Steve Axe Nomad Foods

Most Creative Marketers

Most Creative Marketers: Steve Axe

Nomad Foods' group outgoing CMO Steve Axe talks frozen food snobbery, making cat food funny, and why he will never work with Madonna again

By Jennifer Small

In the UK, frozen food was left out in the cold for decades: pushed to the bottom of the shopping list by memories of soggy vol-au-vents from the 1980s, it was seen as a slightly naff, embarrassing secret. Then came the pandemic, and the freezer became consumers’ closest ally in the quest to cut down on trips to the shops. Now, 40 per cent of British families are more likely to buy frozen food than they were pre-pandemic, with convenience, avoiding unnecessary supermarket trips and cutting down on food waste cited as the main reasons in Birds Eye research. We talk to the outgoing CMO at the Birds Eye owner, Nomad Foods about how the brand owner has been working to make this sector both relevant and beloved.

With more of us than ever warming to the chill of the frozen aisle, can frozen food trade on creativity to skate its way to cool? It’s a challenge, says Axe, in markets like the UK where frozen food is not perceived as it should be, so the brand has to “hammer home the table stakes: the taste, convenience, quality of our products. And then bring that alive to make it relevant and modern for today's consumers, via inspiration, or with powerful claims around sustainability and food waste. Particularly in today's cost of living crisis; we are warm, we are humble, we are a family friend.”

It's a market-specific challenge, explains Axe. In Italy, it’s the exact opposite: frozen fish is significantly more expensive than chilled, and is seen as high-quality premium produce. There, frozen veg and frozen fish is the leading the pricing with its elevated consumer perception. And rightly so, Axe says, “because it’s genuinely fresh.”

Another UK-specific challenge is HFSS legislation to restrict promotions of ‘less healthy’ products by location in store (enforced October 2022), and by volume promotion such as multibuy deals (due for October 2023). So how will this affect Nomad brands such as Goodfella’s?

“We’ve done an amazing job on Goodfella’s since we acquired the business in 2018, transforming the portfolio into healthier pizzas. If you're buying a pizza you accept that it's not a daily occurrence, but you're still going to buy it because it tastes great and it's at the right price point.”

The Goodfella’s campaign, created by Grey London in 2019, featured an Italian godmother matriarch character as a family "arbiter of quality". “It’s all about Italian authenticity and the taste implications of that Italian authenticity that we communicate, to boost perceptions of the frozen-pizza brand,” Axe says.

It’s a nod to the 2018 relaunch of Captain Birdseye, also by Grey, that reinvented the brand icon as a more contemporary, casual figure (56-year-old Italian-born actor Riccardo Acerbi) but avoided the kind of drastic change carried out when 31-year-old Thomas Pescod was cast as the captain in 1998.

“What we've done for Birds Eye is a positive example of investing in the brand, investing in a very distinctive asset, that the company walked away from to chase a short-term blip. Now we’ve gone back to it and modernised it, which just shows if you've got a powerful distinctive asset, your job as a creative marketer is to keep it relevant and modern. Not to invent the next one,” Axe says.

Long live the agency relationship

The Captain was first created in 1967, so longevity is key, Axe says, not only for brands, but also for agency relationships. Axe consolidated the global Nomad Foods creative and media accounts into McCann and Publicis Groupe in 2020 and 2021 respectively, and plans to keep it that way.  

“It's all about two things with agency partners. One is about the people and the trust, the excellence of the anchor point of the agency is what makes a great creative partner. The second thing is around longevity; I’m a huge believer in partnership. During 17 years at Mars, I saw the fantastic impact of our AMV BBDO partnership,” Axe says.

The client-agency relationship should never be subservient but always equal, Axe says. It’s about being open and listening to each other. If anyone suggests going out to pitch for a new agency, Axe says he will first tell them to look in the mirror.

“I'll say show me the work that agency is doing for other people. If they’re doing great work for other brands but they don't do great work for us. Let's look in the mirror first. What are we not doing? And that's the conversation I have with the agency. I’m not a fan of pitching business just because you don't like what you're seeing at one particular moment.”

Last year, working in collaboration with IPG-owned Golin McCann expanded its remit to support the development of Nomad Foods’ new sustainability marketing strategy for 2023 and beyond. Axe says the company wants to "empower consumers to help them make choices that are good for them and good for the planet".

