The Marketing Profile: Kellie Fernandes of Green & Black's

Kellie Fernandes, head of global marketing at Green & Black's, has a clear vision of the best way to tackle the recession. 'This is the year of being bold,' she declares. It may have to be - after years of growth, the chocolate brand registered flat sales in 2008. While standard brands such as Cadbury Dairy Milk and Galaxy are growing, business at the upper end of the sector has been more testing.

Kellie Fernandes, Green & Black's
Kellie Fernandes, Green & Black's

In Fernandes, though, Green & Black's has a battler who is clearly relishing the chance to steer it through these choppy waters. She oozes pragmatism, displaying little of the idealism associated with the brand, an early champion of the organic movement since its launch in 1991.

A West Londoner, Fernandes was one of Green & Black's earlier adopters - her mother used to buy it for the family when it was sold only in only a handful of health food shops. However, the need to grow its sales and turn a profit trumps any sentiment. Frequently, she points out: ‘We are about selling chocolate, at the end of the day.' Claiming she wants a sustainable business, Fernandes says that this means one that is ‘not just ethically sustainable, but commercially sustainable'.

It was inevitable that savvy executives such as 38-year-old Fernandes, a former Cadbury innovation marketer, would find their way into the Green & Black's business once the former took ownership of the brand in 2005, following its acquisition of a minority stake in 2002. In this context, it is understandable that her focus is firmly on the bottom line. ‘It's all very well having people say nice things about you, but at the end of the day, the shareholders want to know the trading margins,' says Fernandes. Innocent will ‘come to understand all this sooner rather than later', she adds with a wry smile, referring to Coca-Cola's controversial acquisition of a £30m minority stake in the smoothie company.

This focus on margins explains the launch of Green & Black's Creamy Milk variant at the end of February. The product has a 30% cocoa content - the lowest the brand has ever offered - and is an attempt to target new consumers; it could even be interpreted as an audacious bid to steal share from Cadbury Dairy Milk.

Fernandes admits that Creamy Milk is probably the most direct challenge to its parent company's flagship brand, but maintains that it tastes more like its big rival, Mars' Galaxy. In a nod to the mainstream ambitions the company has for the product, it has jettisoned its usual policy of sampling at carefully selected events; instead, Creamy Milk has been on sale for £1 in WH Smith stores. ‘We have to make it easier for people to come to us,' she explains.

The variant has sold more than 1m bars to date and Fernandes is satisfied that it is not significantly cannibalising Green & Black's original milk chocolate product.

In the current economic climate, there can be no sacred cows. In June, Green & Black's will ditch its austere, predominantly brown, packaging after nine years in favour of colourful wrappers designed to communicate the flavours of the variants. The change has been driven by research showing that one in five consumers believed its range comprised solely dark chocolate when, in fact, half is milk.

One consequence of the flat sales has been that Fernandes has less to spend than she did in 2008. This in turn has meant that she has spent much of her time driving down fixed agency fees, bringing more work in-house and juggling global budgets. ‘We are incredibly lean,' she admits, but maintains that this belt-tightening will not result in a less consumer-facing activity.

Green & Black's is supporting Creamy Milk with press and outdoor work and, in the autumn, will follow it up with a brand campaign. The creative strategy has yet to be decided, but Fernandes is mulling over borrowing the theme used in its US campaign, ‘Live in the &'. The idea is to convey that consumers can have it all - a brand with sound credentials and great-tasting premium chocolate. ‘It's potentially a global campaign, but we haven't tested it in other markets yet,' she says, adding that she is also weighing up how the message will play with a recession-weary audience.

The organic food sector's struggles have been well documented, but Fernandes reckons that fresh produce has taken the worst hit. ‘Organic is one part of who we are and we don't talk hugely about it.'

Fairtrade is another part of the brand, but only for one variant: Maya Gold. This has had a ‘halo' effect and consumers often believe the entire Green & Black's range is Fairtrade-certified. However, the announce­ment that Cadbury Dairy Milk is to become Fairtrade-certified and, more recently, news that Mars is to include Galaxy in the less-demanding Rainforest Alliance scheme, has put the pressure on Green & Black's to extend its offering in this area. Fernandes says discussions are ‘on track' for the brand to go 100% Fairtrade, but sourcing enough organic Trinitario cocoa beans is the main sticking-point.

Being environmentally conscious is still important for Green & Black's, however; this year it cut the amount of plastic and cardboard in packaging for its Easter eggs by 37 tonnes and 33 tonnes respectively.

Fernandes is fiercely protective of the brand, recognising that lost equity can sometimes never be clawed back. On occasions she has fended off cost-cutting suggestions from Cadbury executives, but believes this is easier for her than it might be for others, because, being ex-Cadbury, she is not seen as being dogmatic.

 A restructure at the start of the year led to Cadbury taking over Green & Black's sales, but Fernandes points out that Green & Black's still controls the elements that dictate the brand's personality, such as advertising, innovation and NPD.
After spells at Kellogg, Nestlé Purina and Cadbury, Fernandes appears to be enjoying the challenges of a smaller business and takes the loss of big-company perks such as a PA with good humour - even when, on a recent overseas business trip, she reached her destination and realised she had forgotten to book a hotel room.

The only blip on her career was a ‘horren­dous' spell at Elizabeth Arden. Fernandes left soon after her boss, whom she describes as like ‘Alexis Carrington out of Dynasty', ordered her to get her hair done and stop wearing cardigans (Fernandes was wearing hers inside-out at the time). Fernandes, who cuts a more glamorous figure than this story would suggest, now finds it funny. ‘I was just so not cut out for it,' she laughs.

Fernandes' realism can only be an asset in these tough times and should go some way to ensuring that Green & Black's comes out of the other side of the recession with its equity, and finances, in good shape.