Q&A with Nestle’s AVP Kakam Gabunada on Revitalizing A Major Brand

Reynaldo ‘Kakam’ Gabunada, Jr. is currently Assistant Vice President – Consumer Marketing Manager of Nestle Philippines assigned to handle BEAR BRAND Powdered Milk Drink, the biggest Nestle brand in the Philippines. Prior to this, he was Senior Brand Manager of Nestle Malaysia where he injected many initiatives to revitalize the growth of MAGGI 2-Minute Noodles. He is one of eleven recipients of the 11th MansmithYoung Market Masters Awards (YMMA), the first and only award recognizing outstanding young marketers and entrepreneurs 35 years old and younger. He shares his insights about his memorable experience while being made in charge of Malaysia and Brunei markets.

Q1: You were expatriated to Nestle Malaysia to handle Maggi 2-Minute Noodle in 2012 where it registered the highest growth, market shares and brand health score under you. Tell us what the situation was like when you took over and what you did to improve market penetration and usage frequency.

A: Malaysians love instant noodles. In fact, it is such an integral part of everyday Malaysian cuisine that Malaysia ranks 13th in the global demand for instant noodles, as reported by the World Instant Noodles Association (WINA). This translates to 1.3 billion bowls consumed in a year! And most of these would be a bowl of MAGGI noodles, Malaysia’s well-loved instant noodles brand with (as of 2012) 40 years of heritage and leadership.

But the changing consumer and market dynamics beginning 2005 made us realize the need to make changes in the way we do things. Business has been challenging on different fronts and using actual business trajectory from 2005-2010, it was estimated that MAGGI will lose leadership as early as 2013. Coming in only in 2012, this has been my biggest personal challenge – MAGGI cannot lose leadership, rather it will spring back to growth… and I have one year to deliver!

To do so, the onus is on us to move fast in ensuring that MAGGI stays relevant and exciting, to the Malaysians of today and in the next 40 years.

This required us to challenge our own value chain, in order to deliver more and unlock additional value for today’s Malaysian, by way of (1) rapid new product launches to excite and drive new users, (2) relevant consumer communication to increase consumption, and (3) improved overall consumer and customer experience to value-up instant noodles and deliver category growth.

Q2: I understand that your focus was not just on market effectiveness but also on workplace efficiency. You took the lead to improve and align the value chain as well. What exactly was initiated?

A: We knew that we need to challenge our own value chain, in order to deliver more and unlock additional values for our consumers and customers. But working within a cross-functional set-up, it is crucial to get alignment from all functions and stakeholders to get things moving, and moving fast. Thus we embarked on an Aligned Value Chain (AVC) approach that brought together cross-functional units, stakeholders and partners, from raw materials sourcing until trade customers and everything in between. The main objective was to uncover inefficiencies in existing models/practices across and apply new methods to achieve operational efficiencies.

Through this approach, we are able deliver millions in ringgits of values, from activities as basic as optimizing packaging. We then invested these gains into consumer-facing activities to increase value for the consumer and customer.

In the end, this approach allowed us to not only gain the buy-in but also full involvement and ownership of the entire team. Most important, this enabled us to divert funds from back-end to front-end activities to benefit the MAGGI consumer.  All these are done without compromising the already-superior recipe of the product, or raising prices in a time of increasing inflation.

Q3: Was there a time when you felt like your turnaround task was impossible to do?

A: To accomplish a difficult task with flying colors, my view is that there is always two crucial ingredients – (1) management support and (2) a fired-up team.

Indeed, it was a difficult task to turnaround MAGGI, but the utmost trust and support given to us by management led us to challenge the limits and always believe in ourselves. Add to this the A-team of Brand Managers that I had the privilege to work with, who had both tenacity and optimism to win, one noodle bowl at a time. We described ourselves aptly-MAGGI as ‘Hungry to Win’ and win together we did.

Thus I consider myself extremely lucky throughout my stint in Malaysia, and with these two crucial ingredients served on our table, we never doubted that we can taste success.

Q4: What was the critical turning point that lead everything else to fall into place?

A: Our most daunting task in the turnaround journey came as the challenge of rapidly launching a new product. The goal was to have the product on the shelf under 100 days, a feat then unheard of in the organization.

As with anything revolutionary, we started with doubters and naysayers. But we stayed focused on the goal, consistently drew strength from one another and achieved the goal together.

More than the rapid launch, the new product’s market performance was also record-breaking –single-handedly driving market share gains, improving brand health metrics and achieving targets, and brought back category to growth.

It also proved the doubters wrong and earned us more supporters and advocates after, paving the way for the rest of the turnaround journey. Also, it has since been the back-bone of succeeding launches in the organization.

Q5: You have no prior experience in noodles. You were assigned to a new country. In hindsight, was this a disadvantage or an advantage to you? What lessons can you share with Filipino expats to succeed internationally?

A: My view is that at the heart of any marketing role or position is the privilege to deliver value to consumers, customers and the organization. Therefore to strike a balance across these objectives, the fundamentals always remain the same – one must be obsessed with bringing value and humble enough to ask why not?

Moving to a new country managing a category I knew very little about took me out of my comfort zone. I had to heighten my awareness not only on consumer cuisine understanding but more so learn about cultural sensitivities. But what made the big difference were what I would describe as standard procedure in any marketing role, expatriate or not; talking to the consumer and learning to cook, eat and cook noodles again as they do, or spending a lot of time at the factory observing and understanding how instant noodles is made, or listening and learning from the old-timers who were there during the heydays of instant noodles and humbly asking their 2cents.

Learnings from these experiences served as the back-bone to ensure that the communication and product innovations launched latched on relevant consumer truths. In the end, the stellar results and marketing awards reaped indicate that indeed they revolved around truths that resonated to the everyday Malaysian.

Success is combination of luck and preparation but nonetheless I go back to the best pieces of advice wise people shared with me on being an expatriate.

The first is from my manager, herself an expatriate. Less than a week into the job, she told me ‘Kakam, you will not be in Malaysia forever…’ Luckily she didn’t mean that she wanted to ship me back already, but to emphasize that on top of all my deliverables, I must also develop the people around me so that when my time is up, there is continuity in the things we started.

The next is from one of my mentors who told me that to succeed as an expat; one must immerse him/herself as deeply as possible with the host country, its culture and its people. He added that this should remind every expat of the cultural nuances and resist the temptation of merely copying what worked in the home country.

Last is from another mentor who shares that the moment one becomes an expat, he becomes an ambassador of his country. And so each Pinoy expat owes it not just to him/herself to do good, but to the rest of the country. To win is to succeed on behalf of the Filipino, and failure is not an option.

Looking back, the highest points my stint in Malaysia revolve around these; (1) seeing my Brand Managers move on to bigger responsibilities after my tenure make me feel proud and accomplished, (2) reaping awards across local marketing circles as testament that we did strike a local truth, more than delivering business results and collecting trophies. And lastly, pride in representing the Filipino talent and serving as inspiration to the next generation of Filipino world-class marketers.

Q6: What is your personal philosophy- in marketing, management or leadership?

A: Consumer is Boss | Ask Why Not? | People, more than brand, is your biggest legacy.

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