In our annual predictions report, we said 2023 is the year in which Behind the Brand will become a staple theme in every content marketing strategy. We’re certainly making it a theme of our own strategy because we’ve used episode 36 as an opportunity to roll out a new series called Behind the Brand. Rather than bring in several voices to weigh in on a topic (our normal format), we’re pulling the curtain back on an iconic brand — Red Havas client Kellogg’s — with a one-on-one interview with Gráinne O’Brien. She currently serves as senior director of corporate affairs for Kellogg Europe and in July will take on a new role as VP, corporate reputation and KNA Communications for Kellogg’s.
Kellogg’s recently announced it will soon become two companies as a result of a company spin off. Kellanova will serve as its global snacking powerhouse, with a leading presence in international cereal and noodles, plant-based foods and North America frozen breakfast, while WK Kellogg Co, will become its North American food company.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
- How an in-house brand team can get the best work from their agency partners
- Insights on communicating effectively through splits, spins and other catalysts of change within a business
- How to listen to the voice of the employee through employee resource groups
FROM SLIGO TO DUBLIN, JOURNALISM TO PR TO KELLOGG’S
Nancy Anderson, our VP of social and content, kicks this episode off with a quick chat with Linda Descano, CFA® and EVP, who then embarks on a far-ranging one-on-one interview with Gráinne, starting with a recap of her career journey to date.
Born in Northern Ireland, Gráinne tells how she grew up in Sligo. Her father was involved in the country’s early civil rights movement with people like John Hume and Seamus Mallon, and her brother was a journalist, sparking her interest in current affairs and politics. She attended University of Ulster in Coleraine, where she studied media studies and history, before taking on post graduate work in journalism in the University College, Galway, under some of the finest journalist and writers in Ireland at the time. Post-college she got her first job with a local radio station and worked for three years covering everything from court cases to local council meetings to agricultural shows. She then migrated out of journalism into PR, when she became a press officer for the young farmers’ lobby in Ireland. From there, she made her way into the agency world, working primarily for food and agri clients.
In 2015, Gráinne joined Kellogg’s Europe in Dublin to set up a regional comms function, before going on to head up its corporate affairs in 2019. As Gráinne tells it, “When I initially joined Kellogg’s, I joined to lead the external comms work that we were doing across Europe. That was really about trying to identify the right stories to tell around our brands, across various different markets, and it was about trying to build a team that could do that. At the time, we were quite siloed, and we had various different reporting lines. That was one of the things I tried to fix first — that we were one team reporting into the function together so that we didn’t have mixed priorities. Then I sort of created a vision for the team, which was having a best-in-class, agency-style in-house team. That rally cry unified us all.”
GETTING THE BEST OUT OF YOUR AGENCY PARTNERS
Linda then asks Gráinne what in-house teams can do to get the best work out of their agency partners. As Gráinne sees it, “PR for the sake of doing PR is very old school thinking. It’s so hard to cut through now, [so] you really want to work with agencies, partners, who help you be authentic and help you create the content and stories that will connect your brand or your company to consumers.”
When working with these external partners, in-house teams have to be really clear about what they want to achieve, says Gráinne. And they need to understand whether or not they have a track record in certain spaces that qualifies them to tell those stories. She cites two examples from Kellogg’s, about how it earned the right to speak on matters of food poverty and men’s mental health.
“We’ve invested a lot in measurement in my time in the role,” says Gráinne. “That’s really helped inform the types of stories we tell and how we tell them. And it’s had an impact across leadership because the more you can demonstrate your improved reach or your improved impact, the more you can argue for funds to execute, and the business takes notice.”
CORPORATE CRITERIA FOR EXTERNAL PARTNERSHIPS
When Linda brings up the three P’s — the pandemic, polarizing politics and protest around social inequity — the two get to talking about brand purpose and how Kellogg’s determines what to focus on and when to act.
“Our brands are world famous,” says Gráinne. “They have long histories, and whoever is a particular brand manager at a given time is only a custodian of the brand. So, we did put a process in place. We ask ourselves a set of questions, whether we think a partnership will be deemed low risk or high risk. And if the proposal or the idea is deemed high risk, we go through a process to challenge ourselves around, ‘Do we have a track record in this space? And does it make sense for the brand? Would it make sense to consumers?’ We want to avoid accusations such as greenwashing. So we have quite often referred to partners or taken external advice, or indeed [we] talk to our own employee resource groups around their thoughts. So that’s the process we’ve put in place, and it’s worked very effectively.”
CHANGE MANAGEMENT DURING A SPIN OFF
The two wind the episode down with talk of Kellogg’s historic split into two businesses — a time Gráinne calls “phenomenally exciting,” explaining how they ushered employees through the changes.
“There has been a regular cadence of comms, have been town halls, have been surveys,” she says. “And the company has been very open and honest throughout the process. Even when we didn’t have a lot of news, we engaged. And I think that has brought people through the change. I think people are optimistic for the future, and I think it’s been a masterclass in how to do it.”
AUTHENTICITY FOR THE WIN
Linda closes by asking Gráinne a few rapid-fire questions, including what her superpower is, to which she replies, “I don’t think I have a superpower to be honest. What I would say is, I’m always authentic. I think it’s great to work with people you like and to be kind. Even if it’s a demanding, high-paced environment, I try to be authentic. I try and meet people where they are and understand what’s going on in their personal lives, and at the same time deliver for the business.”