Colmar Brunton Marketer of the Year, Aisha Daji Punga, Frucor

Frucor is a company that understands the link between powerful brands, creative communications and commercial success. And Aisha Daji Punga has helped drive its growth during her almost ten year stint at the company. Now she’s playing an even more important role as the commercial development director, with responsibility for the company’s soft drink business across sales, marketing, finance and R&D. Frucor has well and truly proven its marketing chops with V, the country’s biggest energy drink brand, and more recently with Mountain Dew. But with one in every two beverages sold in New Zealand being a soft drink, the future of the company required it to be credible in that space. Frucor is a bottler for the PepsiCo brands, but sales had been flat for almost a decade, and while she says the brands still had some cachet with older customers, it needed to win the hearts and minds of younger consumers if it hoped to transform its business.

“We’re very lucky in that we’re seen from a PepsiCo perspective as a little innovation hub. We’re the only bottler in the world who’s allowed to do the marketing inhouse. So we said ‘if you want some breakthrough and transformation, this is the way you should do it’. And they’re now buying work from us, which is exciting.” By creating some compelling youth brand platforms, the major PepsiCo brands have had double digit growth over the past three years, an achievement that earned Frucor PepsiCo’s Asia Pacific Bottler Of The Year award in 2013.

“We’re a purpose and values-based organisation that puts the consumers at the heart of everything we do and by doing that we fundamentally become a marketing-led company. It’s been embedded in our DNA from the inception of V.” But it’s not just about the work. It’s also about the culture. She says Frucor’s purpose is a ‘hunger to make drinks better’, a statement that it’s only just articulated in the last year. So it started looking at companies like Air New Zealand, Nespresso and Powershop to see how they had changed their market positions—and their markets.

“And what we found was that it was as much about what they did as how they went about it.” She recommended a unique business model that was less about technical skills and more about creative, collaborative, cross-functional teams that had a long term mandate rather than short term deliverables. Its parent company Suntory agreed and, around two-and-ahalf years ago, it embarked on a three to five year strategy to try and transform the business from the inside out.

She says some of her previous roles have given her a great grounding in the art and science of marketing. At Tip Top, she learned the discipline of creating successful FMCG brands. Her time at Vodafone was the complete opposite and she says there was a big reliance on intuition. She then moved into the director of marketing role at Frucor, which she held for three-and-a-half years and she then spent two years as sales and logistics director, which was a completely different experience that gave her an understanding of the “complexities and challenges of being on the other side of the fence”. And that’s set the foundations for her current, much more holistic commercial role, which she’s been in for almost three years.

At a time when many FMCG brands are increasingly competing on price and when consumers are trained to buy on discount, she says Frucor has been able to command a price premium because its brands are so strong. “It’s easy for us to get topline sales growth, but to do it while not giving it away on price has been our biggest challenge. In the first year when we set out on this journey that’s how we had to get customers on board, but over the last two years we’ve moved it away from price and it’s been about added value and consumer engagement … That’s part of the beauty of what we’ve done. We’ve set ourselves up with a five year plan to get the best long term outcome. And we’re not taking the easy win.”

She says Frucor embraces risk-taking and that has led to a host of award-winning work with its primary agency Colenso BBDO, much of it done for what she says is around a tenth of the marketing budget of its main competitor. And she believes New Zealand marketers need to follow suit. “Somewhere along the line we’ve started to become a little bit more conservative. So that’s a challenge for marketers to get back our bravery. And to be more purposeful. We’re seeing some great work out of what were pretty traditional organisations like P&G and Unilever, and they’re starting to have conversations that are bigger than their brands.”

Speaking of purpose, Frucor’s head office is located in Manukau, an area often singled out in discussions of obesity. So how is it dealing with that? “It’s one of my personal passions and part of why I’m doing what I’m doing right now. We’re very committed to ensuring consumers have choice and at no compromise, and that’s the challenge. How do you make great tasting products with reduced sugar? We’ve taken the lead on a number of fronts in all our categories. We have 43 products in our ‘better for you’ portfolio, which is the largest in the country; we work with the Ministry of Health; we’re the only one in a schools programme; H2go is Stevia-based; we offer juices with 50 percent less sugar; and we have PepsiMax.”

She says this trend towards better products and more choice will accelerate over time, both because there’s pressure on companies like Frucor to help solve the problem and because it’s what people want. “We want to be at the forefront of it because we believe we have a part to play, like many others do, in teaching kids to make the right choices.”

And that attitude is evidenced in her close connection with the Life Education Trust. Frucor has been a long-time sponsor, but with the help of some others from the company, she helped raise $200,000 to set up a Manukau branch where its services were badly needed, as well as $150,000 every year to keep it running. That’s been open for about three years and it’s just merged three different trusts together.

She is also helping young marketers through her involvement with the MA’s Brand Challenge and she also mentors future business leaders, both from inside and outside Frucor. Her commercial nous, leadership skills, customer focus and strategic eye have certainly put her on a path to bigger and better roles. And while she does see herself in a more senior position at some stage, she says what’s most important “is having the right family life and balance” for her and her two young boys. We’ll drink to that.

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