Office Coffee & Insights | Strategic Marketing & Innovation with Bruce Williamson
This week on Real-World Branding we host Bruce Williamson, Global VP of Innovation & Chief Marketing Officer at the drinks division of Mars, Inc. Bruce and his team take note of powerful insights in social experiments such as the perceived cleanliness of a hotel room, or the rippling effects of an exceptional coffee maker in the office. Tune in to see how they turn those insights into customer centric innovation in the B2B world. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
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Bruce Williamson: First and foremost is using behavioral science, using a deep empathy and appreciation of the first and the why behind the decisions they make, understanding deeply the insights behind this
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real World Branding. I'm Bill, president of Finch Brands, a Premier Boutique brand consultancy. And thank you for your time, today as interview with Bruce Williamson, and Bruce is the Global VP of Innovation Chief Marketing Officer at the drinks division of Mars. Do a lot of incredible innovative, super cool workplace coffee programs. He'll talk about that, but his career beyond his current role is amazing, starting out in an engineering track. Academically, he'll talk about the sort of reasons why the light bulb lit up and he moved in more of a strategic marketing direction. He's done a ton with innovation, did more than a decade at Kimberly Clark, both on the consumer side and then on the what is known as the professional, sort of division of Kimberly Clark, which is about deploying their brands in hospitality and workplace and healthcare and other institutional environments.
Bill: And then the conversation, I think you should always stay till the end, but particularly stay to the end this time because, we end with a conversation about a really interesting topic that Bruce has thought a lot about and is actually writing a book about and actively researching, which is business legacies. And you think he means it more than an executive retires from a company after 30 or 35 years. It doesn't have to be that it isn't just about gold watch time, but it's about how people have lasting impact and are remembered for what they did and who they were. And it's a topic that you haven't seen much about in the media, but it's super important. And as a sort of a words to live by set of interesting ideas for one's own career development. I encourage you to stay to the end and here Bruce's thoughts on legacy. So without further ado, Bruce Williamson.
Bill: We are here in Finch Brands HQ with Bruce Williamson, who's the Global VP of Innovation and the CMO at Mars, the drinks division of Mars in West Chester, PA. Thanks for joining us.
Bruce: Yeah, thanks. Great. Great. Great to be here.
Bill: No. It's our pleasure. And what a career you've had across consumer package goods and innovation roles and marketing roles and general management roles. And you wouldn't mind starting by taking us through a little hop, skip and a jump of the journey you've taken so far, Bruce.
Bruce: Yeah, sure. So, I actually started my illustrious career flushing toilets-
Bill: There you go.
Bruce: ... Out of all things, so I started off like many marketing folks, maybe not starting in marketing, but starting in another career, which is for me engineering. So I started off identifying the analysis, through biodegradability flexibility of consumer package goods-
Bruce: ... In time of Kimberly Clark, diapers and tissues and all kinds of stuff and figuring out their impact for the environment. So we've spent countless years trying to figure out how to get something that's about 100 times bigger than the size of the exit of a toilet bowl down into the toilet and figure out where it goes in the environment.
Bill: That's interesting.
Bruce: So that's where I started and-
Bill: Obvious path to marketing from there.
Bruce: Obviously path to marketing and I figured out I was a good engineer but not a great engineer. And but had this like, oh it was kind of like burning kind of passionate side of me to say strategically how do we do things better instead of just, introduce new products, how do we position them and use that as a platform to go get my MBA at Michigan. And from there just spent a time over the last 10 or so years, sort of in front end marketing and front end innovation coming up with white space opportunities on a number of Kimberly Clark brands and the new brands that we created, not only in North America but all over the world, mostly focusing on insights. Really taking that clever thing that you can identify that the consumer gives you that little nugget and using that as a platform to do some great things.
Bill: Super Cool. So Philly guy, originally we were talking about your triumphant return now that we won a Super Bowl, you thought it was okay to come back-
Bruce: Great to come back to-
Bill: ... To West Chester. Went for Undergrad in Madison at University of Wisconsin. Your degree is in engineering, civil and environmental engineering. Was there a light bulb moment where, you said the engineering path, good but not great.
Bruce: Yeah I think for me it was the dissatisfaction, so I spent some really cool work with some scientists doing as I mentioned, some really interesting work. Like, this is where the creative side of engineering came out where I was looking at earthquake engineering to get things to fold and twist and turn to get like something really big down, a smaller tube. And then, and this was at the height of like a lot of concern over environmental sustainability issues, when the market or the consumer sentiment said, "We're not so concerned about these things and is when all the project stopped."
