Having joined the company in August 2015, Jon Harris is the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Conagra Brands. Prior to Conagra, Jon was the Chief Communications Officer of Hillshire Brands, and also served as SVP, Global Communications for the Sara Lee Corporation. Before this, Jon held leadership positions at Bally Total Fitness, PepsiCo, Ketchum Public Relations and Medicus PR.

Jon holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Rutgers University and is an adjunct professor for PR & Marketing at the University of Chicago's Graham School. Jon is also a trained musician and one of the founding members of the GRAMMY Music Education Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to building universal music education in elementary and secondary schools nationwide. If that weren’t enough, Jon is also an on-screen talent who’s appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show and is one of PRovoke Media’s Influence 100.

This was a very insightful conversation and very relevant for any brands who are trying to weather the storm of COVID-19. Jon dives into strategies for keeping heritage brands on the cutting edge and discusses why internal communications has never been more important than today.

Below are some key takeaways from this conversation between Jon and Lippe Taylor CEO, Paul Dyer. To hear to the entire discussion, listen to it on Lippe Taylor’s Damn Good Brands podcast, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and everywhere you listen. This interview was conducted on May 12th, 2020. 


Be a storyteller, but a REAL one.
Even though it’s a commonly-used buzzword, storytelling is a timeless part of good marketing and a mission-critical element of effective Communications. When done right, it’s the job of Comms people to take people on journeys. In order to build a pitch or a press release or a news story that will move your customers and target editors, it behooves you to know how good stories work. Characters, conflicts, resolutions, stakes and story arcs are all parts of compelling narratives that Communications pros should familiarize themselves with.  

In this era, focus on solution-based communications. In today’s unfortunate era of coronavirus, many brands are gun-shy about their communications strategies for fear of being labeled as tone deaf. Jon had a number of interesting responses to this. First of all, focus your communications on solutions. In the wake of COVID, Conagra paid attention to the needs of their customers who were confined to their homes all day. As a response, they rapidly pivoted their communications to focus on things like recipes, projects you can do with your kids, and other family activities. Here, Conagra became a part of the conversation by being part of the solution, which gave the brand a very natural place in conversations and the day to day lives of their customers. So during times like these, find solutions for your customers and your brand equity will naturally shine through. Furthermore, doing the right thing is always the best policy; Conagra has a long history of (silently) giving back to multiple charities and, as Jon said, “Giving never goes out of style.” So when in doubt, give. 

Solve problems internally by crowdsourcing solutions. Jon discussed a fascinating executive-led initiative within Conagra called Catapult where Conagra employees from all over the world submit innovative solutions to the problems and challenges that the brand faces.  Executives then judge the solutions and not only award the teams behind the proposals, but they implement the solutions themselves. This is a brilliant lesson in leadership. Companies like Conagra have thousands of people within their organization, all of whom have different perspectives, skills, and experience--this is an extremely abundant resource of brainpower which most companies need to tap.

Not only does this approach allow companies to rapidly solve problems with informed and relevant solutions, but it makes employees feel heard and valued, which is extremely motivating and ultimately impacts your bottom line.  

Double down on internal comms. Conagra is a company of over 18,000 people, and considering their strong brand identity, it’s critical for companies like Conagra to ensure their employees are all in alignment with the brand mission. During this era of coronavirus, where most companies are forced to work remotely, it’s easy for employees to feel distant and therefore disengaged. To counter this, Jon and his team have stepped up internal communications substantially with informative videos from the CEO, and a series spearheaded by Jon called the Conagra Connection where he highlights success stories and important information for employees. Jon used to do this once a week, but now does it two to three times a week, all for the sake of ensuring his employees are connected and aligned. Increased internal communications can solve the gaps in awareness caused by this very disruptive time period.  

Paul Dyer: So, Jon, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and congratulations for being one of the most influential people in the global communications industry!

Jon Harris: Well, thank you so much. It means a lot. 

PD: So something you've spoken a lot about historically is the importance of being a chief storyteller. Can you expand on that and your definition of storytelling in the context of communications?

JH: We are only as good as the stories we tell and the content we create. And I believe our role as communications professionals really is to craft, tell and sell a story and take all of our key stakeholders on a journey. As Chief Communications Officer, I see our role as the “Chief Storyteller” or “Chief Reputation Officer.” Our job is to protect, serve and build the reputations of the brands, companies and executives we represent. And I think that's done through great storytelling and taking everyone on that journey.

PD: Conagra manufacturers a lot of heritage brands that many Americans grew up with and are now relying on to get through this quarantine. How do you think about the reputation and the stories they're telling in terms of the long-term effects this experience may have on that reputation down the road?

JH: That's a great question. We have been deemed an essential business during this time and as an essential business, we take that role very, very seriously. We have been working tirelessly to really make sure that we are getting our products to the people who need them most. And from a storytelling standpoint, we've veered away from product-specific messaging and really focused more on solution-based communication. So you'll see a lot more recipes, a lot more projects that parents can do with their kids, such as with Duncan Hines and other products that we have. Positioning our brands as part of the solution has been a strategic plan that I think has been welcomed by consumers.

