How Storytelling has Empowered My Teams at Kraft Heinz to Become the Indispensable Partner to our Customers

By Chris Conroy, Head of Field Category Leadership at Kraft Heinz, in partnership with The Presentation Company

As anyone working in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space knows, grabbing the attention of today’s shopper is like trying to hit a moving target. Changes in buyer preferences have created a new reality that has challenged the retail space and reshaped the role of category leaders.

The evolution of Category Leadership

Category Leadership as a discipline has experienced an accelerated evolution over the past few years, driven by a number of factors. First and foremost, shopper behavior has changed rapidly in reaction to the ever-shifting economic environment. Shoppers have more choices and are now more inclined to shop where it is beneficial to them, versus being loyal to any specific retailer. This growth in choice continues to broaden with e-commerce. As a result, retailers are having to make decisions much more quickly than they ever did before, which has an impact on how category leaders deliver insights to inform and accelerate their decision-making.

For retailers, these changes to shopper behavior require a change in strategy. Within Category Leadership, retailers want strategic partners with shopper-centric insights that can add value and inform decisions that help the shopper, the category, and the retailer succeed. They are now looking for category advisors whose expertise goes beyond the category. They want someone who can look at the store holistically and understand how to incorporate different tactics to help not grow just the category, but also adjacent categories, the aisle, and ultimately the entire store.

At Kraft Heinz, our Category Leadership Advisors are working to support this need for faster decision-making while having to navigate a massive amount of data coming at us from the customer, the marketplace, and other sources related to the macro-environment. Incorporating this growing volume of data into a cohesive story is harder than when it was just scan and shopper data.

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Because of the amount of data and necessity for speed, it is super challenging to make actionable and concise recommendations. How do you mine through all the data and serve up compelling headlines to help retailers make the best decision? You need to present information in an easy-to-digest way that is relevant and relatable to the audience, and also put forward a clear call to action.

At Kraft Heinz, our primary goal is to become the indispensable partner to our retailers. Retailers are looking for partners to be their go-to resource for thought leadership, shopper and industry trends, and problem solving. We are striving to be the first phone call a retailer makes, whether they want to validate a consumer trend or seek counsel on a business opportunity. To become that trusted partner, we must establish ourselves as trustworthy and credible and put the category and retailer’s interests front and center.

Success in our partnerships results in the achievement of the three pillars of our category growth model: getting more people in the store, to buy more, more often – or, said another way, driving loyalty for our retailers. If we don’t do our jobs well, one of these three components will be impacted. For the retailer, the implications of this are massive: if they can’t get the insights they need to make decisions that grow the business, shoppers will go elsewhere and the stores will suffer.

And let’s be clear: having the data retailers need is only part of the task at hand. The more pressing challenge is being able to share the ‘so what’ from that data and then communicate it in a way that makes you a memorable and trusted resource.

This evolution in the Category Leadership space means that the partnership is now earned, not expected. So, the question is, how do you equip your team with the skills – and mindset – to stand out from the competition, build those critical relationships, and become that indispensable partner?

Leveling up from the competition requires a skills transformation

For my team at Kraft Heinz, this has challenged us to shift our approach. We have become obsessed with getting to the root cause of our customer’s problem. We wanted our teams to think even bigger when presenting their ideas. In earlier days, we would enter a meeting with a retailer armed with 50+ slides packed with every data point we had in our arsenal. Our presentations rarely came from an audience point of view. We were not creating excitement upfront when presenting our ideas, so we didn’t stand out. Instead, we were just one of a series of daily meetings for our retailers. We recognized that something had to change if we wanted to become more distinctive and memorable, and to build trust with our retail partners.

The truth is that leveling up the dialogue and gaining influence with your retail partners requires a whole new set of competencies, from strong executive presence and presentation skills to data literacy.

Over the past few years, through our partnership with The Presentation Company, my team at Kraft Heinz – along with other cross-functional groups outside of Category Leadership– have gained critical storytelling skills that have enabled us to demonstrate value to the business – and our customers.

Storytelling: the key to being an indispensable partner

With the proper framework and skills in place, storytelling has been an essential component of our mission to become an indispensable partner. We have used storytelling to build business narratives that pull in our audience, keep them interested, and prompt them into action. Instead of our retail partners becoming static receivers of information, they have become the central focus of a story we’ve written specifically for them. What could be more compelling than that?

Here are just a few of the ways storytelling can become an invaluable capability for not only today’s category leaders, but for any and all functions across an organization.

Storytelling provides a common language among cross-functional teams.

Once an entire organization can “speak story,” it unlocks a whole new level of teamwork. We have seen a culture of storytelling emerge at Kraft Heinz. My teams regularly incorporate TPC’s coaching and story building tools into their process. Whether brainstorming ideas with the sales team or sifting through data with the consumer insights team, the storytelling framework helps us clearly communicate our goals cross-functionally. It creates a shared form of communication that promotes collaboration, saves time, and quite frankly, makes working together more fun.

A visual strategy helps you become more distinct and memorable.