“A third less carbon footprint”

As Western Europe’s leading frozen-foods company by a significant margin, with a 14 per cent share of a €26bn (£24bn) market, Nomad Foods has been carrying out research through independent scientific institutes into the sustainability benefits of frozen foods. “In lifecycle analysis versus chilled and ambient foods there's a third less carbon footprint, sometimes even more than that on some of our products, versus the competition,” Axe says.

Appointed CMO at Nomad Foods in 2017, Axe’s portfolio of brands also includes Findus, Aunt Bessie’s and Green Cuisine. FMCG is the bedrock of his career, with eight years at Procter & Gamble, followed by 17 years at Mars. It was here, for cat food brand Sheba, that he produced what he considers to be his proudest creative work so far.

Sheba had been synonymous with single old ladies spoiling their cats with candlelit dinners until Axe, working with AMV BBDO, achieved a series of creative firsts that broke that paradigm. The campaign, “Resistance is Futile” taps into the universal truth that cats know what they want and how to get it. It was the brand’s first global campaign, its first use of humour, and featured music for the first time with the REO Speedwagon track, Can't Fight This Feeling.

The campaign plays out a series of scenarios where the ad protagonists are in the middle of doing something as important as watching their baby take their first steps, “and the cat would give them these eyes, and they would forget what they were doing. They would end up feeding the cat, while the baby got up and started walking in the background. It was a huge leap into humour, with lots of small examples where we had a load of fun with the creative idea,” Axe says. “A further reason to be proud of the work is that it’s the most successful campaign in Mars history, based on their internal econometric modelling.”

Any marketer with the creative smarts to bring both cat food and frozen fare in from the cold has to be worth his weight in chest freezers. Just don’t ask him to work with Madonna…

The world according to Steve Axe

What has been your boldest creative play?

When I was a brand manager at Max Factor (P&G) early in my career, we inherited the position of “the makeup of makeup artists” and we really exploited that. We homed in on Sarah Monzoni as a particularly eloquent makeup artist who I met on a number of occasions – she was also the makeup artist of Madonna. So we used Madonna in our ad campaign – we launched her in three different advertising spots. It was the first time P&G had gone hard for celebrity endorsements outside the US. It was a bold creative move. And it was a complete disaster…

What lessons did that teach you?

I learnt not to do it again!

More seriously, what I learned from it was you need to keep creative control over the entire development process when you're dealing with celebrities. She was such a strong global celebrity, right at her peak, she had the contract nailed down, so she had the final say – she was almost the executive director on the shoot. It ended up being more about Madonna than it did about Max Factor.

It's very easy to get sold into celebrity endorsement at the idea stage by the agency because you automatically believe that the consumer will ascribe the celebrity’s equity to your brand. But leveraging that into selling more of your own product is far more difficult. How to get the balance right between a celebrity and your brand is something that I've certainly never managed to crack in my career. It's incredibly difficult apart from a few specific categories, like sportswear and fragrance.

What is your favourite piece of creativity?

The TV ad made by Ogilvy & Mather in 1985 for Lucozade, starring the then World and Olympic decathlete champion Daley Thompson. This campaign was responsible for shifting the entire brand from "Lucozade aids recovery" to "Lucozade replaces lost energy". Set to Iron Maiden's Phantom of the Opera, it launched a whole category – energy drinks – that didn't exist before. It became the benchmark for the tonality and attitude needed in the category.

What’s been feeding your imagination?

The World Cup. We were all uncomfortable where the World Cup was, how it got there, and the challenges of the regime. But the cultural differences among the fans, rather than the football, inspired a clash of cultures in a positive way. We're so internally focused: we think Europe is the world. And what was so inspiring about the World Cup was how the Asian teams, South American teams, the African teams, added a new dimension to the event. The energy, the passion, the happiness they bring to football and to the occasion. I think it’s a fascinating insight into how global we truly are, and how Europe needs to take a look outside itself.

What frustrates you?

The focus of the industry on short-term performance. Brilliant creative should be rewarded, but the culture now is to give awards for short-term activation-orientated campaigns rather than truly building great brands and great campaigns over time.

What excites you about the future?

The power of creativity to truly cut through, which is more important now than ever. If you were on a five ad break during Coronation Street in the 70s you didn’t need a lot of creativity. If you're one of 10,000 messages that consumer is going to see in a day, boy oh boy do you need to cut through. Data and digital has the potential to explode creativity.


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