Bruce: And I was a young kid who sort of said, This is great work, like why aren't we commercializing" And the perspective from the business was, well, it's not the right time and the consumer doesn't care anymore, therefore we're not going to work on it. And I got frustrated and I said there's got to be a different way to actually take great ideas and not just base it off the sentiment of the market that actually do great things and use that as a platform to say I want to do something different. And I feel like there's a different way.
Bill: Right. So during your tenure at Kimberly Clark, which I think was 11 years, 12 years, a lot of the roles that you were playing were sort of senior innovation roles, both, I guess consumer facing as well as what they would call professional division some of these brands into what we're ... We'll talk about insights, you used the phrase insights sort of lead innovation. Can you tell us a little bit about just high level, your perspective on core principles that drive great innovation programs and maybe what the philosophy of insights led innovation sort of means in practice or has meant for you across that journey?
Bruce: Yeah, yeah, I'd say, I mean, I think it's overused nowadays, but i'd say, early in early days, empathetic marketing and empathetic insights was, I would just say those early days it was not quite invoked, but that was the way you got things done. I mean, we talk about it like it's second nature today, but I know, I was really, based on my scientific sort of background, really intrigued with how people decide what they do. And we use the term behavioral science today. But I think for me first and foremost is using behavioral science, using a deep empathetic appreciation of the person, the why behind the decisions they make, understanding, the insights behind the decision make as really first and foremost and founding, an interesting strategy and interesting idea.
Bruce: And not just listening to what people say but watching what they do. So quite a bit of time in the field, I mean, I often laugh about living with consumers and never forget doing a project on cleaning of hotels. And almost in practically living with some of the guests understanding, like unpack your bags, get into the bed, obviously, quote and quote "Not with us." We want to see everything you do. And uncovering those really interesting quirks that people can't tell you if you sit across the table like where we are today, watching what they do and having them with social scientists unravel, why they're doing what they're doing. And in some cases it's unconscious.
Bill: Yeah, sure. Yeah. We found the sort of ethnographic methodologies are able to uncover a lot more than when you ask somebody. I wouldn't even know how I unpack because I just do it. It's a raw sort of subconscious exercise. But to your point, I mean a process like that I would imagine might reveal insights and sort of product platforming opportunities or service or experience in a way that other sort of traditional innovation approaches were basically-
Bruce: Never get there.
Bill: ... Inspired, yeah.
Bruce: I'll give you a great story. So we're doing this research on the hotel. So we had two rooms that were set up almost identically. Okay. And in one room there was a big red wine stain in the center of the room, again, most rooms almost practically identical. And there was big red wine stain, but there is a checklist that we put in the room that said this was the 10 things that the housekeeper did to clean the room. And it was, all the things were checked off and her name was signed. And we had people go in and out of rooms and say, "What did you like, what you didn't like, what did you notice?" And invariably, almost everybody said, I really thought the room, they never said with the red wine stain, but the one room with red was always cleaner, always cleaner. Okay.
Bill: Because of the checklist.
Bruce: So we said, "Wow, how come you didn't mention, you mentioned all these things that you loved about how clean the room was, but you never mentioned this big red wine stain in the center. And almost invariably everyone said, "Because we assumed that the housekeeper got on her hands and knees and tried her best to get that stain out because of the checklist."
Bill: Wow, it's powerful.
Bruce: And there was this sort of this moment of saying nobody appreciates how the room is actually clean, what goes into cleaning the room and we need to make that visible.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. It's powerful and-
Bruce: And you can never get that at a sitting across the table and having a conversation with somebody.
Bill: And saying, yeah, saying, would you like a checklist. Right? Does that sound interesting? Right? No, it's true. Nor probably when you get to that innovation, if it's a bunch of R&D, or sort of navel gazing folks sitting around saying, "How can we make the cleaning process better?"
Bill: Involving consumers to that depth in their lives and stuff. So that's a good segway. I know at a certain point at Kimberly Clark, you pivoted to the professional side, which I think you could tell us more about it, but it sounds like the focus was hospitality and healthcare and other institutional sort of clients of Kimberly Clark. Brands like Kleenex, like Scott, et cetera. How was that transition for you? What was different? What was stimulating? Could you reflect a little bit on sort of what you found a little bit accurate?
Bruce: Yeah, I mean, I think it was probably the most fulfilling for me because I think for the most part B2B organizations, whether they're part of big organizations or they're independent, they're still very product centric organization. It's product marketing centric organizations where you're still talking about features and benefits. And I think to carry the torch of brand centric thinking insights led innovation, customer centric innovation to bring that into B2B was incredibly fulfilling and it's been, in many cases transformational. Not only big companies like Kimberly Clark, but smaller companies.
