What’s the first step in learning something? You have to be interested, immersed, and curious about it. This is how Alberto Hernandez got to where he is today. Alberto is the Chief Growth Officer for Consumer Healthcare at Sanofi and boasts 18 years of marketing and general management experience in highly demanding positions. He has a proven track record of creating and implementing best-in-class marketing and business strategies. For Alberto, curiosity helps you analyze things outside of your field, which can help you discover new things and unlock new doors. He believes that you could fulfill your purpose and help more people by staying curious and opening up opportunities. Their willingness to help people and communities suffering from the pandemic led to a partnership with Shaquille O’ Neal Foundation with a Get Game Ready program. Tune in to learn how to make an impact on your community and make things better.
We welcome Alberto Hernandez to the show. He is the Head of Pain and Sleep (now the Chief Growth Officer for Consumer Healthcare) in Sanofi, heading brands including Unisom and IcyHot. He is super smart, knowledgeable, and curious. Let’s get into it.
Alberto, how are you?
Where are you from?
Mendham, New Jersey.
I know you are an international man. Where did you grow up originally?
I was born and raised in Barcelona, Spain.
For our readers that are not that familiar, can you tell everyone about Sanofi?
Sanofi Consumer Healthcare is one of the main providers of consumer healthcare solutions here in the US and around the globe. Our portfolio encompasses allergy solutions, digestive health solutions, pain and sleep healthcare solutions, and personal care. I am responsible for the pain and sleep part of the portfolio, which comprises three major brands, IcyHot, Aspercreme, and Unisom.
Why do pain and sleep fall under the same category?
People are now suffering pain. They’re in pain because they cannot do what they love to do.
Those two are neat states that are, to a certain degree, connected. Pain is a cause of not sleeping, and not sleeping can be a cause of pain. In addition to market dynamics, in which our customers are organized and we have the same buyer for both sleep and pain happening together, it is organizing us that way.
I’m excited to dig into Sanofi and your role. First, I want to take a step back. I want to go to grade school Alberto growing up in Barcelona. What was grade school Alberto like?
He was a curious person. One of the things that described me as an individual when I was younger was the fact that I was always trying to investigate new disciplines and new things and understand how the world operated. That took me to have the international career I had because I was always hungry and wanted to know more. If you have to use one single adjective to describe me, it would be curiosity.
Did you go to university in Europe?
Did you start your career in Europe?
I started my career in Spain in the video game industry with a French company called Ubisoft. You might know a couple of titles like Splinter Cell, Rayman, and Rogue Spear. That was my first job.
Do you still play a game at all?
I do. I have a Nintendo switch, so I try to play from time to time when my wife allows me to.
You now are the Head of Pain and Sleep at Sanofi. You have had such an incredible career and so many unique experiences. I want to learn more about how someone gets to the point of their career where they are the Head of Pain and Sleep at Sanofi.
I do not think it is a linear journey. My journey has been pretty rocky through the process. I started in the video gaming industry when video game was booming in Europe, which was a little bit later than here in the US. It was a beautiful marketing school for a naive marketeer like me because you could do things wrong and still grow triple digits. It is the perfect context to be in.
In addition to that, it was an industry that was giving you the chance to test and learn a lot of things because it was an industry that did not have the budget that it has nowadays. It has a preliminary risk mentality regarding how to reach new audiences and connect with gamers. It gives you a mentality of test and learn, which was extremely valuable for me in my career in terms of trying to understand how to do things differently as I was progressing.
From there, I joined Nestle. It was home for a little bit over seventeen years. It took me from Barcelona, Spain, to headquarters in Switzerland. From Switzerland, I moved to Mexico to take care of the infant nutrition business for the Latin American region. The work there was witnessed by the Gerber folks here in the US after the Gerber acquisition by Nestle. They offered me the possibility to come here to the US to lead the Gerber business. From there, I jumped to a startup that was backed up by Keurig Dr Pepper to scale up the commercial operation, then the team at Sanofi reached out to me to let me know about the opportunity. It has not been linear. It has been a constant adventure.
I find it so interesting that you would describe yourself as curious as grade school Alberto. How has that curiosity evolved? Have you been able to maintain that curiosity? How has it changed all over the years?
Curiosity has to be fueled. If not, what happens is it becomes stagnant to a certain degree. It is something that, if you feed it, becomes bigger. At the very beginning, you have curiosity for one field, but then the moment that you start understanding other fields, industries, and aspects, you start getting yourself into a habit of studying things that are not the things that you are supposed to be studying only.
That opens avenues and doors that you did not consider. I consider myself an evergreen student. I’m always looking at different industries. I’m reading books about how the music industry has evolved since the launch of Napster back in the day and how it significantly impacted the rules of the game for that industry. If you keep yourself open and feed that curiosity, it only becomes bigger. It makes you more curious and it is a virtuous cycle.
