Q&A: Kraft Heinz’s Marketing Chief on Food Innovation, Downtown Chicago and Working With Oprah

Nina Barton shares her recipe for success

Nina Barton, svp of marketing, innovation, and R&D for Kraft Heinz
Headshot of Christine Birkner

Kraft Heinz, dually headquartered in Chicago and Pittsburgh, is also home to iconic food brands like Oscar Mayer, Jell-O and Maxwell House in addition to its famous ketchup and mac and cheese. These days, the brand behemoth is adapting to consumers’ changing tastes by removing artificial ingredients from its products while keeping its classic tastes intact.

It’s also teaming up with another Chicago icon—Oprah Winfrey. In January, the company announced a joint venture with Winfrey called Mealtime Stories, whose goal is to make nutritious food more accessible to everyone, with product launches coming later this year.

Nina Barton, svp of marketing, innovation, and research and development for the U.S. business, took the reins as the company’s top marketer after the Kraft-Heinz merger in 2015. Prior to that, she was Kraft’s vp of marketing for coffee. She joined Kraft in 2011 as senior marketing director, where she was responsible for growing the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand. Before joining Kraft, she had marketing leadership positions at P&G, Johnson & Johnson and L’Oreal.

Adweek caught up with Barton to discuss Kraft Heinz’s recent campaigns, its biggest R&D challenges, how her career has evolved and the company’s new partnership with Oprah.

Adweek: How did you go about removing artificial preservatives from Oscar Mayer hot dogs, and why was this move beneficial from a marketing standpoint?
Nina Barton: Oscar Mayer is such an iconic brand, and it’s been loved by generations. We saw an opportunity to really improve our ingredient line. We wanted to be the first national brand in the market to deliver what our consumers were telling us they wanted. We focused on no added nitrates or nitrites, no artificial preservatives and no byproducts. For us, it was a huge breakthrough because we were able to continue to deliver taste consumers want without changing the price.

Kraft Mac and Cheese’s latest ad, “Swear Like a Mother,” celebrates moms swearing in front of their kids. How did that campaign come together?
We want to continue to target the next generation of consumers. This campaign focused on celebrating the perfect imperfection of parents. It was developed out of this amazing truth that 74 percent of moms admit to swearing in front of their kids, which is more than dads. It includes an in-case-of-emergency mac and cheese box, a list of alternate swear words and earplugs. Something like this makes the brand relevant to the current generation.

How has marketing at Kraft Heinz changed, or stayed the same, since the merger?
We continue to focus on innovation and the consumer, first and foremost. The one thing that’s continued to evolve has been our focus. Now, there’s a big focus on the brands that we believe are important in our portfolio, like Oscar Mayer, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Capri Sun. For Maxwell House, we’ve done some great work that focuses on hard-working families and parents. There’s a really strong focus and investment that drives and fuels those brands.

What are the biggest challenges for Kraft Heinz’s food brands from an R&D standpoint?
We’re proud of our innovation, like the launch of Philadelphia Cheesecake Cups and a new category of mini meals with P3 [Portable Protein Packs]. We have a strong innovation platform, and we also have a strong renovation program. Renovations are trickier to do. When you’re taking out nitrates, nitrites and artificial preservatives from Oscar Mayer and trying to get the same taste with no artificial byproducts, that’s a lot to do while continuing to delight consumers and bring new fans to the brand. You have to deliver the same taste, and the same quality, while continuing to give consumers what they want. It’s a big challenge.

For Kraft Mac and Cheese, we changed the recipes to take out artificial ingredients and shipped it for three months before we told anyone, without consumers noticing the change. That’s a testament to the work that our R&D team does.

How has your career as a marketer evolved at Kraft Heinz since you joined the company?
When I came into the business, I first worked on Philadelphia. I still have a soft spot for it. It gave me an opportunity to see how consumers react to food products and let me understand how renovations and innovations worked. We took out artificial ingredients for Philadelphia in 2013. I moved to the coffee business in 2014, which was a broader portfolio. Maxwell House was going through repositioning, and we were growing Gevalia. And I worked on the launch of McCafe, which has won numerous innovation awards.

Since the merger, my role changed significantly to oversee marketing on a more broad level as well as breakthrough innovations and R&D. I’m now focusing on the longer-term strategic [vision] and having a broader understanding of the whole portfolio across the U.S. and the understanding between marketing, R&D and innovation and how they all work together.

What lessons did you learn from working with Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble that have helped you in your current role?
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. As you evolve, you always bring things from previous scenarios. In the beauty industry, because of the purchase cycle and the emotion involved in purchasing beauty products, I learned a lot about how to think about the emotional and functional relationship of marketing. People only tend to purchase two to three times a year in those categories, which is different than food. I brought that to Kraft Heinz: the understanding of the balance between emotional and functional consumer journeys.

Kraft Heinz moved its Chicago headquarters from suburban Northfield, Ill., to downtown last year. What does being headquartered in Chicago mean for the company?
We’ve been in the Chicago area for such a long time as an organization. Coming downtown and having a chance to work even more closely with our agency partners and media partners and be a part of the scene of downtown has been a great advantage for us. We feel the energy of the city, and having Starcom, our media agency, a walk away on Wacker Drive has been a huge advantage.

What are your goals for marketing Kraft Heinz’s portfolio of brands in the future, and how do you feel about working with Oprah?
We hope to continue to deliver strong innovation in food like the Philadelphia Cheesecake Cups. We’ll be coming to market with products from our Oprah partnership later this year. Working with her has been an amazing opportunity. The balance between innovation and renovation will continue over the next 18 to 24 months. We want to drive best-in-class media and understand how to target our consumer even more to have a personal conversation with them.

@ChristineBirkne christine.birkner@adweek.com Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.