Bruce: So I think for me it was incredibly fulfilling to just say what is the essence of brands, the essence of those insights and how to bring it into the B2B world when you're two steps away from the end user. And you're trying to convince a decision maker that you assume is a functional rational being, which turns out to be much more of a human than you appreciate they're making decisions then with someone say spontaneously and irrationally, but as everybody else makes decisions very quickly based on emotion. And I think it was only the light bulb going off saying we need to treat the customer, the person making decision of what to put in the washroom as a person, not as a machine. He just thinks about dollars and cents. That was incredibly insightful almost every one of my engagement.
Bill: Right, and I'm sure to your point, that is a category or a part of the marketplace that maybe hadn't always thought that way traditionally.
Bruce: Yeah. Again, this is very product centric feature benefits century-
Bruce: If you ... Budget oriented, if you assume people are machines. If you give them X, Y, and Z, it fits within the, the bid, then you should get the business and that's just generally a downward spiral where it eventually becomes focused on price.
Bill: Yeah, sure. So if you're representing Kimberly Clark and you're thinking about how a long-term care facility for example, or a chain of them would benefit from having Kleenex verses another sort of bathroom tissue, I'd imagine there's a blend of rational and emotional characteristics that will be.
Bruce: I mean because Kleenex is a great brand. I mean the Kleenex means, it means different things to different people, but it means care. Okay. So to bring care into a hospital, a nursing home, a long-term care facility instead of just something functional, like, wiping your nose, wiping your eyes and make it mean something to people and get the insights associated with that incredibly fulfilling. It's fun.
Bill: Right. It's probably what historically may have been a procurement process where you have a sort of a non-brand connected, not experientially connected buyer comparing prices and deals and other sort of product specs. To your point in a care environment like that, the ability to express through the experience, the core values of the chain of brand. I mean there's a different-
Bruce: Yeah get the connection between what the customer brand cares for and cares about. It's not always about dollars and cents.
Bruce: Obviously the business they need to make money and get that connected to the DNA of our brand and incredibly fulfilling.
Bill: No. Powerful stuff. So to that end, you've extended your passion for workplace to your current role in the drinks division of Mars. You've got two years at this point, been-
Bruce: Almost two years.
Bill: So what did you found when you got there and talk a little bit about how that market is different or what you've experienced so far?
Bruce: Yeah, so it's B2B coffee, which is fun. I mean, Mars is a great family oriented, a family run business, run a group. Mars is a great place to work, has been for decades, a fantastic organization, but, finding a product centric driven organization, again, transitioning to more of a consumer packaged goods brand centric, brand led organization, was part of the heavy lifting and I felt like I needed to do. So carrying that torch of insights and not thinking about coffee and tea as something that's just provided to our office workers as free as just sort of like, okay, well it's free office coffee. The bar is low.
Bruce: No one should complain about free office coffee and saying it's more meaningful than that. Let's bring insights and let's bring the end user to bear and illuminate for our customers the value of great office coffee. And it's been fun. It's been fun to really dig into the clever insights and really reposition the role of office coffee for offices. And I'm not talking about Google offices. Okay. This is just like, mainstream office is saying, a glass pot and an office coffee, no longer the standard. We should be raising the bar for our employees.
Bill: Well, we are one of the beneficiaries of that looking at this incredible apparatus that we have as well as all the tastes that it generates. What's the value proposition of a great coffee program in just a normal office like ours? I mean, you talk about, obviously there's an employee engagement happy, but maybe if it goes beyond that.
Bruce: Yeah, I mean, and so we talked about this idea of the triple bottom line. Okay. So many people make decisions in the office, it's not their primary job or somebody in this office who are like, they're responsible for more things than just the break room and just office coffee. So they got a lot of things in their mind, what they're looking for is this freedom of focus. So and the freedom of focus evidences itself and one of the triple bottom line ideas of operational efficiency. The machine that doesn't break down, highly reliable, you often joke. I mean, when the coffee machine goes down, it's like mutiny in the office.
Bill: Right sure. What the hell
Bruce: You can feel the tension. I mean, you just look at social media images of what people say when office coffee goes and you get the true nature that comes that way. But employees good, No, I wouldn't say it's good. Most of it is bad.
Bill: Right. I'm sure.
Bruce: It brings out the worst in people. But this idea of operational efficiency, you want the office coffee machine to be always working, always, always on low hassle, hassle free as we call it. And then there's the satisfaction of employees, which is another benefit. So like, the person who's responsible for the office coffee wants a little bit the accolades, you want to feel good about providing something great for your employees. You certainly get the brunt of complaints.
Bill: Yeah but.