Leading a team, a company or a department that is so large, what are things that you do in order to incorporate curiosity into your core values and make other people on your team curious as well?
I share my questions and curiosity with my team members on a regular basis. Every Friday, more or less between 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM, I send them what my summary of the week has been, what my outlook for the following week is, and what were those things that I learned through that week that might or might not be related to the business that I manage.
I spark questions and think that it is not the traditional thinking you would spark. What I do throughout the week is when I see something that I believe could be inspirational for us to learn from, borrow with pride, explore or investigate further. I record it, take pictures, write about it, and make sure that every Friday, I’m sending those examples to my team so that we keep that spirit alive.
Playing that back through transparency and sharing with your team how curious you are, you are able to encourage that curiosity across the board.
Curiosity has to be fueled. If not, what happens is that it just becomes stagnant to a certain degree. If you feed it, it becomes bigger.
It is being curious about what is interesting for them because if you are curious about your team’s interests, you can learn things that you would not if you were not.
What is something you are curious about or thinking about for 2022 for some of the brands that you are working on?
I wanted to lean in more from a risk perspective. There are certain areas we have started to scratch the surface on, especially with IcyHot, which is a brand that has the possibility to stretch further than what it has been in the past. I’m exploring how to incorporate more test and learn mentality in the way that we operate that brand moving forward.
Can you expand on that a little bit more? What is an example test that you are able to do with a brand like IcyHot?
When the pandemic hit, together with Shaquille O’Neal, our brand ambassador, we had a discussion regarding how the brand could help the community in a stronger way than what we have been doing in the past. We thought to ourselves that we were serious about our purpose of helping people rise from pain. Now, people are suffering pain because they cannot do what they love to do. How can we ensure that we are doing well and good for the community?
That is where our corp led the activation as the brand started. We started with that. We moved into comeback courts, which we will talk about it a little bit more afterward. Now we are thinking, “What is next? How can we keep helping young athletes rise from the pain and perform? How can we discover the next big athlete and help make sure that they have the possibility to continue their career?” That type of mentality of trying to do well while doing good is injected into the brand, and we want to keep building and nurturing, moving into 2022 and beyond.
This is a perfect segue into talking about the Get Back In The Game Campaign partnering with Shaquille O’Neal. For our readers that are not as familiar, can you share more information on what that campaign is all about?
Shaquille is a long-time IcyHot partner. He has been with the brand for many years. He is not just an ambassador but he is part of the team. We talk to Shaquille and his team on a regular basis at least once a month. When the pandemic hit in 2020, we sat down and had a conversation regarding how we could help the communities that were suffering the most.
That is when Get Game Ready was born, which was in partnership with The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation. We created a grant program in which we donated $1 for each packaging sold for IcyHot up to $300,000 to help communities and sports programs that have been impacted the most by the pandemic. With those funds, we will give them a grant, and they will buy PPE, equipment material, safety protocols, and expert advisors on how to approach coming back to school for practice.
That was the first step in 2020. In 2021, we got together again to say, “How can we keep this going?” That is when comeback courts became a reality. We were exposed to an article by The Aspen Institute that says the local public sports programs that normally give resources to practice sports to youth at scale were much more impacted by the pandemic than private school programs allowing students to practice their sport. It was going to take them so much time to be able to go back to normal.
What we said is, “Why don’t we help refurbish courts so that the youth in those communities can go back to the courts and play their favorite sport?” That is what we had been doing in 2021. We have refurbished one court in Vegas and we are about to unveil another one in Newark at the beginning of 2022.
I love what you are doing. It aligns with our mission at LeagueSide to make youth sports more accessible. There are so many different ways to impact communities and athletes. How do you determine to make this impact and run this campaign in order to make an impact? How does it align with your business objectives?
It starts with your purpose as a brand. You have to understand the role as a brand that you can play in making society better. Something that describes IcyHot is that we know how to help people manage their pain. We have been fueling and helping athletes for decades. If you take that purpose seriously and look at what your expertise is, allowing you to be able to make an impact with the community, then you start looking at what is that cause that you can participate in which you have added value to put on the table.
It is not just choosing a cause for the sake of choosing a cause. It is choosing a cause in which you can make an impact because of the knowledge and resources you have. That is why we chose this one because we know about pain, sports, and performance. That took us to say, “How can we help the people that are in pain and are more affected because of this whole situation, be able to go back and perform in a safe way?” That is how we came to be.
What do you think the power is for a brand to tie to sports?
It is very powerful. Sports are a lifestyle component of who we are as humans. It is the stories of superation and resilience. It is filled with stories of disappointments but also comebacks. Sports are encapsulating a significant human truth of superation and rising above what you were expected to be doing. It has a significant aspirational component for any brand to be connected with sports as a discipline.
You have lived in and worked in Barcelona, Mexico, Switzerland, and now the States. How would you say the sports culture varies from market to market that you have lived in?
