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Sweetening the Brand – Kim Holdsworth, VP Marketing at Heartland Food Products Group

December 13, 2017

As the Vice President of Marketing at Heartland Food Products Group, Kim Holdsworth manages global marketing for SPLENDA®, among other things. With her CPG background and insight into managing brands globally, Kim provides a unique perspective on what makes big brands successful. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Kim Holdsworth: You have to understand who you’re speaking with, how they’re using the product and we continue to do that every day. We continue to do the research to understand how consumers are using and thinking about the category.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. We’re glad to have you, and glad to have our guest today, who’s Kim Holdsworth, who’s the vice president of marketing at Heartland Food Products Group. It’s a pleasure and an honor to host Kim. As you’ll hear, she takes us through her really interesting career that, right now sees her overseeing the SPLENDA® brand, among other things. But, the SPLENDA Brand for Heartland. Heartland acquired SPLENDA out of J and J, Johnson and Johnson, in September of 2015.

SPLENDA, as one might imagine, has run the gamut during its lifespan from pioneer, and innovator in low-calorie sweetening, to certainly being part of the dialogue that consumers and food service brands have about health and nutrition and taste and all the things that matter.

Kim has a really unique perspective on both the SPLENDA brand, as well as the category. I think you’ll enjoy hearing from Kim Holdsworth.

Bill: Coming to you live from the offices of Heartland Food Products Group, at least the Horsham, PA offices. We’re with Kim Holdsworth, who’s the VP of Marketing at Heartland for brands, including SPLENDA. Kim, thanks for having us.

Kim: Absolutely, thanks for coming in.

Bill: It’s a pleasure. Let’s start as I think we normally do. You have a particularly interesting story, or this brand does. We’ll certainly get into that. A bit about your journey through your career up to this point.

Kim: Sure.

Bill: What you were interested in going into school and coming out and how we’ve gotten to this point.

Kim: Yeah. Sure. It is a fun story. I’m a local girl.

Bill: Yes. Villanova, we were just talking about.

Kim: Yeah, born and raised, Philadelphia area, burbs. And only was looking at colleges in the area, didn’t see the point in leaving. In the area, there are so many options. To be honest with you, I always knew I was going to Villanova as long as the accepted me.

Bill: Is there a family connection, or you just loved it?

Kim: No, no, actually my family are Hawks.

Bill: They call that the holy war in and around Philadelphia.

Kim: Yeah, for sure. I of course, looked at St. Joe’s, but Villanova’s where I decided to go. I actually went in as an Accounting Major. I knew business. I’d always, my dad and I have a good relationship, and I always went to work with him. He was an accountant, so I got into that and thought that’s what I was going to do. Then after my first Marketing 101 class, I was hooked. Basic class, and I was like, OK, how do I change my major quickly?

Bill: Nice

Kim: … and focus on this.

Bill: I’m sure the accountants were all depressed in the family right.

Kim: I’m sure they missed me. That made it really easy. Did a communications minor, which was another area that I’d always been interested in. More from being able to speak in front of groups, and taking that edge off, being able to bring a good presentation together. So, really enjoyed that part of the business school as well.

Bill: School helps, alcohol helps. Those are all ways through.

Kim: All of it. You could always take that, take that edge off.

So chose Villanova, chose marketing. Using the career center, got the great opportunity to get my first role at McNeil Consumer Healthcare as part of Johnson and Johnson, just down the road here in Fort Washington.

Bill: Sure

Kim: The way they pitched it to me, you’re in undergrad, and you’re learning about the 4 P’s. I was definitely going to do one of the P’s. I was working in category management, placement, shelf placement, planograming, and they showed me this shelf and it was like, “You get to design this shelf.”

Bill: That’s cool.

Kim: And like, that sounds awesome!

So that’s where I started, and then was working with all the brand team. In McNeil Consumer you had, Tylenol, Pepcid, Imodium, major brands. Motrin.

Bill: Big Brands.