PD: We've heard a lot of brand leaders talking about the tone-deaf communications that have gone out and some of the ‘Covidiot influencers’ and things like that. So I suppose what you're describing is a way of striking that balance between being respectful, but still keeping the brand relevant. What are your thoughts on brand promotion? Is this a time for brand promotion?

JH: Well, I think you've got to be very careful; you cannot appear to be tone deaf. And from a promotion standpoint, you can make a lot of mistakes. So, it's got to be respectful, it's got to be really taking into account the situation that we're in, that consumers are in, that the world is in. And you've got to be very mindful of that and if you are going to go forward with promotions, some might work during this time. 

As a company, we do quite a bit of giving back. We do quite a bit of work with Feeding America right now, and that is not work that we ever promote. We just let that work speak for itself, and for us right now, we're really focused on getting these products on the shelves and in the pantries of consumers who need them right now to provide them with some comfort. The job now is just to get the food to the people who need it most.

PD: Well, that's great. And I love the way that you framed it. It's sort of like if you just do the right thing, it speaks for itself.

JH: We believe that we'll do well by doing all the right things and that's how we always approach business, whether it's a COVID world or a pre-COVID world or a post-COVID world, you'll never go wrong doing the right thing.

PD: Yes. So you've been at Conagra for almost five years. When you got there, my understanding is they didn't have a MarComms function at all, and you had to construct it. What did that look like? And as you think about the next five years, how are you preparing for that from a function standpoint?

JH: When I came in, the Conagra team, and I think the company itself, was very inwardly focused. In fact, we put more resources behind the Conagra Foods name (which we were called at the time) than we did the actual brands that we were selling. So the communications team mirrored that strategy and handled far more internal communications and sales meeting support than they did external support and promoting the brands.

We do consider ourselves a house of brands, not a branded house. I think it might've been the other way around in the past. When I came in, I realized that the company and the brands needed more. So I did an assessment of the needs of the organization and really realized that we desperately needed to craft and tell our stories from a corporate and brand perspective. That had been something that really had not been done.

We had not been working with media on a corporate front, and we really had not been doing any substantial brand marketing communications work. We know that if you ignore your brands, they will go away (as will your consumers). So we started investing in our brands and we've never looked back. It's interesting because these staple brands that were woven into the homes and the hearts of consumers everywhere were at risk of dying on the vine, had we not stepped in and started to invest, started to infuse innovation into these brands, reinvent them in many cases. And it made all the difference.

PD: As I go through the list of Conagra brands, there’s a remarkably consistent story. I think a lot of heritage brands were starting to die on the vine, so now there's all sorts of marketing conferences about how to revitalize heritage brands, but you guys were ahead of that.

JH: When Sean Connolly, our CEO, came in, he said there are no stale brands, only stale brand managers, and there's a lot to be said for that. If we aren't innovating behind these brands who have such name recognition and are beloved by millions of consumers, then we are not doing our jobs, and shame on us, because it is our job to bring these brands to life. And that is what we've focused on over the past five years. And that's what we will continue to focus on for the next 100 years.

PD: At Conagra HQ, you have a founder's wall that celebrates the founders of the brands, like the Hunt brothers for Hunt's Ketchup, Orville Redenbacher, etc. You embrace this ethos of “think like an owner” which seems like a good way of mirroring heritage with entrepreneurialism. Can you talk a little bit more about how you guys go about engendering that intrapreneurial mindset?

JH: Our timeless values are: Integrity, External Focus, Agility, and Leadership, with a focus on Results and Broad-Mindedness. And when we say broad-mindedness, we mean that good ideas come from anyone and anywhere. We have a wonderful effort at the company called Catapult, which we launched a couple of years ago, where groups from all over the world, whether it be the plants or office settings, all submit innovative solutions for products, packaging, processes, whatever--and we judge and award the winning teams and we actually implement and execute many of these ideas. When it comes to the Conagra values I mentioned before, we all really live them. I know a lot of companies say it, a lot of them put them on the wall, but we don't want them just to be words on a wall. We really want them to direct everything that we do.

And we do believe that we're all owners of the company and we all play a role and have a responsibility to the overall success of the enterprise. And every person is equally important as the next. And that's really where this intrapreneurial mindset lives and thrives: it all is about the customer. That is what drives all of our decisions. And, like I said, over the last five years, we've really become quite an externally focused organization. 

We're constantly in dialogue with our customers, with our consumers, with our analysts and shareholders, making sure that everyone knows the journey, the narrative that we're on and also we're taking that feedback that pertains to customers and consumers and making sure that we keep giving the customers what they want and keeping them satisfied.

PD: Jeff Bezos mentioned that it’s a maniacal focus on the customer that has enabled Amazon to succeed, as opposed to their competitors. As I've heard you talk, you've mentioned the customer at least a dozen times, as well as various stakeholder groups. You've never once mentioned the competition. Is that on purpose?

