Industry Experts Agree: Genuine Caring Is Essential in Food Marketing

CEOs, thought leaders and students share people-centric POVs at annual Food Marketing Conference
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Tony Sarsam FMC
SpartanNash president and CEO Tony Sarsam discussed the pursuit of "People First" wisdom at the FMC event.

Each year, the Food Marketing Conference (FMC) at Western Michigan University (WMU) draws grocers, CPG professionals and solution providers from around the country, who share their insights and advice with the general audience and with students at WMU’s acclaimed food marketing program. Although a wide range of topics were addressed during the event held March 25-27 in Kalamazoo, Progressive Grocer discerned a common refrain this year about the greater good, in many forms.

You might call it taking care of business.

During their formal presentations, fireside chat-style discussions and even casual conversations during networking breaks, most speakers talked about the imperative of caring for others and how their respective businesses are including that focus in their marketing programs. Authenticity is pivotal to making such efforts resonate with consumers and really work, they concurred, whether the topics are tied to health and nutrition, technology or executive leadership.

[RELATED: How Culturally Relevant Food Marketing Promotes Health]

Dr. Russell Zwanka, director of WMU’s food marketing program and associate professor of food marketing, said that a key takeaway from this year’s event is the heightened commitment to solidifying connections between brands, and retailers and their consumers. “Whether it's through dietary edits, nutritional nudging or using AI data intermixed with retail media, the commitment to forging and maintaining a strong consumer bond emerged as a common theme,” he told Progressive Grocer. 

Below are some notable insights from FMC speakers.

On Leadership

“Leadership starts with people. Oftentimes, you’ll hear people talk about, ‘I lead a project,’ or ‘I lead an initiative.’ You’re really leading people and people come to work each and every day, and they have different experiences, different aspirations. I spent a lot of time with Fred Meijer for many years as I joined our senior team. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Fred – how he built his business, how he connected with people – and trying to think about this generational company and what winning looks like.” —Rick Keyes, president and CEO, Meijer

“Early in my career, we had a fantastic aspirational leader, Al Carey at PepsiCo. He taught me the biggest lesson that you start with the heart and you end with the heart. People will actually follow you if they know you care. And from that point on, I remember my leadership was grounded in being like Al Carey, because he cared.” —Anthony Kyles, chief customer officer, meals and beverages, Campbell Soup Co.

On Creating a Shopper-Focused Store Experience

“A lot of folks see shopping as a chore. So when you’re able to change the box and make it experiential, you can give customers something they enjoy. Certainly in the Dom’s stores, you can go in there and see people congregating, creating community around food. That’s one of the advantages of being food forward.” —Don Fitzgerald, former CEO, Dom's Kitchen & Market

On Health and Wellness

“I think food needs to be a proactive, everyday experience that helps you stay well, whether that is gut health with probiotics or brain health with nootropics or stress relief with things like adaptogens. We only have one body, so we have to treat it in a way that makes sense every day, versus being reactive.” Katie Paul, SVP, KeHE Distributors

“Everyone is on their own personal journey as it relates to health, and brands need to really be thoughtful about who their people are and create connections for that personalization and that journey. For retailers, it is also critically important. There is now the endless aisle because you've got the digital environment. And so retailers really have to make it easy for consumers and connect with what's personally important to them.” —Kathryn Peters, head of industry relations, SPINS

“One of the aspirational goals for my team is to change the way that health care is delivered in the United States. People will look at us and say, ‘You’re Kroger – aren’t you inside of a grocery store?’ And I say, ‘Why not us?’ We have health care assets inside of a grocery store where people visit more often and trust.” —Colleen Lindholz, president, Kroger Health

On Responsible Technology

“If you think of the average customers walking by in a large format store, out of 60,000 or 65,000 different items, they're going to pick 13. So you want to make sure you've got the right 13 and you want to make sure they're in the right location. The data and the ability behind the scenes to make that process easier for the consumer is exciting.” —Dave Peacock, CEO, Advantage Solutions

“If you're building it (technology) with the customer in mind and ultimately offering up things that are not self-serving – whether it's the retailer or a different CPG – you can absolutely leverage that and it does add a lot of value. I think that's going to be the key differentiator. Look all the retail media networks that are exploding across the industry right now – those that are keeping it customer-focused and customer-centric and thinking long-term about that are going to add value.” —Don Sanderson, chief merchandising and marketing officer, Meijer

On Advice for Young Professionals

“Be humble, be respectful, treat other with dignity. These are the things that, of course, you learn about at home, in school. Also, I encourage you to always seek the truth. I think it really matters. And then of course, being courageous – being courageous when you're asking questions, be courageous about your pursuit of wisdom, be courageous when you know something and you believe in something.” Tony Sarsam, president and CEO, SpartanNash

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