Kim: Big brands. Household brands. Brands that were in my medicine cabinet. So I got to work with the Associate Brand Managers and Brand Managers of those brands on a weekly basis, and then kept saying, “No, no. Great. That’s what I want to do.”

Bill: Right, right.

Kim: The one thing they’ll always tell you at J and J is, “Good things come to those who perform.” So I continued to do my job, continued to learn, and eventually was asked to be part of the core Brand Marketing team as an Associate Brand Manager. And, did several roles, in that capacity and then was around some really smart people. People with their MBA’s.

Bill: Sure

Kim: People who were coming from top 10 schools. I felt I needed to do that, to continue to grow. Again, didn’t want to leave what I was doing, because I loved it. And J and J luckily set up a way for you to do that, and pay for it for you. So I took advantage of that, and I recommend everybody who has an opportunity to take advantage of that to do that. I actually went to LaSalle University, for my MBA. Actually didn’t take any marketing classes. I was getting that on the job.

Bill: Rounding out the rest of the …

Kim: So I rounded out the rest of it. General management, HR, and team building. The things that I felt were going to be more important for me to lead teams, and take my career to a different level there, as well. And I actually did that on the Gwynedd Mercy Campus, they had a satellite campus.

Bill: Nice, nice.

Kim: It was right down the street, and got that done.

Bill: That’s perfect.

Kim: Bought a house, got married and all that stuff at the same time.

Bill: Great you did it all … knocked out right.

Kim: It’s a crazy time when you’re in your 20’s. You do a lot, it’s amazing. So, yeah.

Bill: Nice. That’s great. What a journey, and how did you wind up … I think if I remember correctly, you were attached to the SPLENDA brand on the J and J side …

Kim: Yeah, so, the one thing about J and J was, throughout your brand management career, is you don’t have to actually to get a lot of different brand experiences. Big brands like Tylenol. Small brands like Benecol, which is a cholesterol lowering butter.

Bill: I could use that.

Kim: It’s great, actually tastes great.

So I had all those different experiences and never had to leave. I had to shift campuses within Fort Washington, but still great experiences. My last key experience at J and J was as the Senior Director on SPLENDA, and bringing SPLENDA to a place where J and J wanted it. Unfortunately it was in a place where they were looking to divest it, but, awesome experience for me.

Bill: Yeah, I’m sure.

Kim: Awesome experience to understand that, how you get that done, how you pitch a brand. Just that overall process. And I ended up pitching myself into a new job, which has been another great experience. Going into a small, entrepreneurial, environment, where SPLENDA is, wants to be grown and can be grown, and has a lot of focus and a lot of investment in its future. And really seeing that transition through over the last few years, has been a lot of fun.

Bill: As an old promotions person, I would imagine you would appreciate being a gift with purchase. So SPLENDA’s divest in … gift with purchase, Kim and other, much more than that.

Kim: And other members, yeah.

Bill: Coming over here to Heartland, how does being part of the Heartland portfolio impact SPLENDA, and tell us a little bit about Heartland too. I mean, this is … I think an early brand, branded foray, for Heartland.

Kim: It is. Absolutely. So Heartland got its start in the private label side of the business. Our owner, Ted Gelov, was really the visionary for this business and saw an opportunity in bringing private label SPLENDA, to market. When we were pitching this business to Heartland, I pitched it to 12 different companies and private equities. I kept saying, it has to be Heartland because they get it. They understand sweeteners, they know how to make it. This will be easy. Right, that transition will be easy. I would say it was. That’s been a great asset to SPLENDA coming into Heartland because they understood the category. They understood how to do it. We have a lot of leverage, coming in, and able to make more investment into the brand.

The difference now is, we have a brand, beyond private label. We were in liquid water enhancers, and creamers and coffees and such, but the SPLENDA brand really is, the beacon of the company now. And, you know, added so many more people, so many more talents to the organization, already a tremendously talented workforce. But now added Marketers and Brand people, market research, etc. It’s just been a tremendous time of growth, for the organization. Just one heck of a ride for sure.

