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The art of selling peanut butter (and more)

To revive its brands, J.M. Smucker struck a balance between risk-taking and a focus on data

The art of selling peanut butter (and more)
J.M. Smucker Co. recruited Trombone Shorty (left) and Ludacris (right) to bring an edgy approach to commercials for brands including including Folgers, Meow Mix, and Jif.

Jif, Café Bustelo, Folgers, Meow Mix, Milk-Bone. The J.M. Smucker Co. is home to some of the most recognizable brands on your grocery store’s shelves. But by 2018, many of them had gone stale. At least, that’s how Geoff Tanner, the company’s chief commercial and marketing officer, puts it. “They weren’t really a part of culture,” he says. “They were a little dated, a little dull.” Worse yet, they weren’t growing. Tanner says that only 22% of the company’s portfolio was gaining market share at the time, a situation that demanded careful study—and drastic action.

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After a candid assessment of its brands, the company designed a marketing and selling playbook built on two pillars: next-level creativity and advanced data analytics. Brands like Jif, Folgers, and Meow Mix were revitalized with edgy, funny marketing campaigns, while in-store sales were fine-tuned with data.

“It was almost a paradox,” Tanner says. “On the one hand, we were taking risks with breakthrough creative, and on the other, we were leveraging millions of data points to optimize the selling environment in each store.”

Today, Tanner says, 68% of Smucker’s brands are growing market share—a turnaround as dramatic as its change in strategy. It’s this bold, new approach to marketing and selling that earned J.M. Smucker Co. a place on Fast Company‘s list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies.

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THE FREEDOM TO TAKE RISKS

With the enthusiastic support of CEO Mark Smucker and abiding faith in the quality of its brands and products, the team at Smucker was encouraged to “break rules” and take risks. “We told our new marketing agency, the Publicis Groupe, ‘Look, we believe we have unequivocally the best peanut butter on the planet. You can push us,’ ” Tanner says. The agency took Smucker at its word and floated the idea of trading “Choosy moms choose Jif” for “That Jif’ing good!”

The left-field ideas continued. Smucker developed an ad concept that would feature a rapper who had lost his flow, only to regain it by eating Jif and mumbling through a full mouth. A team member suggested approaching Ludacris. Despite their doubts about being able to land a star of his magnitude, the team went for it, and wound up with a multichannel campaign that included Ludacris taking on rap battles over TikTok.

With Folgers, a similar faith in the product itself allowed the company to take a self-deprecating approach. Smucker knew that the product had become an object of scorn among coffee snobs. The brand embraced it’s “love it or hate it” status with an ad in which two hipsters in a grocery store give the side-eye to a shopper contemplating a Folgers purchase—who defiantly loads her cart with additional canisters. Cue Joan Jett’s classic “Bad Reputation” (first line: “I don’t give a damn about my reputation”) and a montage of working-class coffee lovers enjoying their unpretentious brew.

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AN AGGRESSIVE USE OF DATA

“There are millions of data points you can get from the retail environment,” Tanner says. The idea was to use advanced data analytics to optimize the selling environment. The company built proprietary data capabilities to reveal targeted insights about buying decisions to optimize product lineups, price points, and promotions in each store.

According to Tanner, this philosophy of bold branding and data-driven insights has transformed the company inside and out. “We’re a very different organization today than we were before,” he says. “There’s buzz and excitement across the company.”

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