Bruce: But you want to get that little like bringing something fresh and new into the office and getting a little bit of a pat on the back because it often goes unnoticed and the last one has to do with sustainability. Okay. Which is the third area of the triple bottom line. So it's more than just providing great coffee to the workplace. There's other things that go into, as we call it, the triple bottom line.
Bill: Well I think our team members here probably walk past, depending on their route five, six, seven, eight, nine different places that they could get their coffee in the morning. Yet I think increasingly since we switched to this, they'll come here because they know that it's a great experience and all the things that you talked about the go along with that. And I know from a company perspective as we were planning our move and, and this was, everything had a line item and we're sort of assessing the level of satisfaction both for us and for the team by investing in this line item for that line item. This was one that we really wanted to do it well and right. So the effect, hopefully is positive it certainly is in terms of how it tastes.
Bruce: Yeah. How it tastes and I think, I mean you guys appreciate this. I mean, breaks matter.
Bruce: Okay. So you want to have that break experience, those moments of, we often talk about this idea of office workers now as corporate athletes. Okay. And so they're like, between the sprints of work, you want to have that moment of sort of rest, refresh, rejuvenation and it's like the break experience matters. So making sure you have what you need, a good solid cup of coffee, a great cup of tea and taking that back to your workplace and using it as a chance to reset and just sort of like prepare for the next sprint.
Bill: Yep. Yep. And all of the sort of social warmth and everything else that happens in that room and around that-
Bruce: It's connection between people.
Bill: Definitely. And so, as we move into a little bit of sort of a retrospective discussion about your career and sort of the choices you made when you think about Mars and what you're working on now, it sounds like there's some product innovation and bringing brand and bringing insights into the processing of the channel. Any other exciting things that are happening that you can share or we'll just have to watch?
Bruce: Well, we've a lot of great product innovation. So after studying office workers, I alluded to earlier, it's like this idea of the corporate athlete, what does that mean? So, office coffee could mean something different for the people who consume it here versus consuming it at home. What are those things that you need as a worker, it may be on just caffeine. So thinking about, other things that you may put in coffee or tea could have benefits to you and what you need in the office is one area. But I think from a process standpoint, we're really, really pushing on behavioral science, really, really understanding and getting into the nuances of why people decide what they decide. Where you call persuasion science or influenced science and understanding, from an insight standpoint, how do we get deeper into those choices that people make to be the first cup of the day, for example.
Bill: Sure, yeah. When you were very patiently listening in. One of our colleagues came in earlier as we were setting up and talked about his 18-step ritual that is so idiosyncratic and unique to him that, that's true. There's so much you could draw it. I'm sure everyone has their own sort of rhythm of how to do this and the degree to which what you all have deliberate helps facilitate that is probably a sign of success I would think.
Bruce: Yeah. I think, I mean, what he described as is what, many human beings crave. It's just a sense of control. So, this idea of choice and control, I want to be able to control what I want, what I drink, and that gives me the opportunity through choice to be able to put my own concoction, my own customization together. And I think that's one of the advantages of our platform, but just from an insights team pointing, giving people that, understand that people really crave control as human beings and figuring out the matter what your platform is, no matter what your product system is. How do you give people that sense of control?
Bill: Sure, sure. And speaking of your own personal concoction, you've taken us through what has been an amazing sort of string of roles and responsibilities across this career. You had a big sort of switch moment early on, any kind of words of wisdom or principles that have served you well across this incredible career that you've built so far that you'd want to share their kind of important or their beliefs or sort of underlying rationale for some of the choices you made and directions you've taken?
Bruce: Yeah, I'd say I'm a big proponent, even though I'm still relatively young in my career of legacy and thinking about what you're going to leave behind and I've spent quite a number of years watching people leave organizations only to have them forgotten the moment they leave. Okay. And other people, for whatever reason, still remembered years later, still talked about in the office, still come up in meetings. And I wanted to understand what was it about those people versus the people who just walk out the door and people just very quickly forget about them. And there's actually a handful of components that I've identified a handful of elements associated with it. I call the abc's of legacy building.
Bruce: So the first is apprenticing, you're never too old or never too young to apprentice a colleague. And the number one thing that people remember of those folks that leave an organization, is what they help me be better. Did they help me be better? And you don't have to be a leader to do that. You can be just a great colleague that helps somebody be better. So that's the first thing that people remember. Did you apprentice me? Did you grow me? Am I better because of you? The second is boldness. And there's a courageousness of bravery, with certain decisions and certain pushes that certain leaders making organizations that are unforgettable for colleagues. So are you able to push the boundaries of an organization in a collaborative and respectful way and help us to be stronger? So we look back after the years and say, I'm changed. I've been through a transformation or you've helped lead an organization through a transformation.
