Nikita Mishra
Dec 20, 2023

The secrets of a sticky brand: 3M’s CMO on her MO in challenging times

Despite market turmoil and organisational changes, 3M outpaced expectations to post strong quarterly results with over $8 billion in sales. Chitkala Nishandar, the APAC marketing director, reveals how the legacy brand adapts to the changing needs of Gen Z consumers.

The secrets of a sticky brand: 3M’s CMO on her MO in challenging times

The CMO's MO: 9 questions with dynamic APAC marketing leaders, insights and personalities revealed. 

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The unassuming scotch tape is so ubiquitous that you would hardly think of it as an invention. Back in 1925, Richard Drew, a 23-year-old banjo-playing engineering college dropout at 3M, invented this all-purpose adhesive after two years of intense hard work, experimentation and innovation—it caused quite a stir.

The Great Depression was underway, and the era of scarcity meant that housewives, bankers, farmers and factory workers were using this adhesive marvel to piece together just about anything—mending clothing, strapping pigeon wings, preparing windows for air raids, resealing envelopes, cropping photo negatives, applying festive decorations, getting criminal fingerprints, among others. 

The story and the success of Scotch tape and Drew’s role in the company is one of extraordinary determination, innovation and risk-taking abilities—Drew pioneered not just the Scotch transparent and masking tape, but also revolutionised the way his company, 3M treated creative “misfits”—a legacy that current Asia-Pacific marketing director, Chitkala Nishandar is not just proud of but wholeheartedly embraces. 

Drawing parallels to the Scotch tape saga, Nishandar’s marketing efforts mirror the tape’s versatility—keeping a legacy brand contemporary, relevant and steadfast in its core values. 

Much like Scotch tape-strapped pigeon wings and sealed envelopes during the 1940s, Nishandar faces the challenges of strapping 3M’s brands across different markets and ensuring the iconic brands still resonate and remain cohesive in the ever-evolving consumer landscape. 

As the year draws to a close, Nishandar shares the challenges, opportunities and her vision as a marketer with Campaign Asia-Pacific. Stick with us for the full interview below:  

Chitkala Nishandar, APAC marketing director, 3M.

1. What are the three biggest marketing challenges for your brand right now?

3M was born in 1902. Our challenges are what other legacy brands often face—to keep the brand contemporary, relevant and the core values intact. Youthful and meaningful. For inspiration, I look up to timeless brands like Cadbury’s and how they approach their campaigns, a more recent and salient one would be Barbie.

In 3M, we have had some rich and powerful brands like Scotch Tape, born in the Depression era when people conserved, repaired, rebuilt, and re-used their resources. From there, Scotch Tape became integral to every home and office. Today, even though the economic context has changed, the brand’s core consumer values of reliability and resourcefulness continue to be meaningful and have extended their role into creativity and versatile home improvement.

Another challenge is how to ensure that our successful brands in a developed market model also straddle emerging markets, where the environment and competitive context are different. The key is to anchor your brand proposition in a universal consumer truth and bolster it with the right SKU configuration, right pricing, and right channel presence. A great example of 3M is Command (Hanging Solutions)—whether it is Japan, Thailand or China, our homes in Asia are small, and consumers need space within a space.

2. What are the three biggest opportunities for your brand?

Meaningfully stand out, drive memorability of our communication amidst the noise. With the highly fragmented media environment, the consumer forgets twice as many brand messages than what they retain, so cutting through the clutter, especially with budget constraints—is always a priority.

Given the current inflation and market headwinds, we have to ensure that marketing efforts have consistency, efficiency and yet be effective in giving us the returns we expect. As we fight for a share of voice in an overcrowded content landscape, we have to get ahead of the viewers’ tendency to scroll past this mountain of ads to stop and view our message. So, we have brought in dynamic creative optimisation to increase personalised communication.  Creative automation is a game-changer as we have seen it drive up the quality of content, reduce time and hence, better return on marketing investment.

