The Sweet Spot

A sugar-coated pitch paid off big time

Name: Debra Sandler
Title: Worldwide president, McNeil Nutritionals L.L.C., a division of Johnson & Johnson
Location: Las Vegas
Age: 45
Power Play: Sandler oversaw the launch of Splenda, now the top-selling sugar substitute in the United States

BE: What are the key ingredients in launching a brand to the marketplace?
DS: Consumer marketplace insight is a large part of any success: understanding from a consumer perspective what is needed or wanted or missing, the role of the product or service, and understanding the structure of the marketplace and how to get your products to consumers.

In the case of Splenda, we found an opening for a versatile sweetener that appealed to the desire for a healthy lifestyle as opposed to diet, which was where most of the other positionings were at the time. So we decided to broaden the category …. I like to talk about three ‘I’s: insight, innovation, and investment.

BE: In gaining that insight, how much personal experience do you use?

DS: I bring everything I am to the table. I’m a mom and I’m an African American of Hispanic descent, so I want products that speak to me personally. I have a family with a diabetic history, so that’s of great personal interest to me as well. I bring all of my previous professional experiences to the table as well — things that have worked and haven’t worked. I do use a healthy level of intuition, but it has to be matched with what the consumer wants and desires.

BE: What were some of the early challenges in launching Splenda?

DS: This was sort of a sleepy category in the marketplace, and justifying the focus on investment, because there was little reason to believe that the insight and investment would create such a mega brand. I think the timing was critical. We launched this business at a time when obesity and diabetes were issues in the United States.

BE: With no evidence that this would become a blockbuster, what signposts indicated that you were on the right track?

DS: Consumer response. This brand started small with a really strong viral marketing campaign that was driven in large part by consumers and less by our own investment. The diabetic community really accepted the brand wholeheartedly. There’s an “each one teach one” aspect to that community when they find something that’s good.

BE: You took time off from your career to be a stay-at-home mom. How difficult was it to re-enter the workforce?

DS: It was very difficult. Initially recruiters seemed to totally negate my entire history. They would ask questions like, “Can you run a big brand?” Hello, I did that like four years ago. It’s a choice that I would make all over again because for personal reasons it’s paid huge dividends — the relationship that I have with my daughter today.

BE: What keeps you up at night about your position?

DS: Getting the right people on the team to run the business. With the right people, everything else gets solved — then my job becomes breaking down barriers to let them be powerful.

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