‘We will take the bean out of the can': Kraft Heinz talks sustainable growth and democratising plant-based
When Cristina Kenz joined Kraft Heinz’s international division last year, she was initially tasked with breathing fresh life into the company’s iconic brands and unlocking growth opportunities as Chief Growth Officer. However, the former Danone and PepsiCo executive was keen to also take a lead in building out the company’s sustainability agenda.
“It was one of the areas I put on the table. I wanted to make sure sustainability was something I could get my hands on… I saw being more meaningful on sustainability as an opportunity for growth at Kraft Heinz,” Kenz recalled.
While growth remains a fundamental concern for Kenz (it has to be ‘going in the right direction’), she believes ramping up Kraft Heinz’s sustainability commitments represents an opportunity to drive food system transformation at scale.
“If you are in a big company, you can impact positively. You can have a strong say in the food system: how we treat agriculture, how we treat people and how we treat nutrition,” the international executive told us. “No matter your starting point, no matter the industry, if you are a big player you can make a big difference.”
This is an important point because – to date – Kraft Heinz has faced some challenging results with regard to its progress on sustainability goals. In its 2020 ESG report, the company revealed: "Water use increased 1%. We reduced our energy use by 1% while GHG emissions increased 8%. Our waste increased significantly by 16%. We recognise the substantial amount of work we need to do in these areas."
Righting a big ship like Kraft Heinz offers clear benefits. The group unveiled a new set of sustainability targets last year. This included commitments to switch to renewables, cut water and energy use by 15%, decrease waste by 20% and move to 100% recyclable, renewable or biodegradable packaging by 2025.
In July, an ESG update will be forthcoming and the company will publish ‘advancements’, Kenz told us.
Consumer power demands ethical behaviour
Kraft Heinz’s growth strategy is central to driving this change because it has the consumer at its heart.
“The consumer has the right [and power] to chose companies depending on their ethical behaviour,” Kenz elaborated. This means sustainability can be a make-or-break issue for any companies’ growth ambitions.
When Kenz joined Kraft Heinz, her first objective was to understand the consumer and identify ‘growth spaces’. This, she said, meant ‘listening’. The result was three international growth platforms: ‘taste elevation’ (mainly sauces), simple meals and infant.
Clearly linking Kraft Heinz’s updated ESG ambitions and its growth agenda will be the ‘second step’ in Kenz's strategy. This means identifying ‘how to embed sustainability for brands and platforms’, Kenz said. Only then can you make your sustainability story ‘visible to consumers’.
“When you are able to link sustainability to growth … [and] when you have clarity about what you mean to consumers, growth comes.”
Democratising plant-based: ‘I don’t want to be an angry vegan’
Luckily for Kraft Heinz, Kenz believes the company has a ‘green sleeping giant’ up its sleeve: the Heinz brand.
Already Heinz accounts for 60% of international sales and Kenz expects this figure to grow to 80% going forward.
From a compelling founder’s story, to a strong agricultural connection (100% of tomatoes, for instance, will be sustainably sourced by 2025), Kenz observed the Heinz brand ticks a number of boxes.
Not least among these is its already strong footprint in plant-based. “It is amazing to have a brand the size of Heinz that is already mostly plant-based,” Kenz noted.
“We can save the planet one bottle of ketchup at a time. Heinz is a good purveyor of agriculture. Beans are a superfood… Tomatoes and beans leave the soil better than before,” she continued. “Agriculture culture is embedded in our history.”
Innovation will play an important role in future brand development and Kenz is excited about the opportunities that Heinz's expertise in beans can unlock. Pointing to growing popularity of products like bean burgers, she noted: “There is an area of [the plant-based sector] trying to replicate meat… But it brings something unique to the plate when you play with ingredients like beans. We will take the bean out of the can.”
Already, Kraft Heinz has launched Protein Pots, a chilled on-the-go meal option, in the UK. Moving into new areas like this will help ‘rejuvenate brands’ and build customer relationships. “It’s important for customers. How do you take shelves, become a thought leader? A leader has to be at the forefront of everything.”
This is also how to stand out in a competitive plant-based space, Kenz believes. “There has been a proliferation of plant-based brands all over the world. Growth has been exponential but the market needs to re-segment itself.”
Innovation coupled with the strength of the Heinz brand leaves the company positioned to capitalise, the growth chief predicted. “There are areas we haven’t tapped yet, for example easy meals.”
What could innovation in this space look like? Kenz revealed it could be as simple as swapping out a meat sausage in one of Heinz’s canned bean SKUs with a plant-based option.
In this way, innovation from a brand like Heinz presents the opportunity to ‘democratise’ the plant-based space, which currently tilts towards the premium end of the market. Opening up plant-based for more consumers ‘is where Heinz can make an indent’, Kenz suggested.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Heinz will transition to a fully plant-based brand.
“We will go as fast as the consumer wants to go… I don’t want Heinz to be an ‘angry vegan’ brand with brown packaging that consumers buy because they feel guilty,” Kenz – herself a vegan – explained. “Heinz will continue to be the fun, funky, popular brand that it is.”