Bruce: So those elements of boldness not always in like the swing for the fences type decisions, but we're all faced with bold moments on a day to day basis. The third is connection. That's the C, and a deep connection between people. And that shows up for many leaders and many people on authenticity, vulnerability, having the ability to connect with people at a very fundamental level. So they get to know you and get to know the mistakes that you've made and you've learned from your mistakes and share what it means, your values, your character, the choices that you've made. And the last, the S is stories.
Bruce: I'm a big proponent of storytelling. So the things that people remember in organizations are often told in stories, anthropologically we're wired for stories. 40,000 years ago when we in caves, drawings by the early caveman they were speaking in terms of lessons learned of fighting the woolly mammoth. Okay. In terms of stories, the great floods and moving entire communities were painted on caves because they were the stories that they were telling. And they were the lessons that were passed down from generation to generation. So great legacy leaders tell great stories and remember them in stories. And it's through the right crafting of the story, the right crafting of a narrative. And there's a little bit of a science behind it means social sciences have taught us what it means to have a great story. The is, in the could be moment. The gap between the is and the could be is what really captures the imagination of audiences and I think great storytellers do a great job of sort of stretching that gap from in that expectation on where we are today versus where we could be in pulling people in that direction.
Bill: So legacy often manifests itself as I remember that time when Bruce did x-
Bruce: Yeah, that is associated with apprenticing boldness and connection. They remember those are the elements, but they remember them in stories.
Bill: In stories, yeah and in episodes.
Bruce: So my encouragement for people is just, in any given day, any given moment, you had that opportunity to think about what can I leave behind? What can I leave behind to a client? What can I leave behind to a coworker? In those moments, not just those defining moments that we're faced with. Sometimes a couple of times in our career, sometimes never. But those small moments that you can put in your pocket and your colleagues or clients can put in your pocket than incredibly meaningful for them.
Bill: This is really deep and powerful thinking you're going to do anything with it?
Bill: You've been thinking about a lot
Bruce: A manuscript that's-
Bruce: ... Ready to go out the door. It's all self-published and I don't have to publish it. I don't expect to do great things with other than get something that I'm super passionate about out there.
Bill: Legacy too. But I mean for so many different organizations, the power of story and just the ABC that sort of underlies it, whether it has to do with customer experience or sort of innovation that a product or experience level, whether it has to do with mentorship. Whether it has to do with organizational and cultural development and legacy. To your point, it does seem like there is this thread of richness, of story in depth of story as ways, everyone in our industry likes to say, "Well, we're storytellers." And we are. We hear it all over the world. And it's so interesting that, that's how legacies are sort of shared and maintaining, not that those are the building blocks, but that's the folklore, I guess, if you will, about people. And I thinking back of the people who've made a big impact here. That's exactly right. That's the way we remember-
Bruce: Well, look, there's a biological base sports and neuroscientists would say, "We're wired for stories." So when you tell facts or figures, only a few parts of your brain are lit up. Okay. When you tell stories, the seven parts of your brain are lit up, goes into the deep recesses and your muscle memory, comes back, when you think about stories. So, we are captured, our imaginations are captured in stories and we remember in stories, but it's a biological basis for it. Okay. It's hard to remember the data. It's much easier for us biologically remember stories.
Bruce: So it's absolutely apropos. Okay. For brand storytellers, for business storytellers, and for any leader to use story as a way to carry a legacy on an organization because it's easy for us to remember that way. And, it's brought forth in our memory, in a much easier way when we think about it.
Bill: Super powerful and so that sort of construct is words of wisdom, not only as people consider the choices that they make along the way, but how they leave something behind, how they have an impact on others, how they seek their own sense of meaning and purpose and value as their careers develop. Bruce Williamson, thank you so much for your time. Bruce, as noted, is the Global VP of Innovation, Chief Marketing Officer at Mars drinks. We'll be looking for great innovations in the drink portfolio as well as all that you're putting on paper about legacy thing. Thank you so much for your time.
Bruce: Thanks Bill. Thanks.
Bill: Many thanks to Bruce for his time and his insight and to see him light up as I did sitting across the table from him and in speaking about legacy in the project that he's working on is really powerful and interesting stuff and particularly obviously all that he's accomplished and he took us through. Really real honor to spend a good 30 minutes with him, so hope you enjoyed it. Three ways as always to help us at Real World Branding. We love to keep that dialogue going. Twitter's probably the best way at @Billgullan. That's the first way we'd love ideas for future guests, future topics, questions, comments about the content we're putting out here.
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