There are plenty of similarities. One of the things that sports carry with them is passion. Even if you are attending a soccer match in Barcelona, a hockey match at the Madison Square Garden or watching Chivas in Mexico, you feel the exact same passion. One of the things that are very exciting about how sports are being managed in the US is that it has a spectacle component and a show to it. It heightens the fireworks surrounding the sports itself, which makes it extremely enticing for audiences. I see much more similarities than differences in what sports mean in the different cultures that I have had the luck to live in.
Who are your team or teams?
I’m a hardcore fan of the football crew in Barcelona. That is where I was raised. If you asked me here in the US, I’m a fan of the Lakers. I started being a fan when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were together. I remember putting on the alarm clock at 2:00 AM just to wake up and watch the matches when I was in Barcelona because I was so impressed with how they played the game.
What I found so interesting when I was in Barcelona was I went to camp for a game. Messi scored four goals that game. It was garbage time and we asked someone behind us to take our photo, and they said, “After the game. We do not do that while the game is playing.” That, to me, was the biggest difference. People go to a game in the States to hang out and watching the game is secondary. It was incredible how locked in everyone was in the stadium.
We’re doing good by doing good.
It is a ritual, and you have to be focused for 90 minutes. You are participating in the game. You are playing that game as well as a spectator. You have a role to play.
The campaign you are doing is amazing. You are impacting so many people. How do you incorporate that into your overall media marketing mix? What comes first? Determining how much you are going to spend on social, digital, and traditional media, and then choosing the campaign or when you choose a campaign, then you determine how to incorporate it in your overall strategy?
It is the latter. First, you define what you want to accomplish as a brand. Once you are able to define what your objective is, what is the roadmap to get there? What are those key milestones that you need to accomplish in order to get there? You define those KPIs that you are going to use to measure the fact that you are going in the right direction to accomplish that objective, and then you start making choices regarding how to bring that vision to life. It comes first defining the vision of where we want to take it, and then you have to define what the roadmap is towards getting there and what tools are going to help you get there.
What are some of the key KPIs you saw or exceeded in 2020, which yielded wanting to continue this in 2021?
In 2020, the first KPI was the impact on the community. We were able to give 23 grants to 23 schools in the US. It was an incredible fit for the brand. By doing that, we were able to reach an audience of around 400 million impressions within the total campaign. We were pretty happy with the process of being able to help the community and, at the same time, drive awareness for the brand associated with our purpose.
In 2022, we are going to be able to help two big communities in the West Side Historic District of Las Vegas and then Newark as a community. The campaign has garnered 1.4 billion impressions so far. It has skyrocketed versus what we expected that we would get. It is a reflection of the fact that we are doing good. By doing good and betting on doing good as a brand, we are doing well.
If you could go back and give grade school Alberto some advice with everything you know now, what guidance do you think you would give him?
I would tell him to be patient sometimes. I would tell him that sometimes you have to wait a little bit because things are not going to fall in place right away. It takes time sometimes for things to be organized. I was a very impatient kid. If you are asking me what I would tell young Alberto, I would tell old Alberto as well that we have to be patient. We have to make sure that we have a clear vision, put the plans in order to accomplish that vision, and then let the pieces fall in place.
The fact that you are consistently sending an email out to your team and the extended team every week with what you are thinking about and what you are working on shows that your voice and your head are clearly working. You are executing on what you are telling yourself. Alberto, this conversation has been incredible so far. I have one last part of the show for you. It is called the lightning round. It is four questions. Answer them with the first thing that comes to mind. The first question is, what is your favorite youth sports memory?
Ronald Koeman’s go for the champions league final for Barcelona to win in. It was ’92.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First, I wanted to be a military pilot, and then I want it to be a cinema director. I still want to be a cinema director, but I’m too old for that.
What is a brand whose marketing do you admire most?
Any brand that is an underdog, a challenging brand that has to bet its life on one area to survive, like BodyArmor, Under Armour, and vitaminwater, bet on something and were able to break through because they were about to either win or die.
Last question, what is your go-to cause to support?
I believe little human beings should not be suffering. Anything related to helping kids in any way I can is top of my agenda.
Alberto, this was inspiring and fun. I’m leaving here more curious than when I started. Thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you, everyone. I appreciate it.
Thank you for reading our episode with Alberto Hernandez. As a recap, we covered the importance of curiosity and how to embed that into your culture. More about their IcyHot Get Back In The Game campaign with Shaq, how large campaigns can come to life, and overall so many interesting tidbits about working in different countries and how sports fans compare in different cultures. Thank you so much for tuning in.
Alberto is the Chief Growth Officer for Consumer Healthcare at Sanofi and boasts 18 years of marketing and general management experience in highly demanding positions. He has a proven track record of creating and implementing best-in-class marketing and business strategies that achieve year over year business growth and build sustainable competitive advantage.