking at attribution and, with some assumptions, going into the modeling helping us see where [we’re] most effective and efficient.
MP: There is a trend in value-based branding. In the last year, have you branched out into any other causes or do you stay focused on the support-the-troops theme?
Hill: Well, Bob Evans has always been a brand and a company with a big heart, and so we currently support a number of different charitable organizations across all different verticals or industries.
We've leaned into Our Farm Salutes programming specifically for military servicemen and women and veterans. A few years ago, we actually asked our consumers, as well as our employees, where we should make some investment. And overwhelmingly, for our brand, that's what came back. And you've got so many people here that have very personal connections to the military and, of course, Bob himself was a member of the army. I mean we've gone to bases and served dinners for families and service members.
One of our long-term programs, Heroes to CEOs, was us identifying a need for veterans. As they finished up their service they want to start something and own something. There wasn't really a good grant giving program that serviced such a key part of our communities. We provide grants, as well as entrepreneurial business coaching, to veterans, and [they’re] working.
MP: A lot of marketers have told me in the last year how important it is to consult your own employees on these efforts, that it’s key to both execution and authenticity.
Hill: Oh, it is. I was around, obviously, when we started this program. We went down to the barn that you see on the front of every package we have -- that white barn. We got ahold of the real thing, and we painted it purple camouflage. And we put a message on it: “Our Farm Salutes all who have served and sacrificed.”
And we've flipped the barn on the package purple as well, and the reason we did purple is because that's a combination of all the military service colors. We built a tribute garden right there at that barn. We invited the local community, and the first flag that was placed in that garden was by Jewel Evans and Steve Evans, on behalf of Bob. So when you say it's about the people in the organization, not the four walls of it, that's 100%.
MP: You launched a few new breakfast items recently. Product innovation is really becoming a point of differentiation and competition among CPGs right now. How has product development become so much a part of marketing now?
Hill: Absolutely, and I think this past year has been a good testament to it. We talked earlier about some of the trends that we were seeing from consumers: looking for more quick to-table solutions, looking for more product diversification, as far as flavor goes, and not wanting to sacrifice convenience, quality, taste, the freshness, and experience.
Those pillars have been driving pillars for us over the last several years as we've talked about innovation. We heard from consumers that they were looking for their favorites, things that they might typically have on the weekend, but everyday - something that was a little more indulgent and things that offered more protein.
So we have our egg bites. We also have omelet wraps. I think most of our products are addressing product mobility, even if the only place I'm traveling to is upstairs to the new home office. And how do you do that and still not sacrifice taste, the freshness, have something hot, those types of things? We've been pretty excited about what the consumer has been asking for because it fits right in [our] wheelhouse and has allowed us to do some very interesting things as a result.
MP: Since you've been at Bob Evans for 10 years, over that time have you seen the role of product development and marketing evolve?
Hill: Oh yeah, definitely. It's interesting that as we started out we had more of a drive toward household and distribution, and those types of things. Those drives will never go away, but the consumer is wanting more and more as far as add-on solutions go. We obviously have innovation team members as part of a brand organization, very tightly locked with our R&D organization, making sure that we can satisfy what the consumer wants.
MP: What's coming from Bob Evans? What's going to change?
Hill: On the innovation front, [we’re] more leaned in on protein, more leaned into mobility, and things that travel well for the consumer. And even more emphasis on how to make it that much easier for consumers to eat well.
As we innovate, it's going to be more and more in the refrigerated space. We know that more and more consumers are looking for refrigerated solutions and things that signal fresher. And from an experience standpoint, really deliver on it as close as they can get to kind of making it themselves. So finding their favorite foods right next to their eggs and their milk and right next to their meats, and the things that they're putting on their shopping list for every week. You're going to see more and more of that from Bob Evans.