Building on the previous point, an exciting initiative I am proud of, is our effort to ramp up last-mile digital conversion. We have built an APAC Content Hub, which is aimed at speeding and scaling up regional e-commerce content needs. The Hub has used shopper journey maps and Search data to create a regional content playbook. This has vastly enhanced our ability to generate superior quality content with rapid localisation for diverse e-platforms, which we further optimise through online testing. It’s a tall task but we are excited to learn and see it evolve as we see sharper outcomes.

Thirdly, one major opportunity for us to connect the dots across data sources to drive up our ability to predict. We are good at triangulating across sales, consumer brand data, and media data to diagnose and analyse what worked and what didn’t. But with the acceleration of generative AI, what we can do with past data to engineer our future communication and influence future product/ positioning/ packaging innovation becomes a source for blue sky thinking. This is an area that we are keen to explore more. 

3. Marketing maestros or growth gurus: are chief marketing officers the new chief growth officers?

Without getting pedantic about acronyms, in my view, marketing has always required an organised, multi-disciplinary approach to growth. It needs to take ownership of the destiny of the brand—and not limit it to a silo of campaign performance metrics. I have been fortunate to work on brands that have had a heritage that has stood the test of time. An exceptional marketing leader needs to have a strong sense of the DNA of the brand and a vision and courage to steer it to a space that is a credible leap. That will not, and should not, change.

OOO for hobbies like yoga and hiking

4. Give us one example to convince our readers that your brand is walking the talk on sustainability. 

3M announced on Earth Day 2021 that it is committing to reduce its use of new plastic made from petroleum. By 2025, we aim to achieve a new sustainability goal: reduce dependence on virgin fossil-based plastic by 125 million pounds.

To achieve this new goal, our Consumer Group is innovating products and packaging, including the use of recycled content and bio-based plastics and designs to decrease overall plastic use. I am particularly excited about the launch of Scotch-Brite Greener Clean Non-Scratch Scrubbers, which are made with 75% post-consumer recycled plastic and encased in recyclable packaging made from 100% post-consumer recycled content.  Our dish-scrubber portfolio, which includes Scotch-Brite Greener Clean Corn fiber-based scrubbers, will offer consumers a wider choice of products in some Asian countries.

5. What do you feel separates your brand culture from others?

Team offsites 

Our wonderfully energetic, innovative spirit. That spirit is ingrained in our organisation and way of thinking as much as it is embodied in our brands. The attention to the technology of our products, the rigour of testing involved and differentiating our brands on the basis of credible consumer claims is something we pride ourselves on. It is this exceptional culture that has built loyalty and trust in our brands and is something we integrate in our communication.

6. What kind of a CMO are you? Answer using a maximum of three adjectives.

Intuitive storyteller, data-driven, and a change agent. 

7. What’s your favourite brand campaign that you participated in or wish you had?

I am partial to our own Post-it Notes campaign that was launched with the aim of rejuvenating the brand in the face of a growing ‘digital distancing’. Digitalisation has led to a change in how we express ourselves through writing, how we share our thoughts, and how we organise ourselves. Young people, especially, are impacted by this change. Our Post-it Notes campaign has sought to inspire our students about the power of writing down your study and life goals on a Post-it Note. Through the fun of Augmented Reality filters on Instagram, the campaign has made this a fun activity. This campaign has grown our brand engagement in our lead markets in Asia. 

8. Name another brand (can’t be yours) with an amazing customer experience that you really admire. Why is it great?

There are many brands I admire and I’d like to learn from. Unilever’s Lifebuoy campaign is inspirational for its powerful and purposeful narrative and, of course, Coca-Cola for its perennially youthful exuberance. On the execution side, I have enjoyed how L’Oreal has leveraged AR across diverse offline, social and e-commerce platforms to enliven and elevate the consumer experience. The brand’s ‘try-on’ technology allows consumers to experience make-up by eliminating the all-important need for a physical trial.

9. Tell us one personal thing about yourself that others might not know.

I have been fortunate to live and work in five different countries (India, Egypt, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore) with diverse cultures. I am often asked which is my favourite and my answer is, like a parent, I see much to love in each. But most importantly, as an observer of human behaviour and a marketer, I try to see what makes us similar—our aspirations, our fears, our loves, our joys. We are more alike than we imagine, and it will serve us as well, as humans and as marketers if we remember that.


Campaign Asia

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