Layering a strong visual strategy on top of storytelling fundamentals has helped us net out complex ideas and present information that could be overly complicated or overwhelming in a very simple way. We have made a conscious effort to “de-word” our slides and reduce what may have been a list of bullet points down into a single takeaway. Our visual strategy has earned us some ‘wow’ reactions to our stories; retailers are even using our slides when presenting ideas to their audiences. We are helping our buyers communicate the insights. This has been a game-changer when it comes to leaving a lasting impression and building trust.

Storytelling improves data literacy.

When data is presented poorly and lacks context, it can cause confusion, slow decision-making, and alienate your audience. Knowing how to wrap your data in a story and strong visuals, however, makes all the difference. I will admit that we used to be data reporters. We would export a complex chart from any one of our various data providers, then we reported the news: here’s what’s happening, here’s what the data says, but not what it tells us to do. We have gone from letting the data control the narrative to putting the focus on the audience and letting their needs drive the story. And in doing this, we have been able to transform numbers into meaningful insights that can help our customers understand complex concepts, remember key information, and most importantly, make informed decisions.

Storytelling puts your audience at the center of the story.

Today’s retailers are looking for brand-agnostic partners that bring innovative ideas, real-world solutions, and category strategies to the table. As category leaders, we are in a unique position in that we are working in service to multiple audiences – the shopper and the retailer. Storytelling has helped us develop the mindset to put ourselves into our audience’s shoes and ensure that our story does the same. This has allowed us to make the shopper and the retailer the principal focus. Instead of just communicating information, we are in a position to get to the root of our audience’s problem and speak directly to what they’re seeking to solve for.

Storytelling helps you uplevel the conversation.

Being able to deliver a powerful business story shows customers your mastery of the material while also taking off some pressure. Instead of spending all your energy trying to sell data points, you can let the story speak for you and leave space for feedback and conversation. This moves customer interactions from transactional to strategic, which builds both loyalty and trust. I have seen my team grow their confidence, too. If they know their story, they are comfortable presenting it and less reliant on having to rehash every word on the slide or data point on a chart. Instead, we call out the takeaway, then speak to supporting points. If there is something we don’t know, we’re comfortable following up or providing the information separately.

Storytelling has enabled us to create a two-way dialogue and have conversations that really make a difference to our buyers, versus just addressing the tactical questions. And once you can move past the tactical, it leaves room to think bigger. Through storytelling, we have been able to help our partners to consider new ideas and solve for something more than just today’s fire drill.

Storytelling can flex to different scenarios and be adjusted on the fly.

The new business landscape means we must make the most of our time with retail partners. Meetings are now kept short and often virtual. The storytelling framework has helped us maximize our impact by keeping presentations concise. It’s also allowed us to easily adapt if our presentation time gets cut short. We only focus on sharing information that moves the story forward. And the best part? The storytelling framework can be applied to any form of business communications; I have seen my team use it in high-stakes emails and even during store walks.

Storytelling improves our meeting productivity and efficiency.

One of the most compelling parts about applying a storytelling framework to a presentation with a retailer is that there is no confusion on the ‘so what?’ Decision-makers are clear on what the recommendation is and what they’re being asked to act on. Oftentimes this can lead to a decision being made in the moment vs. spending the entire meeting time presenting, then having to schedule more meetings to make decisions and address questions. This has allowed us to get to action more quickly, rather than in subsequent follow-up meetings or many email exchanges later.

Storytelling has changed how our customers view us.

Retailers have definitely taken notice of how we’re showing up differently. Now we are more prepared and are approaching conversations with a strategic mindset. My team members are more thoughtful about what they present, and storytelling helps us uncover what we are trying to solve for – and also share recommendations on how we get there. We have not only seen this in direct feedback from our customers; the impact is reflected in quantitative data, too. In two recent retailer surveys compiled by Advantage and Kantar, our ranking by retailers improved significantly, showing that our efforts to become indispensable are hitting home and making a difference with our customers.

From supplier to strategic partner

There is no question—continual changes in buyer behavior and preferences have completely upended the CPG landscape. The retail environment is far more dynamic than it used to be, and category leaders are now part of a larger ecosystem of communication, data sharing, and strategic planning all centered on one overarching goal—winning over today’s shopper.

Storytelling can help category leaders better engage with retailers, effectively communicate critical learnings, and demonstrate that they are an indispensable strategic partner that can add value both now – and well into the future.

Chris Conroy is the Head of Category Leadership for The Kraft Heinz Company. In this strategic leadership role, Chris brings his passion as a team builder and talent developer to lead a high-powered team of category leadership professionals. That team is keenly focused on driving shopper loyalty for our retailer partners by linking shopper insights, category strategies and tactics to store, aisle, and category growth solutions. Throughout his career in consumer products, Chris has held leadership roles spanning Sales, Shopper Marketing, and Category Leadership. Chris began his career with Kraft Foods in 2011, as the Associate Director of Category Management.

The Presentation Company (TPC) is a corporate training company that helps talented businesspeople bring clarity and meaning to their ideas and data and influence decisions through storytelling. For over 20 years, TPC has partnered with Fortune 500 companies – including Meta, T-Mobile, Medtronic, and top CPG brands Kraft Heinz, Colgate-Palmolive, and Nestlé – to transform teams into strategic, influential visual communicators and drive business forward. We believe that with our storytelling framework, some simple guidance, and the right tools, everyone can be a great business storyteller!

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