The Impact Series - Azim Akhtar

Azim Akhtar has taken a different approach to his career than many of the other professionals that The Sponsorship Space has highlighted. Azim’s passion for marketing has propelled him to be the innovator behind campaigns such as the Oh Henry! 4:25 and The Reese Mix Bowl. Currently, he leads all marketing initiatives for the #1 Chocolate Brand in Canada as the Marketing Manager for Reese.

The Sponsorship Space had the opportunity to speak with Azim to learn about his professional journey, his career through various food brands, and take a look at what the future holds for Reese.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in brand marketing. How did you end up working at The Hershey Company?

I love marketing and am very fortunate that I’m in a career that fuels my passion. I graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in marketing and a minor in finance.

I began my career at a small-sized company called Obsidian Group Inc., which is the parent company of a variety of food-chains such as Crabby Joe’s, Chuck’s Roadhouse, Coffee Culture Café & Eatery, Union Burger, and more, with over 150 locations in Canada.

Working at a small/start-up company has a variety of benefits. You have the opportunity to wear a plethora of hats, you’re ingrained with other aspects of the business and how it works, as well as have a lot of autonomy to drive change and make decisions. Funny story, although I was in marketing, I developed multiple menu items, figuring out the food costs, specs, etc., which became best-selling items and still on the menu today.

Although there were many opportunities for me to further advance my career at Obsidian, after 4 years I was eager to work for a large, global organization to truly understand how big brands work.

The reason I love marketing is that you have the opportunity to impact culture, be a force for change, and a driver of growth. This sentiment is never truer than in a large-scale organization.

I began my journey to focus on companies that I was truly passionate about and can accomplish my mission of driving cultural impact. I narrowed my applications to specific companies/roles and created a portfolio of what I accomplished in my career thus far to stand out.

All the stars aligned, and I was grateful to end up at Hershey’s as the Associate Marketing Manager for the Oh Henry! brand, a Canadian gem.

Q: It wasn't too long ago that you helped lead the Oh Henry! 4:25 campaign. For those that don't know about the chocolate bar, can you share details on the product launch? What defined success for you relating to that launch and did you take away any lessons from that marketing campaign?

We could do a whole interview on the Oh Henry! 4:25 campaign itself! To give you the Coles note version, Oh Henry! is a Canadian brand that’s focused on hunger. At that time cannabis was in the process of becoming legalized here in Canada.

As a brand our two key strategies were to 1) Own Hunger and 2) Go Younger. We knew this was an authentic opportunity to build brand affinity with Millennials and therefore we launched the Oh Henry! 4:25 bar, a new product to satisfy your munchie cravings and a way to never be hungry 5 minutes after 4:20 (a symbolic date/time with cannabis users).

The launch of the campaign was extremely challenging. We knew there was a chance to receive negative consumer/media reactions and previously have never taken such a risk. We had to go through layers of approval, and I found myself constantly making strategic decks for the President of Hershey’s.

In the end, I’m glad as an organization that we all aligned and decided to move forward because the campaign was wildly successful. We delivered +100% in our original sales forecast, we delivered double-digit growth, increased penetration, increased consumer metrics with a younger audience while our key competitor saw declines, delivered 68M earned media impressions, won over 50x global marketing awards, and now the Oh Henry! 4:25 campaign has become the gold standard of marketing at Hershey’s Canada and enhanced morale and our drive for the entire organization.

Q: In the US, Reese is very involved in sports marketing & sponsorships. (ie. Final Four, The Reese Mix Bowl, The Last Dance documentary). Do you leverage any partnerships in Canada as part of your greater marketing efforts?

The Reese Mix Bowl was launched here in Canada and lead by me (love how it may be seen as a US initiative). As an organization, we find opportunities to drive synergies with North America to enable scale when it makes sense.

What’s unique about Hershey’s Canada versus other large CPG organizations here, is that 90% of our initiatives are ideated, developed, and executed here in Canada versus adopting from the US. This also includes our product innovation which at times is developed here and then rolled out internationally. I’m fortunate to be a part of an organization where you are spearheading strategic initiatives to drive value for your specific consumer.

Q: Much of your experience comes from marketing restaurants and food products. What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career in this area?

So far in my career, my biggest challenge has been the shift from working at a small-sized company to a global organization which took place when I joined Hershey’s. I was used to knowing and leading all initiatives and soon had to adapt to new processes, engaging in conversations with the right people and deferring some of my crazy ideas to our agency partners who we hire for their expertise.

The transition between the two is not easy, but I strongly believe that it’s put me in a position to be a unique marketer, where I have a deep curiosity of how a business works, an engrained entrepreneurial spirit to get shit done, and now have the ability to leverage those early skills to drive business objectives at a global organization.

Q: With many individuals looking for comfort foods throughout the pandemic, have you noticed any consumer habit shifts or changes recently related to your products?

Absolutely! The confectionery category has seen a significant increase this past year with consumers leaning more to comfort and snacking foods that they love. Furthermore, we’ve noticed that consumers are purchasing larger-sized formats and making fewer trips to stores.

Reese is the #1 Chocolate brand in Canada and the changing consumer habits combined with our internal strategies have enabled us to fuel the momentum and grow almost 2x versus the category, which is something I’m truly proud of.

Q: Reese is so well-known for its experiential work. Have you worked on any experiential campaigns in your market that you're proud of?

I’ve worked on a ton of experiential initiatives, but not specifically for Reese yet. Our US counterparts have done an incredible job with their execution around seasonal holidays, such as this past Halloween with the Reese’s Trick or Treat door.

Experiential campaigns are tricky due to our current climate, but we have a ton of incredible initiatives planned for this year and I can’t wait to see consumer’s reactions.

We’ll have to touch base again on this in the coming months…

Q: What have you been most proud of during your career?

As of now, the highlight of my career remains the Oh Henry! 4:25 campaign, due to the massive impact it made in the market and with consumers. My goal is to continue to replicate similar success stories with my future endeavors.

The other thing I’m proud of is mentorship. I’ve come from humble beginnings and when I began my career journey, I didn’t have anyone to lean on or help me navigate through the process. Since graduating from Ryerson, I have provided mentorship to over 100 individuals and seeing them succeed and get the roles they wanted is an incredibly fulfilling feeling.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?

My ambition is to be the Head of Marketing for a Global Organization within the next 10 years. I continue to focus on growing my skills and leadership to enable me to accomplish my goal.

Q: What advice do you have for current and future brand managers who are aspiring to do what you do? What skills do you value for members of your team?

What’s been a core pillar of my success is working harder than anyone around me. Hard work always beats skill. I will forever live by Kobe Bryant’s Mamba mentality.

Secondly, if marketing is your passion, immerse yourself in all things marketing. Keep track of what’s happening in culture, read about your favourite campaigns, learn the language of a business, and remain curious.

Thirdly, when you become a people manager, lead with empathy. Get to know your team members, understand their challenges, find opportunities for them to reach their highest potential. I heard a saying once and still live by it, which is: people don’t leave companies they leave managers. It’s up to you to foster talent and create an inclusive environment to impact the business and the world.

Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I spend a lot of time with my family and friends, I’m a huge basketball fan (specifically the Toronto Raptors) as well as a massive Drake Fan. If anyone is a Drake, Basketball, and Marketing enthusiast we should definitely chat.