The Grocery Manufacturers Association set forth a future vision the CPG industry group hopes will help it become "highly effective at articulating the industry’s narrative with key audiences, spearheading advocacy efforts to inform policy and driving initiatives that power growth and profitability," according to a Feb. 13 blog post from President and CEO Geoff Freeman.
Freeman said five core pillars will guide GMA's future work. They include transforming the entire organization in order to succeed, establishing a distinct purpose and mission as consumer-facing brand manufacturers, building a proactive and multi-faceted advocacy agenda, focusing on a clear set of priorities to promote the industry, and engaging strategically with retailers where interests with manufacturers align.
The new GMA will be an umbrella organization to bring the industry together by taking its cue from c-suite leadership and removing barriers that impede growth for its core member companies, Freeman said. "GMA’s agenda must shift to reflect the priorities of our member companies' top leaders. This is the only way GMA can effectively drive industry growth and ensure relevance for those we serve," he said.
GMA has had a tough couple of years lately, with several big manufacturers leaving in 2017 and 2018 and the group seeming to lose its foothold as the CPG industry's strongest advocate. Now GMA has new leadership and is trying to emerge from the ashes with a new strategy that seems designed to avoid some problems of the past.
Of the major companies that left the trade group — Kraft Heinz, DowDuPont, Cargill, Hershey, Nestlé, Campbell Soup, Mars, Dean Foods, Tyson Foods and Unilever — most did not give reasons for their departure. However, there were rumors that GMA was dragging its feet on important issues, such as GMO labeling and putting added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panel.
Campbell was relatively forthcoming about its decision. When the company announced in July 2017 it would leave GMA, then-CEO Denise Morrison said many of the soup and snack company's "beliefs have diverged from the rest of the food industry and from our trade association. We had the experience of finding ourselves at odds with some of the positions." Soon after, Campbell joined the Plant Based Food Association.
According to Quartz, these high-profile member departures were symptomatic of consumer shifts within the food industry that GMA seemed unwilling to accommodate, and the defections had likely cost GMA millions in lost membership dues.
Politico reported that complacency and a lack of leadership at GMA were also to blame, citing interviews with current and former member companies, former staff and other industry leaders. Roger Lowe, GMA's former executive vice president of strategic communications, criticized the story as relying "heavily on nameless sources and former GMA staff who are out of touch with the organization’s work in recent years or who are eager to advance their own personal agenda."
Following the member exodus, GMA President and CEO Pamela Bailey announced in February 2018 she would retire after almost 10 years in those positions. Freeman came on board Aug. 1, after five years as president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. The announcement described him as having a dynamic perspective and being able to respond to consumer needs as well as the interests of the more than 250 large and small food, beverage and consumer products companies GMA represents.
The new CEO's successful lobbying background will come in handy as GMA gambles that it can implement the five core pillars and reinvent itself as a more effective and influential trade industry group. The new vision stresses taking directional cues from c-suite leaders and uniting behind the agenda and priorities of consumer-facing brand manufacturers — two significant shifts from past practice.
Critical to the group's transformation moving forward are answering two foundational questions: "Who is GMA?" and "What is our mission?" Freeman said in the blog post.
"GMA has struggled to clearly answer these questions in the past, which led to confusion and conflicting priorities," he said. "In particular, GMA attempted to represent both consumer-facing and non-consumer-facing brands, and it focused on a number of 'aisle-specific' issues that failed to unite industry interests."
It's likely the group's leadership has gone through some intense self-examination in recent months in order to arrive at these conclusions about the path ahead, but whether the departed CPG manufacturers will come back into the fold as a result remains to be seen. It may be they will take a wait-and-see attitude to determine whether GMA has really changed its operational approach, and whether rejoining is worth the membership dues.
Since leaving the GMA, companies including Nestlé have reportedly beefed up their own in-house lobbyist ranks, so that could also influence what big food firms decide to do now. Only time will tell how this new strategy will pan out and whether GMA will return to being the influential industry group it was before.