Dole's global CMO Rupen Desai admits he is the 'accidental marketer'

"I am an accidental marketer. I didn't grow up thinking this was my career trajectory," global CMO of Dole Packaged Foods, Rupen Desai, told Marketing during a recent phone conversation. Desai (pictured) joined the company in April last year after stepping down from his vice chairman for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa role at Edelman. Prior to that, he was with Lowe and Partners Worldwide. In total, he spent more than 20 years in the ad industry.

While it is not uncommon for individuals in the adland to head over to the client side, Desai said he "will continue to be an accidental marketer all [his] life". True enough, becoming the global CMO of Dole was not something Desai had planned for. The journey began when Dole's current president Pier Luigi Sigismondi requested Desai to help him build the brand, just as the former was going to assume his current role. Both individuals had worked together closely when Sigismondi was still Unilever's president of Southeast Asia and Australasia. 

"I was not convinced to begin with until we charted out what this brand can be rather than just what it is. Very rarely do you come across companies where you can literally eat your brand purpose and for us, we are fortunate to be in this position. The opportunity to make a meaningful impact was just too tempting over the weeks of discussion for me to decline," he explained. Desai stressed that this was never on his agenda and he had never thought about wanting to become a marketer one day.

When you are an agency person, you love building brands. While nothing I do now is different, the opportunity of what this brand can be and the impact it can leave behind turned me into a marketer.

Despite this, Desai remains undaunted explaining that as an ad professional, one spends plenty of time with individuals who have the power to say "No". Suddenly, he finds himself being the one with the power to say "Yes". "To me, that is so liberating to do things the right way, to focus on unleashing the power of creativity and building brands. It is the only change I have experienced from being an agency person to a client. It has been enjoyable and I have loved very minute of it," Desai added.

According to him, one of the crucial skills he can bring from the agency side to his current role at Dole is understanding the importance of the exponential impact creativity can bring. Desai explained that creativity is one of the most underutilised asset in the arsenal of brands. Citing a Meaningful Brands study by Havas in 2017, he said consumers would not care if 74% of the brands they used disappeared from their lives. Therefore, it is his personal belief that creativity can be a genuine differentiator for brands. Also, personally, Desai wants to build brands his conscience can live with.  

While multinational companies such as P&G, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever either halted or slashed their ad spend, Dole pushed ahead with its marketing activities. "I don't believe that a brand should go off for a long period of time. Therefore, we have continued to invest in and support our brands," he said. Desai also explained that the pandemic has caused consumers to rediscover the joy of healthy eating, forcing individuals to reevaluate what they eat and what nutritional and immunity value food this gives us.

In Asia, digital forms 90% of its ad spend and the main platforms it uses are Facebook and Google. Increasingly, Desai said the company is tapping into Instagram and TikTok.

Globally, about 65% to 70% of Dole's ad spend is channeled towards digital and the company buys plenty of linear TV in the US as it still offers them a dramatic level of reach and efficiency. 

(Read also: Should you be saving or spending your marketing dollars?)

The Dole promise

Last month, Dole Packaged Foods and Dole Asia Fresh, divisions of Dole Asia Holdings launched "The Dole Promise", which aims to increase access to sustainable nutrition, decrease food waste, plastics in packaging and carbon emissions and grow value for the company’s stakeholders, including farmers and shareholders. The promise draws on the spirit of Sampo Yoshi, an 18th century Japanese philosophy that views the well-being of society and business as interdependent, and ensures the business is beneficial to the seller, to the buyer and to the community.

The Dole Promise frames this philosophy to include better for people, better for planet, and better for all stakeholders. Among the list of commitments Dole aims to fulfil includes access to sustainable nutrition for a billion people by 2025, moving towards zero fruit loss from Dole farms to markets by 2025 and having zero fossil-based plastic packaging by that same year. The company also seeks to advance human rights within the direct operations and supply chains by building a culture of transparency and accountability, and a 50% increase in the value of its business by 2025.

It is also launching the Sunshine for All Investment Fund later this year to support additional strategic partnerships and strategic investments in these areas around the world. The US$2 million annual fund will work with innovators, start-ups and progressive partners to help deliver on the Dole Promise in key areas such as nutrition products, materiality, advisory and implementation of crucial practices to help achieve the ambitions that have been set.

"We are making some quite bold promises for our own operations. We are making them with the reality that we may not know all the answers to bring them to fruition today," he said. Citing the debate about moving away from plastic, Desai said every company would like to begin the journey of moving away from using plastic. However, because Dole does not have a solution, it relies heavily on the power of partnerships to help such goals materialise. 

"I firmly believe that out there in the world, there are plenty of like-minded individuals who are trying to solve these issues for the betterment of the world. For the first year, we are investing US$2 million and the fund targets anybody worldwide who has a good idea around us fulfilling the promises we listed," Desai said. 

