Some months ago Mondelez International launched Oreo De-lite in China, a crispier, slimmer and snazzily packaged version of the cookie aimed to appeal younger women in the country. Turning out new twists on the flagship Oreo brand is key to the candy maker’s strategy these days and driving this strategy is the genial Elaine Rodrigo, global director for consumer insights at strategy, biscuits division.
Rodrigo is a consumer insights veteran, having cut her teeth at Reckitt Benckiser where she held prominent regional and global positions for seven years. She joined Mondelez, then known as Kraft, in 2007 as director consumer insights and strategy, Asia-Pacific, before being promoted to the global role in 2013.
Rodrigo has very fond memories of her time at Reckitt Benckiser (RB). She landed her first global role, moved to London and forged lasting friendships. On the business side, she credits RB for teaching her the importance of speed to market, decisiveness and drive for action.
At Mondelez, Rodrigo is responsible for all consumer, shopper and analytics insights for the global category team, ensuring that all strategies, innovation and communications are underpinned by strong consumer foundations. Although global, Rodrigo spends most of her time on China, India, Brazil, Russia, US, UK and France.
The global biscuits insights team consists of three global senior leaders and five regional heads that report to Rodrigo. The global team is in charge of setting the global agenda for strategy, communication and innovation, while the regional leads collaborate with countries for in market execution and local insights. Rodrigo insists on having weekly conversations with local and regional teams because she feels it’s important not work in isolation.
Her understanding of eating patterns is critical to the food company’s success. “We want to make Mondelez a snacking powerhouse,” she says, conveying a sense of drive at the very outset of the interview. “But in order to do that we have to understand how consumers eat and snack.”
It is her view that 80 per cent of consumer insights are universal across markets, and 20 per cent vary by market.
She says, people around the world snack for three reasons: to fuel their hunger; treat themselves; and to boost energy. While, all cultures consume three main meals a day, timing and gaps between meals vary from country to country. China and Russia demonstrate structured meal patterns, while the US, Australia and Canada cluster together because of their tendency to skip meals.
This has led to the emergence of certain habits and the creation of new meal occasions. In China, for instance, this has resulted in a munching habit, while consumers in the US, Australia and Canada have taken to meal replacements.
Emerging market focus
Biscuits is the biggest category for Mondelez, accounting for 33 per cent of sales globally. Rodrigo doesn’t break-up numbers, but admits the company is heavily focused on emerging markets like, China, India and Indonesia.
An indication of this, Rodrigo points out, is the company’s “China-out” strategy. Although a global category, product innovation and communication strategies in the category are now developed with the Chinese consumer in mind. “China’s snacking market is extremely sophisticated and several products we’re working on our going to be developed in China first and then exported to other markets,” she says, noting that the strategy is already in play for Oreo De-lite, which is likely to launch in other geographies in the next two years.
This is a significant departure for a brand that until the mid-1990s was largely focused on the US market, reflected in its popular tagline ‘America’s best loved cookie’.
Rodrigo says Mondelez’s commitment to the Asian market is also reflected in its decision to move more global team members closer to emerging markets. “In my role it is particularly important for my team to be close to consumers in order to stay on the pulse of evolving consumer needs and habits.”
From a personal standpoint, despite given the option to move to the US, Rodrigo chose to stay in Singapore, a place she feels is easier to manage both career and motherhood, backed by a strong support system.
This has meant that she travels 50 per cent of the time, primarily to China and India, the prized jewels of the firm’s international target markets, as well as Indonesia, US, Brazil and Europe. The family- friendly Mondelez also gives Rodrigo the flexibility of working from home, and as such, she finds that her busiest hours tend to be between 8 pm and midnight. “I have two children and in a way this global role has enabled me to have better work-life balance,” she says.
China and India
The consumer company’s deep dive into China began in 2005, following a decade of little success in the market. Research showed that Chinese consumers found the American cookie “too sweet” and “too bitter”. Kraft then introduced a variant with reduced sugar and in different packages.
The results were off the charts. Today, Oreo is the biggest biscuits brand, larger than the next largest biscuits manufacturer. It has helped Mondelez capture 16 per cent of China’s market share, according to market research firm Euromonitor. This exponential growth has come in the past 10 years alone, an achievement Rodrigo is extremely proud of.
Local innovations continue to be a priority in China. Rodrigo’s team has discovered that people are starting to eat on-the-go and out-of-home. “As jobs become more demanding, consumers are snacking much more in between meals.” Picking up on this trend, Mondelez introduced smaller packs and sub packs. Munching is another growing space. In line with that, it launched Oreo Minis in a cup – a smaller, more “poppable” variant. “We realise that in China the needs are already evolving and consumers have a different sensorial profile.”
The global insights team is also tasked with tailoring advertising and communications to suit local tastes. One example of this can be seen in the brand’s tie up with Transformers. Although a global tie up, Mondelez used local insights to market in China. Rodrigo says a lot of Chinese consumers eat with their eyes and so the company created several Transformers embossed cookies and massive in-store displays. Another critical brand building theme in the country is around families and bonding between parents and children, so, Mondelez developed an app, through which, parents can leave their kids robot-like voice messages.
Rodrigo isn’t too concerned about a recent first-quarter update, showing a 2.7 per cent drop in revenue in APAC, attributed to the performance of the snack maker’s biscuit business in China.
According to her, consumers in China are changing at the speed of light. “I’d rather call it a shift than a decline. We just have to make sure we react quickly,” she says.
The hope is that, in addition to keeping the brand up to date with current trends, the team works towards future proofing and developing indicators that demonstrate trajectory. “It’s like looking into a crystal ball,” she jokes.
Lessons from the Chinese market are clearly shaping Oreo’s strategy in India. “This is where the power of our global team is so important – using learnings from other markets,” says Rodrigo.
Launched in 2011, Oreo was sweetened for the Indian palate and offered in a smaller size and at competitive price points. Global campaign themes are used with an Indian spin. Because dunking is more relevant than twisting, it started the Daily Dunk, an offshoot of the Daily Twist, a digital initiative from the US. Efforts are starting to show in the world’s largest biscuit market. Rodrigo claims that it has become one of the top ten countries for the brand in a short space of time.
Changing research landscape
Rodrigo speaks passionately about the evolution of research. “It’s put a lot of pressure on people in this role,” she points out, and says, “if you don’t reinvent, you will become obsolete”. “It is no longer just a conduit between internal stakeholders and the research agency. Today, it’s almost like research is a means to an end.” Personally, she finds more people are now interested in getting her opinion on subjects like innovation and brand equity.
This trend is particularly noticeable when devising communication plans. Rodrigo observes that her team has moved from being an evaluator to a “creative collaborator”.
In the past, campaign ideas that got shot down in focus groups were swiftly nixed, but today, the team is able to ask questions and work within small focus groups to build an idea and make it work. Rodrigo’s attitude is encouraging.
“Instead of just taking a numeric approach, we’re working closely with suppliers and planners to evaluate and build copies,” she says, adding that too much testing can kill creativity.
- 2013 Global director, consumer insights and strategy, Mondelez International
- 2007 Director consumer insights and strategy, Asia-Pacific, Mondelez International
- 2006 Area market research director Reckitt Benckiser
- 2001 Global Category Market Research Director Reckitt Benckiser
- 1999 Project manager Ipsos
- 1998 Senior research executive, TNS
- Interests Theatre, spending time at the beach, holidays with family and friends
- Biggest achievement Balancing a happy marriage and family life with a successful career