Simplifiers Interview: Douwe Bergsma, CMO at Georgia-Pacific

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview leaders, often CMOs or CEOs, that we deem simplifiers. In this Simplifiers interview I speak with Douwe Bergsma, CMO at Georgia-Pacific.

Georgia-Pacific is an American paper company and one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of paper products. Their consumer brands include Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern and Vanity Fair.

MM: What does Georgia-Pacific stand for and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

DB: We operate in straightforward product categories—whether it’s a paper towel, paper cup or toilet paper brand, we offer simple necessities that serve consumers on a day-to-day basis. To this end, we strive to align the simplicity of our product brands with the simplicity of our products.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

DB: Each of our consumer brands has its own unique offering. Our challenge is to ensure our brands stay as simple as our products. For example, with Angel Soft, the toilet paper brand, our slogan is “Be soft. Be strong.” Obviously, our product is soft and strong, but we also encourage people to be soft and strong as they face life’s challenges.

MM: How do these brands strive to be simple?

DB: We don’t use simplicity as a filter for our actions, it’s an outcome we achieve as we seek a clear understanding of the needs of our target customers and how we can meet those needs better than our competitors. By keeping a close pulse on our target audience, we achieve simplicity.

Additionally, in a world that’s getting more and more complicated, offering a simple and valuable brand proposition makes you stand out. For example, our promise for Dixie is “Be More Here.” Dixie offers strong disposable plates that can replace your permanent chinaware when appropriate. In doing this, we create the opportunity for people to spend more time with their family.

MM: How do you strive to create simplicity internally? 

DB: We have a management philosophy called Market-Based Management ®, which is a de-centralized approach to business where individual entrepreneurs or teams drive the business forward. In this model, brand managers operate like entrepreneurs and management like investors. This model really simplifies decision-making because the strategies and execution are covered by those with the local market expertise and knowledge rather than from the top down.

MM: What benefits have you received as a company from this approach?

DB: We believe people prosper in free markets because of the free exchange of products and services between people driven to provide and receive value. If you take that approach within a company, people start behaving as entrepreneurs and the free market dynamic starts to work in your favor—the invisible hand takes care of the complexities. If a product or initiative is not valuable, people won’t gravitate to it. We truly believe in delegating down to those who are most knowledgeable rather than centralizing operations and decisions.

MM: How do you keep things simple for your marketing team?

DB: I ensure my team focuses a large percentage of its efforts, investments and resources on the few initiatives we’re confident will create value. For the other potentially beneficial opportunities, I encourage them to use small experiments to increase our knowledge of different opportunities in order to see which we’d like to pursue.

MM: What’s the most recent simple customer experience that inspires you?

DB: Last Friday, my wife and a few friends of ours decided on the spur of the moment to go out to dinner. It was prime dinnertime in Atlanta, so we knew we had to be strategic. I checked my Maps app to see which restaurants were close by, then looked up reviews on Yelp, flicked to OpenTable to make a reservation and finally called an Uber to take us to the restaurant. This experience astonished me because I realized I now depend on so many services that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

MM: What do C-level executives need to do to operationalize simplicity?

DB: Set a clear vision. Put the right talent in place to bring this vision to life. Enable employees to uphold the appropriate processes so knowledge is exchanged. Set clear decision rights around who’s authorized to do what. And incentivize the behavior you’d like to see. If you do those five things while empowering people to operate as free entrepreneurs, you’ll create value.

MM: What’s the biggest mistake people make when trying to simplify?

DB: Not having a clear vision. If you don’t have a clear sense of what your opportunities, capabilities or value-adding differentiators are, and you don’t have a clear method of measuring that value, it’s going to be difficult to deliver value. It’s even worse if you have a vision that you keep changing.

MM: What metrics do you use to assess whether your model is working?

DB: Profitability. You know you’re delivering value when society rewards you with profit.

We also look at market share. Key performance indicators like loyalty and penetration are important in consumer packaged goods, as well as the premium your brand commands over private labels or competitors. For our long-term growth we also keep an eye on brand equity measures.

MM: How would you define simplicity?

DB: Simplicity is providing your target consumers with the right experiences at the right time and in the right place.

MM: What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to other brands trying to simplify?

DB: Have a clear vision of what would create the most value for your consumers and company by assessing your capabilities and opportunities in the market. For everything else for which you don’t have a high level of confidence, embrace experimentation as much as you can.

MM: Thank you.

This is an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with CMO at Lenovo, David Roman; EVP – Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Henry Gomez; CMO at Twitter, Leslie Berland; CMO at Blue Apron, Jared Cluff; SVP, Global Brand Management at American Express, Clayton Ruebensaal; EVP and Group President at Verizon Wireless, Ronan Dunne, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd, former CEO of C&A China, Lawrence Brenninkmeyer; CMO at The Recording Academy, Evan Greene; CMO at Mary Kay, Sheryl Adkins-GreenHead of Marketing at Home Centre, Rohit Singh BhatiaSVP, CMO of Aflac, Gail GaluppoSVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol KruseManaging Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; Jet.com President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: mmolloy@siegelgale.com

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram:@MargaretMMolloy

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