Conagra's DeLu Jackson uses data to deliver

The VP of precision marketing favors data-driven tools and strategy in the recipe to targeted messaging.

Conagra Brands doesn’t believe in marketing campaigns. 

Rather than invest in marketing efforts that have a defined start and stop, the CPG giant only puts time into what Conagra’s VP of precision marketing DeLu Jackson refers to as “continuous activations.”

When Jackson joined Conagra Brands in August 2017, the company was spending a lot of money communicating one message to a big group of people. He changed all that by creating a more precise marketing model that has evolved over the past three years; hence, his team is called precision marketing.  

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

Jackson’s role is largely U.S. focused, but he also has oversight for marketing in Canada and Mexico. He directly oversees 20 staffers. 

Jackson created a cross-functional team that incorporates digital, social, comms, brand design and e-commerce as an integrated unit. The team works closely with data insights and intelligence experts around Conagra products. As the company has used data and consumer behavior to drive how it develops products, Conagra has been able to connect its comms strategy to that same evolution, Jackson explains. 

“Now because we are so much more advanced digitally, we understand what people want and what circumstance they are in, so we can communicate to them in a more personalized way,” says Jackson. “We are leveraging that tech to get more discrete messages to these groups when they actually need it so they are closer to shelf and purchase whereas in the past you would see one TV ad running forever.”

One technique that helps guide Conagra brands’ marketing efforts is asking: What is the consumer “hiring” a product to do? Jackson calls this approach “jobs theory.”

“A consumer might be looking for a specific flavor profile or need something that is low carb or low fat,” he says. 

“That’s a job and the product has an attribute that does that job. That allows us to communicate more specifically in some cases when we have products that meet those requirements.”

Because consumers are constantly searching for, defining and redefining their food needs and what they want to purchase, Conagra is constantly engaging with them, says Jackson. 

“What we shift over time is messaging, targeting and which brand we might use to feature,” he says. 

Pandemic and racial injustice

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Conagra has continued keeping track of consumers and how they seek solutions by increasing how often the marketing team meets to discuss what the focus should be and what consumer shifts are. The team meets every morning at 8:30.  

“Things we used to do once a month, we do every week; things we used to do every week, we do every day, like meetings,” says Jackson. 

Conagra has also created cross-functional activation teams it calls “demand units,” which meet every day to talk about not just what the company wants to do from a marketing perspective, but what the company can do as a collective group to service a particular consumer demand. Conagra and its brands also do not work with PR AORs; rather, the brands work with PR agencies on a project basis. Agency partners are integrated into the demand unit.  

Jackson’s team has particularly noticed a shift to e-commerce across Conagra’s entire portfolio during the pandemic, with more consumers moving to a brand’s website to find recipes rather than eating away from home. 

“We worked with our culinary team to develop more recipes and messaging to help people figure out new ways to use our food,” says Jackson. “Especially [for] people bulk buying items such as tomato sauce.”

As people spent more time together baking, Conagra’s Duncan Hines brand created a Holiday Baking Kit Box in collaboration with SocialWorks, the charitable organization founded by Chance the Rapper. It involved an open call for high school students in SocialWorks’ network to apply, allowing Chicago youth to directly participate in a six-week food packaging design project. Six students were chosen to each be paired with a Conagra Brands employee design mentor. The program culminated in the selection of one student’s illustration to be featured on final packaging.

“It was a multi-touch, multi-impact engagement, reflecting consumer behavior in the pandemic,” explains Jackson. “We had up-and-coming artists to help us communicate differently and create relevance for an audience during the pandemic and going into the holidays. This was a collective effort across our different teams.”  

Learnings from social media

The fight against racial injustice was also a major theme in 2020, and Conagra brand Mrs. Butterworth’s became part of the conversation after Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s announced they would overhaul their imaging in the wake of renewed calls for racial equality.

Conagra said at the time, in June, that it had “begun a complete brand and packaging review on Mrs. Butterworth’s.” 

Asked if there have been any updates on the review, Jackson says that the bottle was supposed to be “a comforting, loving grandmother.” 

“But if people felt uncomfortable about it, we knew it was time for us to look at it and see what we can do,” he says. “We are in that brand and packaging review now.” 

Additionally, all Conagra brands pulled their ads from Facebook and Instagram in the back half of 2020 to support the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which calls for a boycott of the social media network due to its positions on hate speech and misinformation.

“We will be returning from a paid perspective in the near future,” Jackson says.

Last year also marked the tragic death of 35-year-old Andy Hines, who helped create Conagra brand Slim Jim’s voice on social media. He coined the nickname “Long Bois” for Slim Jims and fans are part of the “Long Boi Gang.” When Hines joined the team in 2018, Slim Jim’s Instagram account had 5,000 followers. That number has since grown organically to 1.4 million followers.  

“What was great about what [Hines] inspired was it was all about building the community and leveraging the energy of that community,” says Jackson. “That inspiration lives on and has continued to drive and motivate the team that works on Slim Jim to make sure that magic continues.” 

Having a highly engaged audience has created opportunities for Conagra to keep Slim Jim relevant and exciting, says Jackson.  

“What we learned from Slim Jim and our total go-to-market strategy is applicable across a number of businesses,” he adds.

Conagra’s Gardein brand, a product line of meat-free foods, has also seen its small social media audience “explode” organically. Because plant-based products are on the rise, Gardein noticed there were more flexitarians joining its social media pages. To capitalize on this and attract more followers, Gardein had social media stars such as vegan influencer Tabitha Brown recreate successful sandwiches from chains such as Popeyes and KFC using its own product in place of meat.

Before moving into the food industry, Jackson worked in the automotive industry for 16 years, serving in leadership roles in marketing for Nissan, Audi, Subaru and Ford. But shifting gears from automotive to food wasn’t as challenging as it would seem, says Jackson. The same consumer that buys cars also buys food.

Having different experiences and diverse perspectives enables a marketing team to think differently about how they communicate, advertise or activate a business, Jackson says.

“Study the consumer and as you think about the products or businesses, you will understand how those make great contributions to doing the jobs the consumer needs,” Jackson advises. “It allows you to be effective across those different businesses.” 

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