Bill: Yeah, I’m sure, and I know there’s high expectations and a lot that is ahead. This brand, being a jewel in the crown here at Heartland, with opportunities. To that end, one of the things that’s happened fairly recently, that I know is a big priority for the brand team, is, this launch of SPLENDA Naturals. Can you tell us a bit about that story, and what was the need and the rationale and how you see the opportunity with SPLENDA Naturals moving forward?

Kim: The Naturals category, really came on the scene in about 2007. Truvia, I think most of us know that brand, has really come on and lead that category, or led that sub-category within sweeteners. Just like any category that, in food these days, it’s really shifted more to naturals and organic. So SPLENDA, and previous lives of SPLENDA has always seen naturals as a place we wanted to be, but was always curious to us was why hadn’t naturals really taken off.

When SPLENDA launched, 20 years ago, we overtook the category in two to three years. Right? We were better tasting. More easily used in other products, in cooking and baking. We just didn’t see that transformation with the naturals category. Really what it came down to, was taste.

Bill: Yeah, sure.

Kim: What we’d been able to do here at Heartland is develop a product that, frankly is a great tasting, Stevia product. No bitter aftertaste, unlike competition. We knew that only the SPLENDA brand could bring that. Consumers know the SPLENDA brand is great taste and low calorie, and not until we had a product that we were fully proud of, and knew lived into that equity, were we going to launch it. That’s the product we have today.

Bill: Having seen consumers experience it for the first time, I can attest that there is a pleasant surprise and a big smile around taste and consistency too.  Other factors.  How do you see the opportunity for SPLENDA Naturals?

Kim: Honestly, again consumers really do want to try to eat better every day. They want to try to cut back on their sugar. Sugar’s being vilified every day, in the media. But there’s some truth in that right? We are consuming too much sugar, in the world and especially in the U.S. SPLENDA products are an easy way, to cut back on that sugar, but there’s always that halo of concern. Not that there should be, with SPLENDA. So, we offer those consumers who, want natural in their diet, an opportunity to have great taste in doing that and not feel that their really giving up on anything.

Especially consumers who have diabetes, who are, their lives are already being turned upside down. If we can give them some level of normalcy by saying, “Hey, you can still have the sweet things that you love, and have them with the SPLENDA products.” That’s something that gets me up every day to come here. I’m not just shilling sugar, right? We’re out here, really helping people make an impact in their health.

Bill: No, huge impact. I know that you also have a global responsibility. The, various, sort of, cultures and their relationships with sugar. There seems to be some difference around the world.

Kim: There is, for sure. There’s some markets where sugars really not part of it, right? They’re not sweetening a cup of coffee every day.

Bill: Sure, sure.

Kim: And then there’s markets where, in Latin America, where it’s a very big part of their lives, and their family in their day to day. In every market where SPLENDA shows up, we show up as SPLENDA. The positioning, the look, the feel, the taste is SPLENDA. But, in some markets we can break through a little differently. And we don’t hit the same barriers in other markets.

Bill: Now we see, even in the U.S. and regions like the Southeast, where there’s a cultural connection. We did some field research in Atlanta, we got to go to Waffle House and do the sweet tea and sugars part of the culture, so it’s interesting.

Kim: It is fun. You talk Iced Tea, you know we’ll say ice tea, no sweet tea. You go to Canada and their like, no.

Bill: No, no, no.

Kim: It’s tea time.

You have to understand who you’re speaking with, how their using the product. Really help them see how easy it can be to switch.

Bill: No question. You alluded to it, but, SPLENDA is a brand that rides the ups and downs of consumer trends and sentiment. There’s an ongoing dialog of course about health and wellness from folks who are trying to make small choices, and others who have a strong dogma about what they do and don’t want. How does a brand like SPLENDA, contribute to that dialog and what’s the role of a brand like SPLENDA in this, quest, I guess that we all have in different ways, to live our best, most healthful nutritious sort of lives.

