CAROLINE COTTEN NAKKEN
President and CEO, MassConnections
Caroline Cotten Nakken co-founded MassConnections in 1990 with Sandy Cotten. Since then the company has grown from a regional staffing agency to a full-service retail marketing and promotional company with offices throughout the United States.
MassConnections has revolutionized promotional marketing from the design of retail collateral to direct-to-consumer contacts. The company conducts more than one million promotional and marketing events each year in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and boasts more than $100 million in annual revenues. Clients include such industry giants as Colgate, Giant Food, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Target and Wal-Mart.
The firm has three sister companies: MC2 Marketing, which develops brand messages and identity through innovative design; SPi, which identifies qualified individuals to represent products and execute promotional campaigns; and CarSan Distributors, which ensures that client products are delivered in a timely manner to retail stores nationwide.
Caroline is a Champion of the Network of Executive Women and a supporter of numerous philanthropies. MassConnections supports the City of Hope, KidsPeace, the Orangewood Children’s Home, Starlight Children’s Foundation, the Union Rescue Mission, the Los Angeles Department of Family Services, and other charities.
In the past year MassConnections has used its marketing savvy to improve children’s nutrition through its “Join the Fight – Help Kids Eat Right” campaign. The firm has also developed a “Connecting with Our Soldiers” campaign that has delivered more than 100,000 postcards to American forces overseas.
Caroline is married and has four children.
Q. MassConnections has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years. How did you do it?
A. To succeed in the retail marketing industry you must fundamentally understand the needs of retailers and consumer product groups. I have been very fortunate to surround myself with talented, driven, hard-working individuals that fully understand retail dynamics and enjoy working with our clients. Their team-oriented, positive attitude makes that success possible.
Operationally, we are constantly exploring how we can improve marketing of our clients – we are never satisfied with the status quo. The retail industry is changing every day and we have to stay ahead of those changes to remain successful and beneficial for our retail and CPG clients.
Our growth and success is also correlated to our investment and commitment to the industry. We recently conducted a multi-year independent research project that culminated into a published study entitled, "Touch America: The Consumer Connection." In it we outlined the benefits of in-store marketing and the consumer behaviors that drive retail sales. We have a follow up publication in 2006, "The Shopper Connection," as well as a shopper marketing documentary “impulse” that will premiere at our Connect with Consumers and Shoppers Conference (Feb. 15-17, in Long Beach). Both unveil unique research findings regarding shopping patterns and impulse purchase triggers.
I am proud to say that MassConnections methodology has resulted in ISO certification throughout the entire company. The control and accountability we practice is returned to all our clients with not only higher sales, but also Sarbanes-Oxley financial accountability and real-time return data – accomplishments unmatched in the marketing services arena. Staying focused on improving the ROI on in-store events and POP means accountability, reduced risk and higher sales. At the end of the day, I really enjoy what I do. I am very lucky to work with a wonderful group of people in an industry where there is never a dull moment. I just hope the next 15 years will be as rewarding as the first 15.
Q. Tell us about some of the new in-store promotions you’ve developed. It’s a lot more than just product sampling and grand openings, right?
A. Absolutely. As technology advances and innovative products enter the retail marketplace, our marketing concepts have reflected that evolution. Consulting our clients on innovative ways to display and sell their products has led to unique packaging and marketing display designs. Audio and video commercials for in-store use have provided a unique medium for product promotion. We’ve also used our events as opportunities to gain greater awareness of national issues, like our “Join the Fight--Help Kids Eat Right” campaign and “Connecting With Our Soldiers.” Consistently developing these fresh ideas for product marketing campaigns, reaching thousands of consumers with our promotions, is part of what fuels our creative juices and drives us everyday.
Q. MassConnections is also involved in POP displays. Can you talk about the importance of these and some of the new trends you’ve identified?
A. It really is about total Shopper Marketing, POP is part of catching the shopper’s eye and attention while being consistent with the message.
