DTC brand’s new CMO thinks eco-friendly is the next big thing for CPGs

Shane Schick

Lilian Tomovich, who joins Grove Collaborative from MGM Resorts, talked with Marketing Dive about building a new kind of CPG brand as consumer priorities shift.

COVID-19 has forced numerous marketers to scale back or scuttle their plans this year, but for Lilian Tomovich, 2020 has brought a unique opportunity: transitioning from leading marketing for a major hospitality brand when vacation plans are on hold for many to being the first-ever chief marketing officer of a direct-to-consumer sustainability-focused home and personal care brand called Grove Collaborative.

The San Francisco-based company announced today that Tomovich — until recently the chief marketing and experience officer at MGM Resorts International — will take the reins on its marketing to help lead the brand into its next phase. Grove is a certified B Corporation, meaning it tries to balance profit with purpose, built around a web-based subscription service offering a range of items from soap to tile cleaner and garbage bags. The service pairs each customer with a “Grove Guide” to act as a sort of personal shopper and sells a mix of its own branded items as well as grocery story brands like Seventh Generation.

Tomovich, who worked at MGM for six years, said her move was less a reaction to the pandemic-related challenges hitting the hospitality sector and more of a chance to help a brand that reflects consumers heightened focus on sustainability.

“For most organizations, sustainability is not core to their business and who they are. That means what they do is more of an incremental and additive strategy — or frankly, lip service,” Tomovich said. “Consumers are very much becoming conscious consumers. They’re motivated to be more environmentally conscious, exercising the power of their voice. They want to make sure the companies they do business with are trying to improve the community, the environment or the healthcare system.”

‘The market is as big as the country’

Tomovich said she was attracted to Grove in part because of its mission and track record in pursuing sustainability. In January 2020, it became the only plastic-neutral retailer to partner with Plastic Bank, and it has since committed to going plastic-free by 2025. Those achievements may not translate into much, however, without strong marketing to raise its profile, according to Tomovich.

“I knew from my research that the products are fantastic, but what I recognized is that Grove as a brand is not really a household name yet,” Tomovich said. “For me, this was the opportunity to help build that brand awareness, make it the next big CPG for the next 100 years with a lot of equity, trust and love from consumers.”

As ambitious as that sounds, Tomovich said she feels confident based on insights from Grove’s co-founder and CEO Stuart Landesberg about the company’s demographics of its fans, which were evolving long before the novel coronavirus emerged.

“The assumption was that it would be younger millennials living in urban cities like Los Angeles or Boston who would be his target audience,” she said. “What he has found out over the last several years is that there is demand for products even in smaller markets outside of high-density areas. The market is as big as the country. It can do as well as Kansas as it does in California.”

To reach those audiences, Grove has run a number of TV spots, including one focused around the idea of “no more last-minute runs” to the store, and a more eco-conscious one dubbed simply “Do better.” While not ruling anything out, Tomovich said the digital-first nature of its business model will likely dictate the marketing mix she develops as she takes the reins.

“Moving from linear TV to online TV formats, OTT, social, streaming — that’s where all the consumer time is being spent today,” she said. “It’s a natural fit to continue to push our messages, our brand and our products through those channels.”

As a result, Tomovich said it will be critical for Grove to ensure the ordering experience for its products is easy and fast. The other opportunity is to look for ways to offer a “physical manifestation of our business” in its products, she added.

“We can’t forget that experience when that box arrives at their doorstep and that moment of truth,” she said. “I loved the fact that as a customer, when you get a box, you get a hand-written note. Mine said, ‘Stay healthy, Lilly.’ I’m interested in how we can keep opening up the products and the packaging as part of that brand experience.”

Tomovich arrives at Grove at a time when sales of household cleaning products are growing and expected to continue to do so over the next few years as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing consumers to place a bigger focus on cleaning and disinfecting their homes.

Beyond lip service to sustainability

Grove may also benefit from taking on more of a leadership position around issues it works to embody, such as sustainability. The company has already released a plastic scorecard and sustainability report about its own efforts, and partnered with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools last month to donate $100,000 worth of natural cleaning and sanitizing products to public schools nationwide. It has also confirmed additional donations from other brands such as Soapbox, Murphy’s Naturals and Aunt Fannie’s as part of its call-to-action.

The bigger challenge for Tomovich will be helping Grove to establish the right creative tone and voice as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic. This may mean messaging that stretches beyond sustainability to other relatable lifestyle themes.

“I’ve had the the misfortune of managing brands through very serious crisis situations, and I can tell you that COVID is in some ways no different,” she said. “There is a cadence that one needs to follow. At the start there needs to be an authenticity and respect with what consumers are going through. But consumers want to return back to a level of normalcy that they remember as quickly as possible. They’re craving levity and an opportunity to laugh and have fun again. Grove is well-positioned to help get them there.”