Kim: SPLENDA’s the category leader. It’s not by accident. It’s because we invested in the science. We invested in healthcare professionals. We’ve invested in the awareness, in the equity of the brand. We continue to do that every day. We continue to do the research, to understand how consumers are using and thinking about the category. The research to help doctors, and health educators on how they need to talk about the brand, and how they can help their patients make those changes in their life.

We also ensure that we are at key conferences, where healthcare professionals are. If there is misinformation in the marketplace, and unfortunately there’s a lot of it, that we’re in that conversation. That we get the right key opinion leaders, and we get the right science out there, and not let the negativity hold us back. As brand people, making sure that that truth is out there, because the product is a great product for consumers. If their option is sugar, where we know it’s going to add to, a potentially negative health affect in the long run. We really need to make sure, as the brand leaders, that we’re getting that truth out there.

Bill: You mentioned earlier, not only your own interest across your career, and the development in terms of teams and cultures, but what you and your colleagues are building here. What are some important ingredients that you put into practice about, building a strong team and a positive culture, and developing people. How do you look at this as a leader in this enterprise?

Kim: I think by default, the marketing department’s always more fun.

Bill: Of course!

Kim: We’re dealing with fun things. We’re out having fun events. We’re partnering with key partners, that could be celebrities. We just sponsored the Emmy’s. I mean, these are cool things.

Bill: Right, I saw that was all over Twitter. I didn’t win. My hashtag was [crosstalk 00:15:07]

Kim: It’s inherently fun, what we do. I think the other things is, working with people that you enjoy working with. There are members of this team, that we’ve been together for several years. Team members that, we worked together years ago and came back. I truly believe that we work with our friends here, and we really do enjoy coming in every day, and just being together.

We are a satellite office of Heartland, but Heartland is a family. It’s a family owned business.

Bill: It’s not Wall Street.

Kim: It’s not Wall Street. We have a few members of our, headquarters here today. When they walked in this morning, it was like, it was exciting. It was exciting to see them. There’s hugs and, so really building that, that family atmosphere here at Heartland, but then especially at our office here, because we’re a satellite, we have to come together as a team and know that we have each other. Since we’re not in that bigger, headquarters office.

The other thing, honestly, is ensuring team building. Giving everyone opportunities to try new things. We’ve only been here two years, but those of us who transitioned feel like we’ve gotten 10 years of experience. When you come into a smaller organization, you touch more, you see more. You’re in more in depth and higher level conversations at the same time. I think the teams seen that too as an opportunity for development, for themselves and then ultimately, for the brand.

Just even last week we were on a hay ride at [inaudible 00:16:36] Farms. So you have to sprinkle in a little of the team building as well.

Bill: Well this seems to be a … I mean it shows just being around here. A lot of smiles and, good mix of people. Some folks at different moments in their career. Everybody seems to be smiling, and engaged, in what is a, very stimulating company and category and brand here.

To that end, I won’t ask you to disclose things that are close to the vest and it’s always fun to be surprised, but, anything you can share that’s new or coming that’s related to SPLENDA or other parts of the business that you’re involved in?

Kim: Yeah, a little bit. I think from a SPLENDA and a SPLENDA Naturals perspective, you’ll continue to see, new for us ways to help consumers find new and different ways to, incorporate SPLENDA in to their lives. So definitely more coming from the SPLENDA brand, and as we grow the SPLENDA Naturals portfolio.

We also have begun work, and started showcasing our new cold brew product, Java House.

Bill: Very cool.

Kim: So that’s been a lot of fun for us. I’m getting some really great feedback from operators, from consumers. The product tastes amazing.

Bill: That’s great.

Kim: Cold brew is a category that is up and coming. It’s, again, working in an organization that can see, that vision and make the investments to bring that to life. Not only in the equipment, but also in the people that it takes to bring that to life. So we’re really excited to see where that takes us.

