Nestlé is a global CPG behemoth. Straddling categories as diverse as ice cream, pizza, baby food and water, Nestlé owns some of the world’s most iconic brands like Kit Kat, Nespresso, Delissio and Gerber. Over its 150 year history the Swiss-based organization has had to evolve, grow and transform how it operates and how it markets to be successful. Today’s market of Amazon dominance, chat-bots and programmatic are merely the newest challenges for Nestlé marketers to tackle. Over a delicious Nespresso coffee, I had the opportunity to interview Nestlé Canada’s Digital Transformation and eCommerce Leader Lee Beech and ask how the organization is tackling this new raft of challenges.

(Note – this interview happened before Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods)

HB: Thanks Lee, delicious coffee by the way. You’re a Nestlé veteran. Tell me about your journey and your current role. 

LB: Yes it’s been almost 17 years working for Nestlé which, in this day and age, might seems unusual. In reality it’s been an ever evolving and changing role that has literally taken me all over the world. I started in the Nestlé UK office looking at how the organization should be tackling websites, moved to Germany then in 2005 came over to Canada. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to lead several regional initiatives across the Americas to my latest role which is, quite simply, to establish Nestlé Canada as a digital lead market globally. With an organization that has the scale and complexity of Nestlé there really is never a dull moment. That may explain why I’ve stayed as long as I have. Being tasked to make Nestlé Canada a leader in digital was just too good an opportunity to turn down.

HB: In other interviews I’ve talked about how abstract the phrase “Digital Transformation” is. Each organization has their own perception of the term and what the opportunity really is. What’s Nestlé Canada’s perspective? 

LB: Digital is absolutely changing many of our practices across Nestlé Canada. That’s inevitable as every part of the business is feeling the tide shift to digital. Just look at how our partners like WalMart, Loblaws are changing digitally. At Nestlé Canada we see a real opportunity for marketing to lead the transformation. Our VP of Communication and Marketing Excellence Tracy Cooke has been a very vocal proponent of this. After all, our role in Marketing is to anticipate the needs of both our consumers and customers and increasingly that means a digital solution.

In many ways we’re the tip of the spear which is why our Marketing team has undergone the most sizable change in terms of people, processes and practices. Internally we like to consider ourselves as the “flag bearers of opportunity” which is a great way to look at the important task we’ve been given.

HB: Can you give me some Canadian examples of what those changes have been?

LB: Sure, not surprisingly it’s the people we’ve brought into the organization that I consider the biggest change. We’ve done a number of really fantastic initiatives but none of those would’ve been possible if we hadn’t been able to attract new skills and new thinking into our team. Ex-Mondolez’s Bonin Bough has said repeatedly that he’s actually competing with Google, Adobe for the best talent. As a 150 year-old CPG company we face that very same challenge. We’ve recently started experimenting with running our own programmatic efforts which is new across the Nestlé company. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we’d not been able to bring new blood into Nestlé – and if our Leadership and our HR partners weren’t willing to think in new ways too. The change has to start with new thinking and that often can be accelerated by bringing in new perspectives. If you’d asked me 5 years ago if we’d have a Digital Merchandiser and a Buy-side Programmatic Manager on staff here, I’d have shaken my head. Today those individuals are key parts of our digital efforts.

HB: Fair point. CPG’s often get hammered for being laggards rather than leaders in Digital. Is that a fair criticism and how is Nestlé Canada addressing that point-of-view?

LB: Access to the last mile has been a traditional issue CPG marketers have had to deal with. In the digital arena that often means the richest data – and most intriguing insights – sit within our partners. Data really is the holy grail that powers many of digital’s biggest opportunities.

At Nestlé Canada we’re definitely looking at new channels, new partnerships and new ideas to get more of that richer data and insight.

Our Nestlé Baby program is a real jewel in terms of a DTC CRM model that we’ve been successfully operating for several years locally. Globally our Nespresso brand has been doing some incredible things too to build a different, and more direct, relationship with our consumers. In recent months we’ve been aggressively trialing efforts with homegrown partners like Shopify and even looking at how we can use distribution channels like UberEats paired with our Delissio pizza brand to learn new things about the Canadian consumer.

