Worst Day on the Job: How Kenton Low’s best laid plans once went splat

BCIT School of Business and Media dean Kenton Low reflects on his days at Nestle and a tomato sauce product that turned sour

Kenton Low’s bio is a long read. Born and raised in  Vancouver, the dean of BCIT’s School of Business and Media originally left the nest to earn an MBA from UCLA. He ended up staying south of the border for another 25 years to serve in various executive positions at Nestle USA, the Walt Disney Company and Vivendi Universal USA. To this day, he maintains that the toughest moment of his career was during his time at Nestle, when he had to tell his team that a project they’d been working on for over a year needed to be shut down.

I was working in the culinary division of Nestle USA, which had a well-known brand in the United States. It was a brand of tomato products named Contadina. This was back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and I was the marketing person overseeing the tomato business at Nestle. I thought, pasta sauce… that’ll be something cool to get into.

We worked with our research team and I spent lots of time in test kitchens tasting different pasta sauces. We finally developed a line of six flavours—everything from tomato and basil to bolognese—and we decided to test market it in the northeastern U.S.

The product suddenly started to take off, and we were very excited. Then, a competitor launched a pasta sauce. We thought, eh, you know what, they just made up this brand name, we’ve got the name Contadina, this is going to be way more successful.

They came into similar test markets, and after about a year, I faced my worst day: I had to tell my team that we were going to shut down this test market. Market share was not growing anymore and, financially, it wasn’t a viable business.

We had a strong brand name, we had what we thought were great flavours, our sales force was top-notch, we had supportive retailers that gave us all the shelf space. But what you get with a successful food product is repeat purchases. Our repeat purchases started to disappear, and we couldn’t figure out why.

In the end, we learned a couple of things. First, when you’re introducing a new product or service, you’re not just selling features, you’re also selling benefits. Our competition was also selling “Italy”—from the way they did their packaging (artisanal mason jars) to the names of their flavours. We had Tomato Basil, they had Tomato Basil Rustica. They were doing a really good job of selling the Italian experience.

In university, I learned the four Ps of marketing: product, price, promotion and place (or distribution). What I’ve learned since is that marketing goes beyond that. It also has two other very important dimensions—processes and people.

You’ve got to make sure that the process of interacting with a service or product is easy. Then, when it comes to people—particularly if you have a product or service where you’re interfacing directly with customers—you have to ask: how are we treating those customers? This is when I learned the importance of the whole concept of customer centricity.

And, of course, that was nailed home in spades when I joined the Walt Disney Company. They don’t just sell products and services. They sell experiences. When I worked there, and particularly when I became a Disney Imagineer, working with the division that designs and builds theme parks, I was in meetings with the best of the best to design guest experiences. I thought, wow, this is what marketing is all about.

What underlies the delivery of an amazing experience is the power of story. It’s all about storytelling. With the pasta sauce, what our competitor did that my team and I didn’t do was to unveil and tell a story about that sauce. They told a story about the origins of Italy, the influences in Italy, all of that stuff. At Walt Disney, once again, with Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion, there’s an underlying story that the Imagineers dream up, and then they design the experience around that story.

Now, when I come into the world of education, I look at it as: When our students graduate, what is the story about the experience at BCIT that we want them to tell? Then we fine tune that story—we reverse-engineer it and say: What do we have to do to make that story come true for our learners? It was the same thing when I was working in other industries—whether it was Vancity or Ritchie Bros., people were always thinking, “Who is this wingnut from Disney talking about stories?” υ

This interview has been edited and condensed.