Bill: That’s super interesting. I know, or I think Heartland places a really high premium on speed to market, and being decisive. Compared to other, publicly traded, large battleship types of organizations, probably an advantage I would think.

Kim: It’ is. I would say that’s probably the biggest difference for us. For those of us who – and not just those of us who came at the transition of SPLENDA, but any new team member who have come from bigger corporations to Heartland. The speed at which we get it done, and get it out into market is, hands down just amazing. It still amazes me two years in, and I’m like, oh my goodness. We were here I think five months and we launched our first SPLENDA product. It was so fast. Within less than a year we had launched SPLENDA Naturals. We kind of just talked about them in previous lives.

It’s exciting to see the speed at which we can bring something to market.

Bill: That’s great. Well it’s super cool and it’s a lot to be proud of and obviously it’s an opportunity to try different things, and get behind things that are exciting and high potential.

Kim: For sure.

Bill: To that end, given the path that you’ve taken, and choices you’ve made and exposures that you’ve had, that you walked us through. Are there any words of wisdom or rules to live by that have become important to you over time as a person and a professional?

Kim: Yeah, I think for me over the years, note the managers that, you loved working with. You know, the ones you feel like were, inspiring you and take those and how you want to manage others, over time. That’s something that I always try to look back on and learn from, and the ones that you didn’t. Try not to do that, right?

Bill: There’s a reason, right.

Kim: But also, going back to working with your friends. If you’re not coming to work every day and laughing a little …

Bill: Right, sure.

Kim: … go somewhere else. Like, find somewhere else to work. Life’s too short, you spend too much time at work, especially in brand management careers. Have fun. Find a way to be with people that you enjoy being with every day and that inspire you to be better at what you’re doing, and inspiring to want to bring more people into your organization, so you can make better brands. It’ keeps me coming to work every day for sure.

Bill: Sure, it also sounds like in your academic career that, you were open to being inspired, with something. That may not have been, no offense to accounting, which is super sexy as we know.

Kim: No offense dad, sorry.

Bill: Right, sorry mister, mister [crosstalk 00:20:34]

Some people have a narrowed and grooved sense of what’s possible and what they’re going to be. You fell in love with something curricularly, and then you did professional, and it seems like it’s been a passion play all the way along the way.

Kim: Coming out of high school I didn’t even know what brand management was.

Bill: Yeah, right.

Kim: I didn’t know it existed. Again, it wasn’t something my family was in. Then my kids, I mean, my god they watch casting reels with me.

Bill: Yeah, oh my goodness.

Kim: It’s hysterical. And they actually imitate them sometimes, it’s kind of funny. They know, they get brand management. They understand what I do. Their friends ask if it’s my commercial why aren’t I in it. You know what I mean?

Bill: Of course.

Kim: You know, that’s always the hard thing to answer. So I’m sure one of them will probably steer that way a little bit, but maybe like I did, they might follow mom, but then realize that accounting was more interesting.

Bill: I think that’s highly unlikely, but yes.

Well thank you Kim, this has been … I appreciate your time and insight in getting to know this team and this brand and this leader, and everything else. It’s been a lot of fun for us and, so many exciting things for the brand and for the team moving forward and we’re grateful for a bit of your wisdom.

Kim: Thank you so much. It was so much fun to talk with you.

Bill: Thanks to Kim for her time and her insight, and getting to know this company. This leader and this brand has been a real pleasure for us. SPLENDA, interesting times. Very intellectually stimulating, set of topics on which their developing products and going to market. We’re super grateful, to Kim.

Ways to support us here at Real-World Branding. As always if you are so inclined, are to keep that dialog going on social media. We really appreciate the back and forth on Twitter about, future guest ideas. Topics that you’d like to hear us address, as well as some criticism, for those of us who are thick skinned, has never hurt. And, in fact, I think only makes this better, hopefully.

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In that spirit ourselves we’ll sign off for the cradle of liberty.

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