Danone NA’s Sonika Patel on marketing with your gut

The company’s VP of marketing looks to add value to people’s lives as the pandemic makes consumers reassess their health and wellness.

Health and wellness has become more important to consumers during the pandemic, leading Danone North America to readjust marketing plans.

Before the pandemic even hit, consumer interest in taking care of digestive health and holistic wellness was on the rise. The number of Google searches for “gut health” rose by over 400% between 2015 and 2020, says Danone North America’s VP of marketing Sonika Patel.

Earlier in her career, Patel worked at PepsiCo for four years in various roles. Most recently she was global brand director for Pepsi. A key takeaway she learned from her time there was the importance of staying relevant and being timely with marketing opportunities.

“We know consumers are seeking these benefits,” says Patel. “So [our products] have never been more critical, cool and relevant.”

A major focus for Patel has been on adding value to people’s lives, and COVID-19 has amplified this.

“Because of COVID, consumer behaviors have changed, the way [consumers] shop has changed and the outlook has been impacted,” she says. “Listening to what consumers are looking for in terms of health-and-wellness solutions is going to be an important aspect of how we operate going forward.”

With the onset of COVID-19, Danone North America brand Activia wanted to share new, fun ways for consumers to keep up with a lively, vibrant and healthy lifestyle while spending most of their time indoors. It launched its Thrive Inside campaign with a TV ad and social content to highlight that the first step to thriving inside is choosing to focus on a balanced diet and helping to take care of gut health.

“We deployed the Thrive Inside campaign in April, right after lockdown, to help support consumers with ways in which they could keep up with their overall wellness, starting with gut health, while being at home,” says Patel. “The ad fully embraces that fact and shows that while it is not easy, it can be done.”

Another North Star that guides Patel’s approach to building brands is figuring out how they can help to solve problems.

In the COVID-19 era, research has never been more important, so Activia in June announced it was funding a study with Rutgers University that will explore if microbiome health can predict the severity of illness among people exposed to COVID-19, including hundreds of healthcare workers on the frontlines. The findings are expected to be ready for publication in 2021.

“That is one example about how our approach to marketing has changed given the pandemic and focusing on the benefits we can offer to consumers,” says Patel.

Sonika Patel

Deepening consumer connections

During the pandemic, specifically, Danone North America wants to ensure it is communicating to people as humans first, versus just as consumers, Patel explains.

“I bring my full self to work, being honest and authentic,” says Patel. “That’s how I want my brands to show up for consumers.”

She cites the Mother’s Day campaign from Activia as a “good reflection” of how the company is doing that. In May, the probiotic yogurt brand partnered with The Bachelor alum Jade Roper for an Instagram giveaway, gifting more than $22,000 to 150 moms across the country to cover their next round of groceries. 

“Parents are overloaded with working from home, being teachers, entertainers and trying to keep their families happy,” says Patel. “So on Mother’s Day, we wanted to take one thing off their plates.” 

One of the biggest launches for Activia this year was its ad campaign called A to Z, which continued building upon the brand’s evolution as a modern gut health innovator.

The activation, which launched in July, speaks directly to Gen Z and millennials about how important the gut is and highlights all the ways it can affect how people feel, physically and emotionally. From feeling active to zealous, the new spots remind consumers that “it all starts in the gut.”

Based on the “alphabet” of feelings and emotions from A to Z, the campaign features a catchy song that raises awareness of the importance of taking care of your gut starting with Activia, which contains billions of live and active probiotics.

Creatively, the A to Z alphabetical construct serves as an analogy for the gut’s all-encompassing nature, Patel explains.

“The A to Z campaign is approachable and has a style that speaks directly to consumers,” says Patel. “It is rooted in brand truth of gut health and our probiotic benefit. But it also relays the simple emotions we know gut health can impact. That is something the audiences will intuitively get.”

Nina Dobrev, for Activia's Gut Health Challenge

The Gut Health Challenge

As part of the campaign, Activia also relaunched its Gut Health Challenge initiative, designed to invite newbies to try Activia twice a day for two weeks to help support gut health. In the coming weeks, Activia plans to announce fresh collaborations that continue to explore the connection with whole-self wellness, soul, mind, body and gut health, says Patel. 

To kick off the Gut Health Challenge in early August, Activia held a virtual event in collaboration with Daybreaker — the global morning dance movement and wellness community — and actor, producer and philanthropist Nina Dobrev. She co-hosted the Bold Moves with Nina Dobrev livestream alongside Daybreaker founder and CEO Radha Agrawal to celebrate the important role the gut plays in well-being.

It drew in 8,000 attendees from all over the world. Patel calls the event’s energy “contagious and uplifting.”

“It gave us the opportunity to really connect and have a meaningful and fun dialogue that includes the values and benefits of our brands, but also much more,” says Patel. “We are keeping an eye open for where our consumers are seeking health and wellness experiences and content and how we can play a role to enhancing the experience of that community.” 

Danone North America’s staffers have been working from home since March. Patel, who reports to Manos Spanos, SVP and CMO of Danone USA’s brand marketing yogurt business unit, says her team has been trying to keep up with the best use of technology and staying connected through visual and virtual chats.

“We try to do a lot of social gatherings with virtual happy hours and games,” says Patel. “We try to keep the human connection alive. That is keeping us going.”

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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