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July 31, 2020

JJ Schmidt of Mars Shares How CPG Brands Can Drive Digital Shelf Excellence With an E-Content Program

Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower

“Product management is designing your experience with the customer in mind and getting your content as close to your customers as possible.” JJ Schmidt, Global Product Manager of Digital Demand, Mars

A decade ago, if you wanted a pack of M&M's or Wrigley's Big Red gum, you'd go to a local convenience store or big-box retailer. Now brick-and-mortar retailers aren't the only option — and you're just as likely to head to Amazon to satisfy your sweet tooth.

This shift in consumer behavior has transformed how consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands connect with shoppers and drive sales.

Mars, a $35 billion global brand, positioned itself to provide a better digital experience for consumers when it launched its e-content program a couple of years ago. The program enables its business teams across 30 markets to create winning product experiences on the digital shelf.

JJ Schmidt, global product manager of digital demand at Mars, shared his actionable insights on how he drives digital shelf excellence on the Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast episode "Driving Digital Shelf Excellence With JJ Schmidt."



How Mars Wins on the Digital Shelf

Schmidt said the program was part of a more significant effort at Mars to figure out what role the company wanted to play in the online customer experience — beyond just manufacturing products and directing consumers to where they could buy these products at different retailers.

"I wouldn't say we were behind on what our category industry was, but we didn't have an answer for where our products and our brands would play online at that time, and it's still evolving right now," Schmidt said. "So, four or five years ago, we always did manufacturing great. We had great brands, but we didn't really drive anything around the direct consumer experience — whether it be through our indirect channels or through any direct commerce."

Mars' e-content program was an attempt to fix that, but the effort didn't initially get off the ground smoothly. Here are some lessons Schmidt said Mars has learned along the way.

Ready Product Content for the Future of Commerce

Several years ago, Mars lacked content capabilities, so it launched its e-content program to address this foundational challenge, Schmidt said. 

"The conversation started to become, 'OK, we don't know exactly how we're going to enable a strategy of selling gum and chocolate online, but we know we have to get our content ready," Schmidt said. "So, the e-content program aims to solve exactly that. It was about bringing our product content and our digital assets all in one place to be ready for the future." 

Since Schmidt's team was building the program for an entire global organization — and not just a single market — multiple stakeholders and steps were involved, including several exploratory sessions and multiple-day workshops. The team also chose a solution, mapped out its technology architecture, and gathered requirements on what would become massive, unwieldy Excel spreadsheets.

However, that approach was anything but agile.

"It was program management at its finest. That process took six-plus months. But then, we were working on that for about 18 months before we made that first try," Schmidt said. "So, it wasn't a fail fast and learn quickly mentality that we took in that first iteration."

Move From Project Management to Product Management

Schmidt said the main issue with the team's original approach was that it focused on project management at the expense of product management.

"The usability of the system should be first and foremost. Anytime you put something in front of your users, and they can't figure out how to do the most basic things, that's obviously a big issue," Schmidt said. "The fact that we went away working for 18 months and then came back and figured that out was also one of our biggest problems — which is why we started to take a look back and make changes to shift away from project and program methodologies to a more product approach to building this out."

Product management is designing your experience with the customer in mind and getting your content as close to your customers as possible, Schmidt said.

Shift Focus From Output to Outcomes

To achieve this, Mars shifted its focus from output to outcomes. The team reworked its approach from focusing on just delivering a system to developing key performance indicators (KPIs) that focused on delivering online growth, using metrics like online sales, time saved, speed to market, governance, and conversions to measure success.

Schmidt said the team used industry standards for KPIs where it was difficult to attribute specific values.

"Every time we go to market, our intent is to help them [Mars' individual markets] increase their online net sales volume by 5% to 15%. We use 5% as our benchmark every time we're implementing our content capabilities with a market," he said.

In the last two years, Mars' global product team has fine-tuned its approach to rolling out product content in new markets. The team works with each market to define specific KPIs and tier-one priority connections to specific retailers.

"It's always like your Amazons and your Walmarts, but we make sure that we're hitting the biggest value first," Schmidt said.

Automate Content Delivery to Save Time

As far as product availability, the team focuses on creating and delivering product content for each market’s top assortment of products and SKUs, ensuring that the content is accurate, meets each retailer’s specifications, and has engaging imagery and descriptions that compel consumers to click and buy.

While Mars’ global product team has helped individual markets deliver a better product experience, it also has enabled content managers in these markets to become much more efficient.

By automating content delivery on Amazon, the team has saved a content manager in the U.K. 20 hours a month, which the U.K. team can now reinvest into other content optimization efforts that could improve conversions.

Leverage Essential Metrics to Adapt Strategy

Mars' global product team continues to learn as it rolls out product content in new markets. Using its five core metrics, it can adapt its strategy as each market matures, adjusting what doesn't work and doing more of what actually drives results:

  • Online sales
  • Time saved
  • Speed to market
  • Governance
  • Conversion

Launch New Initiatives in Sprints

Schmidt said the team often works in four-week sprints to roll out new initiatives that deliver value for each market.

"We continually populate a backlog of new initiatives, whether it's connecting with new retailers or tier two retailers or maybe it's using completely new channels to feed their websites or other platforms to start driving more traffic or growth," Schmidt said. "It can be anything to help drive their content strategy within that market."

Take Steps to Prove Value — Then Build Buy-In

While Mars initially had a false start when it launched its e-content program, it discovered how to create winning product experiences. Schmidt said a considerable part of his team’s success has been taking incremental steps to prove value and then going from there to build buy-in.

“You have to find where the value can start and prove that out,” Schmidt said. “My recommendation if I dropped into another company trying to figure out how to start on this path would be don’t be deterred if you talk with five different teams, and they give you a hundred different reasons not to do something.”

“You need to have one great reason to do it. Find that great reason, find the value, and no matter how small it is, prove it out to start and then build on it,” Schmidt said.