31 minutes | Jun 30th 2020

Conagra CCO, Jon Harris on Heritage Brands and Comms in the Age of Covid [Episode 18]

Having joined the company in August 2015, Jon Harris is the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Conagra Brands. Prior to Conagra, Jon was the Chief Communications Officer of Hillshire Brands, and also served as SVP, Global Communications for Sara Lee Corporation. Before this Jon held leadership positions at Bally Total Fitness, PepsiCo, Ketchum Public Relations and Medicus PR. 

Jon holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Rutgers University and is an adjunct professor for PR & Marketing at the University of Chicago's Graham School. Jon is also a trained musician and one of the founding members of the GRAMMY Music Education Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to building universal music education in elementary and secondary schools nationwide. You can learn more at grammymusiced.com. If that wasn’t enough, Jon is also an on-screen talent who’s appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show and has been named as one of PRovoke Media’s Influence 100. 

This was a very insightful conversation and very relevant for heritage brands and any brands who are trying to weather the storm of COVID19. Jon dives into strategies for keeping heritage brands on the cutting edge and why internal communications has never been more important than today. 

Below are some key takeaways from this conversation between Jon and Lippe Taylor CEO, Paul Dyer. 


Be a storyteller, but a REAL one. Even though it’s a commonly-used buzz term, storytelling is a timeless part of good marketing and a mission-critical element of effective Communications. When done right, it’s the job of Comms people to take people on journeys. In order to build a pitch or a press release or a news story that will move your customers and target editors, you need to know how stories work. Characters, conflicts, resolutions, stakes and story arcs are all parts of compelling narratives that Communications pros should familiarize themselves with.  

The best way to get better at storytelling is to simply immerse yourself in good stories; why not re-read Shakespeare, Hemingway or some good ole Stephen King? Novels not your thing? Pop in some well-worn classics like Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, or even Jaws. These are all flawlessly told stories, which can inspire your own approach to Comms-driven storytelling which in turn can make everything from a press release to a brand narrative sing with resonance for consumers. (And yes, I did just say that watching Jaws can help you write better press releases). 


In this era, focus on solution-based communications. In today’s unfortunate era of coronavirus, many brands are gun-shy about their communications strategies for fear of being labeled as tone deaf. Jon had a number of interesting responses to this. First of all, focus your communications on solutions. In the wake of COVID, Conagra paid attention to the needs of their customers who now were relegated to being home all day. As a response, they rapidly pivoted their communications to focus on things like recipes, projects you can do with kids, and other family activities. Here Conagra became a part of the conversation by being part of the solution which gave the brand a very natural place in conversations and the day to day lives of their customers. So during times like these, find solutions for your customers and your brand equity will naturally shine through. Furthermore, doing the right thing is always the best policy; Conagra has a long history of (silently) giving back to multiple charities and as Jon said, 'giving never goes out of style.' So when in doubt, give. 


Solve problems internally by crowdsourcing solutions. Jon discussed a fascinating executive-led, initiative within Conagra called Catapult where Conagra employees from all over the world submit innovative solutions to the problems and challenges that the brand faces.  Executives then judge the solutions and not only award the teams behind the proposals, but they implement the solutions themselves. This is a brilliant lesson in leadership. Companies like Conagra have thousands of people within their organization, all of which have different perspectives, skills, and experience - this is an extremely abundant resource of brainpower which most companies need to tap. Not only does this approach allow companies to rapidly solve problems with informed and relevant solutions, but it makes employees feel heard and therefore valued which is extremely motivating. A common misconception of leadership is to feel the responsibility to have all the answers, when in fact, the best leaders are those who can find all the answers. So turn your employee base into a think tank.  


Double down on internal comms. Conagra is a company of over 18,000 people, with such a strong sense of brand equity, its critical for companies like Conagra to ensure their employees are all in alignment and singing the same tune to make sure their slate of products are on the shelves and in the pantries of their customers.  

During this era of coronavirus, where most companies are forced to work remotely, it’s easy for employees to feel distant and therefore disengaged - to counter this, Jon and his team have stepped up internal communications substantially with informative videos from the CEO, and a series spearheaded by Jon called the Conagra connection where he highlights success stories and important information to employees. Jon used to do this once a week and now does it two to three times a week, all for the sake of ensuring his employees are connected. Increased internal communications can solve the gaps in awareness caused by this very disruptive time period.  

Big thanks to Jon Harris for joining us this week, and big thanks to Cindy Irizarri and Lanie Friedman for making this happen. You can follow Jon on twitter at @jonjayharris.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Damn Good Brands on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere you listen. 


Produced by Simpler Media

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