Dole is currently in the process of finalising the details of investment fund and will make a further announcement in the next few months. Desai explained that the company is choosing progress over perfection. Instead of waiting to finalise and perfect the details before announcing, Dole wants like-minded companies to be able to reach out and pitch them their ideas to bring an end to plastic or a better alternative than processed sugar, for example. As such, it went ahead and launched the fund first. The partners Dole is already working with include civil society organisation Solidaridad, international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, venture capital Rocana, PA Consulting Group and Food Future Network.

To support the launch of The Dole Promise, the company also pushed out a video titled "Dear Leaders of the World", in which a young girl asks thoughtful questions to today’s leaders. They include: “Why do we keep using plastic? Why do we add sugar to the food we eat? Why can’t we feed more hungry people?” The film was done by New York City-based creative agency Lanfranco & Cordova, with assistance from Los Angeles-based Campbell Ewald, as well as Golin and Spark Foundry.

Speaking about the creative concept behind the video, Desai said children are far more aware, eco-conscious and demanding, and if individuals want to be called a leader, the best service they could give to the future generation is to leave behind a better world than the one we currently live in right now. "The timing of COVID-19 makes it important for us. All of us are probably focused on or might get tempted with short-termism. We might get tempted to put economic stability at the cost of the planet, people or communities. While that is understandable, we believe that responsible businesses that want to lead the agenda need to understand that such myopia can only hurt us in the future," he explained.

Betting big on the belief-driven buyer

Marketers are talking about the need to be purposeful in this day and age, especially with the pandemic. This is certainly nothing new and earlier this year, Dole also launched its global purpose “Sunshine for all”. When it comes to the term "purpose", Desai said there is a lot of "abuse" of this word by businesses and they run the risk of not realising its fullest potential. 

You cannot choose purpose for your next advertising campaign and stop there. You need to believe in genuine change such as innovation or in the company culture. 

While "purpose" might be the buzzword for most brands nowadays, Desai said he finds more joy in the word "purposeful" instead. Reason being purposeful means brands have to be useful and utilitarian, and it is much more about the people they serve and the impact they leave instead of the brands themselves. "The only way to look at whether the brand is authentic in its journey on purpose is to check if it’s being purposeful in its actions," he added.

There is also a fine balance between coming off as genuine in the brand purpose or marketing initiatives and merely leveraging on a trend or event just to garner brand love. Desai said brands that are authentic act far more than they talk. Through actions, innovation and product, consumers know whether they are genuine. Circling back to the idea of a purposeful belief, Desai said each of the actions Dole takes comes from the same belief, which is what makes it purposeful and real.

Likewise for Dole's new promise and brand film, Desai said it is not treating this as a one-off initiative or "a little CSR". Instead, the company is using these promises to reorganise itself and its business model, betting big on the belief-driven buyer. According to him, Dole believes that there are enough people out there who will have a preference for brands that bring about change beyond what they sell. "For us, this is a new business model rather than an ad campaign. All of them are interconnected. If we save an ugly piece of fruit, we are not only making a new product and bringing it to consumers who need it, but also making an impact on the landfill and environment," Desai explained.

Maintaining client-agency relationships

Most of Dole's global agency relationships are led out of Los Angeles, such as Golin and Spark Foundry. It also works with S4 Capital's MediaMonks and Superhero Cheesecake. "As we expand the purpose, promise and initiatives globally, we will be looking at expanding the agency relationships. These are ongoing conversations with our existing partners and they should be able to prove to us that they are capable of expanding the relationship," Desai said.

When asked why the agency partnerships were mainly confined to the US when Asia is a growing market for many companies, Desai explained that US is a big market for the Dole and just because he was situated in a different location, he did not see the need to disrupt the ongoing relationships. 

"I have never found the reason to disrupt [the relationships] just because I happen to live and work in Asia Pacific, while a lot of my teams are spread around the world, including Los Angeles, Dubai and Europe," he added. Across the globe, Dole's marketing and innovation teams have approximately 100 employees. 

Some marketers have said that agencies have not been quick to evolve and adapt during the pandemic. To this, Desai said the agency model needs to evolve, explaining that client fee reductions as a result from the pandemic, as well as the uncertainty of business has "forced a very new reality" on every business, not just agencies. COVID-19 has showed businesses the cracks that were there even before the pandemic, while building out new cracks of the future, he added.

"If you are caught up in this month's quota and or deliverables and think life is normal, suffering is only going to be worse. That said, it is unfair to expect agencies to evolve while they continue to think about how to pay their employee and manage unclear client commitments. We should be far more supportive than critical," Desai said.

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