JH: Well, you've got to be mindful of the competition, but you cannot be focused on the competition. We have our own playbook; we have great confidence in our playbook. We have great confidence in our brands, our plans, and our teams and we know what's best for our company and our brands. It's good to be mindful of what competitors are doing, but we have our own plans in place, and we've got to execute on them.

PD: You mentioned the innovations that Conagra has introduced to these heritage brands; things like coconut whipped cream or Pam that comes in a transparent spray bottle so people can see its purity. How do you evaluate all of these different ideas and assess the elasticity of a heritage brand? How far do you stretch it versus remaining true to the core?

JH: Innovation is the lifeblood of our business. It really is. It's not about the ingredients. It’s about keeping our brands top of mind and close at hand and always evolving to suit the ever-changing, ever-evolving needs of the consumer.

I’ll give you a great example: Healthy Choice. Back in the ‘90s, our CEO at the time, Mike Harper, had suffered a heart attack. So Healthy Choice was born from that. At the time it was focused on heart health, so it was low sodium, low calorie (some at the time might've said low taste). But as consumers’ desires and needs, and even the definition of “healthy,” have evolved, you can see that the brand, which is doing quite well now, incorporates proteins, grains, recipes from all over the world and vegetables like kale, which you would never have seen back in the ‘90s. 

And it all is done to cater to the evolving and ever-changing needs of our consumers. You can veer away from it, but you never want to lose the authenticity of your brand because you are your brand reputation. You can build upon that and you can evolve. I think the consumers expect you to. And I think if you stand in place, you run the risk of becoming extinct.

PD: You're a big proponent of using data and AI to understand stakeholders. You're talking now about having your finger on the pulse of consumers and how they're reacting to your brands and what their expectations are in terms of innovation. How do you think about the role of data versus intuition and knowledge? And are there any specific approaches that you really like in terms of using data to understand your consumer?

JH: Well, with great power comes great responsibility. (I didn’t say that, Uncle Ben Parker did.) I feel blessed to have a seat at the table and serve on the senior team, but it means that impressions alone do not carry the day. What we need to provide, if we are going to earn our seat at the table and earn the budget that we need to do our job, is real hard data and measurement, and it is embedded in everything we do. All of our work starts with data and it is typically quantitative; it's third-party data. And we find that this helps tremendously with all of our planning, all of our measurement. We do encourage taking risks, but you want to make sure you're taking educated risks.

PD: For the last couple years, influencers seem to have been on everybody's mind. And of course it feels like things are changing rapidly now in this new world. What are your thoughts on the role of influencers in the integrated communications and marketing mix?

JH: When I first started, you had the media who served as influencers. Now, everyone has a computer, everyone has a mobile phone, and everyone passes along information. It's not just the journalists. Micro-influencers or other influencers might have smaller audiences, but they still have very important and strong followings and sometimes even have louder voices. So many see these influencers or micro-influencers as being more authentic and having more credibility with a certain group, and this can help or hurt your brand. Regardless, you have got to have relationships with them, and it only serves you, your company, your brand, well, by making sure that you know who these folks are, and you do work with these folks (just as we would have worked with the media back in the ancient 1990s).

PD: You've been outspoken before about internal communications, saying that employees used to be the last to know, and now, we want them up to speed with our mission and values. I assume that that's amplified in the current world, but how are you thinking about the balance between internal and external comms? 

JH: We're only as good as the food we make and the people who make it. And we have 18,000 people who have a hand in making our products and ensuring that they get on the shelves and get to the pantries, refrigerators and freezers of everyone. And we can't do it if people are not engaged. We cannot do it if they're not aligned and they're not working together to make it happen. And so we really have stepped up our internal communications in a big way. Whether it be through Monday morning videos that our CEO always does or a series I host called the Conagra Connection, where I highlight success stories and information that would be important to employees by interviewing many leaders throughout the organization, all over the world. We used to do it once a week. We now do that two to three times a week and we are doing everything we can to really make sure that people are connected.

We know people need to be aligned, they need to be aware of what's going on. They need to know the role that they play in the overall success of the company. And during this time, particularly when you are in such a collaborative environment and a collaborative culture, which depends on people working together face to face, being remote can disconnect folks. They can become a little less engaged. And so we've been finding that increased communication (and we do measure this), that it has really helped people feel as if they're part of the solution and really staying abreast of everything that's going on in the company.

Every day, I send out news clips and articles to all of our employees as food for thought. We're doing a digital newsletter that was born out of this now, which is called Staying Connected. And there's so much more. I normally do even coffee chats with my CEO and our head of HR. We do them and we speak with fifteen or twenty employees at a time. So, we're taking the questions and we're constantly engaging our employee base during this time of uncertainty to provide them with some much-needed certainty.

PD: That's really inspiring that you guys are able to be that proactive and energetic about it.

JH: Thanks. It's never been more important than now, Paul. It really hasn’t.

PD: I think that's great. Thank you very much. This has been an extraordinary exchange with a lot of insights. Thanks, Jon.

JH: You got it. Stay safe. I'll talk to you later. Thank you so much.