Importantly, these aren’t about driving huge revenue but about learning vital lessons that we can bring back into the company. “What else is in their cart?”, “what promotions do they respond to in this environment?” “what patterns are we seeing?” All of these new pieces of information have a ripple effect through the company. They impact which products we consider refreshing or rebranding and make us consider elements like ratings and reviews which are foundational in many digital models.

HB: Working with UberEats and Shopify obviously aren’t initiatives driven from your headquarters in Switzerland. How much latitude are you given locally to drive a uniquely Canadian digital agenda?

LB: We’re given a fair bit of latitude locally but it would be a mistake for us not to leverage the enormous clout and knowledge that exists within the Nestlé ecosystem. Its always about balancing pragmatism – and a legitimate business requirement for effectiveness and efficiency – with local opportunity. Why negotiate with a local software vendor when Vevey (Nestlé’s HW on the banks of Lake Geneva) is looking to implement a similar global solution? However tackling certain initiatives locally –like Shopify and our content creation partnership with Flashstock – gives us the agility to get it out the door faster, learn faster and then make the necessary refinements.

HB: Nestlé is a 150-year old organization which suggests a very embedded culture and way of doing things. How has this digital push been impacted by that reality – and, vice versa, how has the culture had to adapt in order to be successful?

LB: No doubt. Trust is a very important value here at Nestlé. Considering our roots in food products we’ve always been very concerned about earning the trust of our consumers but Trust also means the way we earn and respect the trust of our colleagues too. We’ve absolutely had to become more comfortable with pushing ourselves outside the comfort zones we’ve operated in historically. That takes trust. Risk taking, no matter how you define it, requires high levels of confidence and trust in your colleagues and how they are approaching a problem. We take that very seriously.

That is also partially why we make very sure we’re sharing our initiatives within Nestlé Canada but also across the organization. In many ways its about having an attitude of Transparency and Visibility. If you operate through that lens it can have a profound impact. For example, it can be a real morale booster to see the progress and leadership we’re making but it also gives us a forum to foster conversations and debates with our colleagues. “This is what we’ve done and what we’ve learnt” can be a great means to build openness and trust. I would definitely say that we’ve not always shown or highlighted some of the remarkable work or projects we’re doing worldwide. I do see that changing and Nestlé putting more emphasis on building trust by showing these projects to a broader audience.

In some ways I also look at this notion of “anticipating customer’s needs” as another part of this value of Trust. If we keep focusing our efforts on better understanding what we’re doing well, where we can improve and make meaningful changes, we’ll keep earning our consumer’s trust.

It’s really a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy if we keep Trust at the core of how we operate.

HB: Working within Nestlé for the time you have must have taught you a number of valuable lessons. What lessons are you comfortable sharing with your peers and colleagues reading this interview?

LB: Some of the lessons I’ve had constantly reinforced are some of the most basic. “Demonstrate quick wins” is a classic but with all the confusion and hype around digital transformation, nothing builds confidence internally than a few quick wins. The other has to be “Don’t boil the ocean.” Again with some many choices and options out there it can be quite easy to succumb to trying to do it all. Don’t. Finally this isn’t a lesson as much as an attitude I suppose. “Be Stubborn About Pushing Forward” – when you’re trying to do something new setbacks are unfortunate and often inevitable but if you’re a little stubborn then you’ll keep moving forward. A bit of stubbornness can actually be a good thing from my experience.

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This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the intersection of Culture and Digital Transformation – and the challenges organizations face when those two forces meet. This challenge will, I believe, shape the business agenda for the next decade so we all have a lot to learn. 

If you’d like to share your story, please DM me on Twitter @ZimHilton or reach out via LinkedIn.

Want to find out how Starbucks, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and other organizations are tackling the intersection of Digital Transformation & Culture?

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