Q. What about packaging? Any hot new trends there?
A. The ability of a product to attract the attention of the consumer is paramount to the purchase. Our systems are aligned with our retail clients and we work closely to ensure the communication and details regarding incremental product by category are complete. Our design team, MC2 Marketing, has developed creative designs that have consistently drawn the consumer towards new items, like uniquely shaped containers, or eye-catching logos. Each one incorporates our experience and understanding into what consumers ultimately want in new products. We’ve also invested research and development in product packaging that reflects the various demographics in the country – whether it be Latino-focused packaging, female-oriented product presentations, or even product presentations that attract a younger demographic – each individual client is consulted on what target audience their product is aimed towards.
Q. You also monitor product delivery. How important is making sure products get where they’re supposed to on time – and how does MC help that happen?
A. Every time we conduct an event our personnel must have all the products and materials necessary to help increase sales for our clients. CarSan has two distribution centers – one in Cerritos, Calif., and one in Cincinnati -- both designed to deliver products in a fast, efficient manner to our events. This is monitored through our own distribution tracking software, reducing time and costs to our clients. Each promotional kit arrives at the event in an easily assembled format, reflecting the look and feel desired by the client. We currently are in the developmental stages of our own RFID program, which is sure to affect the entire retail environment in the years to come. We are very proud that we can ship products and materials to any event within two days anywhere in the United States effectively and at a minimal cost to our clients.
Q. One of your favorite charities is KidsPeace – a group that’s fighting childhood obesity. What is MC doing in this area, and how can others help?
A. Our work with KidsPeace has reached hundreds of thousands of parents and children over the past year. With a greater emphasis on healthier nutrition in our society, it was important to myself and the MC staff to utilize our vast resources by connecting with the American consumer on this important issue. Educating parents and children on proper nutrition and the importance of home-cooked meals has allowed our clients to promote new products that reflect a healthier trend in grocery shopping. We accomplish this through educational materials, designed for both for kids and parents, which are distributed at our events. We also encourage shoppers to visit the KidsPeace website at www.kidspeace.org for further information.
Q. Philanthropy is an important part of MC’s mission. Why do you place so much emphasis on this?
A. The personal and professional success I have enjoyed would not have meant as much unless I was able to give back to the communities we serve. Whether it’s sending consumer postcards to U.S. troops in harm’s way or educating consumers on healthy eating habits, it’s important to MassConnections to utilize its resources to benefit the greater community. With the recent hurricane disasters, we witnessed the outpouring of support from consumers and the retail community through our Salvation Army fundraising efforts at promotional events, so I think the giving spirit of MassConnections is simply indicative of our overall industry. I can’t say enough good things though about the people at MassConnections, but each one of them came to the company with that giving spirit, so they put their hearts and minds behind each cause we seek to help.
Q. As female CEO and a Champion of the Network of Executive Women, you’re obviously interested in gender diversity in the CPG/retail industry. What can the industry do to close the leadership gap between men and women?
A. The retail industry is working very hard to promote gender diversity at all levels. Today you can find women in senior executive positions with nearly every retail company out there and that positive trend seems to be continuing. Specific to MassConnections, our operations are filled with talented, innovative professionals that reflect the strong ideals of our female-owned company, and we have certainly reaped the benefits of that talent.
In terms of our everyday operations, we try to make the lives of our employees a lot easier by providing our own onsite daycare -- Kids Connection -- which lets parents interact with their kids while at work. We also encourage team social activities each month – called “Whine & Cheer” -- that take a little stress out of the workplace. CarSan, our distribution company, sends employee packages at cost, a resource we all enjoy around the holidays. Basically, MassConnections is not just concerned about the profit margin, but the well-being of each and every employee that makes our success possible. Ultimately, our woman-owned and operated environment gives us a unique perspective into the balance parents must juggle between work and home – our clients appreciate that understanding.
Q. Do you think the CPG/retail industry is ahead of or behind the rest of industry when it comes to advancing women in management?
A. I would say that we are ahead of other industries, and I would not be surprised to see those numbers continue to increase in the years to come.
Q. What advice would you give women starting out their careers in the retail and CPG industries?
A. One characteristic of MassConnections is that we try to stay ahead of the curve in product innovation and understanding for our retail and CPG clients. That certainly translates to women starting out in the industry – you're ahead of the game in terms of innovative ideas that can potentially benefit your company. The retail marketplace is constantly evolving, so the sky is the limit to the many talented women looking to enter the retail and CPG industry.
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