Who says it has to be Heinz? Nothing in life is certain. And Matt Hill knows it. Not in this recession, not when you’re competing against your own customers, while new rivals, with new ideas to address new trends, are challenging the status quo.

“If I step right back, this is a legacy business. We enjoy incredible loyalty from our cohort of consumers,” says the Heinz president, UK & Ireland. “And one of my challenges is to recruit the next generation of Heinz lovers.”

It’s a challenge that excites Hill hugely. “What attracted me to Heinz was the brand and the brief,” says the former Unilever high flyer. “The Heinz stable has just got immense strength and potential.” And in the almost two years since he was recruited, initially as chief marketing officer, and subsequently as chief operating officer and now president, his vision for a “marketing renaissance” has gained a lot of traction - within the business, clearly - and with customers.

“It’s got great momentum,” he says, pointing out a host of successful initiatives, including new formats (Fridge Pack, Snap Pots, Squeeze & Stir) new recipes (sauces flavoured with chipotle, balsamic vinegar and Guinness) and “disruptive” use of media, both new and old.

As the original trading outpost of Heinz’s global expansion, Heinz UK & Ireland has a special place in the affection of the Pittsburg mothership. And unusually for a multinational, Hill enjoys full control of the UK business. “It’s one of the reasons that attracted me to the job: we’re not a matrix business. We drive the thinking, we write the three-year strategy. It’s incredibly energising.” And he’s been given “a blank piece of paper” to grow the business, including a licence to make strategic acquisitions.

: Matt Hill
Age: 42
Status: married, two girls (seven and four)
Education: BSc Economics, Warwick Uni
CV: Joined Unilever in 1993. Held local, European, and global leadership roles, launching Pro-activ and running Knorr as VP. Appointed CMO Heinz in August 2010. Promoted to president May 2012.
Passions: Making stuff better. And finding out what makes people tick. “Am basically nosey.”
Peeves: passivity, victim mentality.
Favourite ad: Embrace Life: Sussex Safer Roads.
Hobbies: cooking, running (“my mental floss”), golf
Last film: Barbie Mermaidia (“a lifestage thing!”)

But he’s placing organic growth at the centre of the renaissance, driven by “insight, ideas and initiative”, and has doubled the rate of innovation, while cutting back on promotions.

“We’re one of the few businesses really investing in brands and innovation, which in a recessionary environment is pretty exciting,” he says. Hill has also committed to spend 20% of his marketing budget on digital media. It’s a radical step, but it’s hardly daring, he argues. Like Hill, it’s logical, modern and decisive.

“If we are to recruit the next generation of Heinz lovers, we need to be engaging with them where they are. I’m going to be in the places they’re shopping, in the places they’re communicating and selling them the products they’re buying, rather than the same stuff in the same place and the same way.”

At the heart of Hill’s renaissance is a transformation of the Heinz culture. Set in a grey 1960s office block on a business park outside Hayes, Heinz is the archetypal ‘corporate’. And for all its iconic brands, and long-term success as a business, the UK arm has not always encouraged risk taking. Hill wants to change that. “Heinz is rightly famous for its incredible commercial strength. I want Heinz also to be famous for its entrepreneurship.”

But how? As well as setting “stretching targets” to drive it, it’s “about the atmosphere you create,” he says.

“How do you behave when a risk doesn’t come off? Do you share the learning? Do you praise the courage for taking the risk and then move those individuals to a new challenge to apply that? Or do you punish them? We are trying to build a learning culture.”

This learning culture also applies to innovation. One of Hill’s mantras is to ‘learn fast, fail cheap’. It’s not just a question of taking risk, he says. “We are building testing into everything we do, whether it’s a media plan or customer activation plan. We’re constantly learning and reapplying. Ultimately, we’ve got to demonstrate an ROI.”

In some cases the focus on culture has involved “pulling in the right kinds of thinkers”. The latest arrival is Lee Rolston - the marketing force behind Müller’s Wunderful Stuff ad campaign and Cadbury’s award-winning Gorilla and ‘eyebrows’ executions - who joined in December to head up Heinz Explore, a new business unit established by Hill in 2011.

Hill has also created a new role for a, director of strategy, insight and capability, recruiting Colin Haddley from branding consultancy Brand Learning. The transformation has involved internal promotions, too, with Giles Jepson promoted to chief marketing officer and Anne Sewell promoted to HR director. “It’s a healthy mix of experience and freshness,” says Hill.

As well as tweaking the structure, Hill has championed the marketing function, but also altered its outlook.”There were too many people in the organisation looking four weeks backwards, and not enough looking two years forwards,” he explains. “I want these guys to be architects of category growth and to build brand advantage.”

“Forensic focus”Manufacturing-centric thinking has also been replaced with a “forensic focus on the consumer” as Hill looks for insights that deliver genuine benefits to the consumer. “I’m looking to be in fast-growth markets and to deliver incremental sales. So when an idea is presented to me, I always challenge teams: where’s the source of that volume? Because otherwise we’re just fragmenting our customer base, and adding complexity.”

Hill cites the recent development of Heinz’s three new chilli sauces. The insight driving the sauces was the flipside to the decline in many table sauces and condiments: the double-digit growth in spicy food. But also instructing their development was Hill’s own “passionate foodie” credentials.

“The chefmanship, the food values, the culinary strategy,” he explains, “I’ve brought that to our innovation programme. It’s stepped up a gear. For example, we didn’t just launch one hot sauce. We launched three levels with three different chillis: the habanero is fiercely hot, but it’s very brief, not a cheap pepper burn, and the chipotle has a lovely smokiness.”

Another obvious range to have benefited from Hill’s regime change has been baby food. Startups such as Ella’s Kitchen, Plum and Organix had exposed Heinz’s innate conservatism, as it continued to churn out-of-date products into the same outmoded jars.

It’s a different story now, with a new range of convenience and health-based products such as fruit smoothies, pouches, and aseptic pots. And he insists he’s not merely playing catch-up either. “The key thing for me was to come in with a point of difference. Not only are the new products natural but fortified with key nutrients. It’s a market we’ve looked at very carefully. And the advantage of not being first into this space is that we can pitch it extremely competitively.”

Supporting the Heinz innovation programme have been some eye-catching publicity stunts, including the Get Well Soup personalisation promotion, and the first so-called F-commerce tieup with Facebook on balsamic ketchup. And while he concedes that ROI is harder to measure on such campaigns, he is adamant the same rigour is applied.

“You’ve got to be clear on your objective. It’s important to distinguish between talkability and simply buying ‘likes’. It’s like promotions: if my incentive is too strong, I’m just buying likes. So I’m looking for ideas that really resonate, that build new fans of the brand.”

The recent development of new variants of its best-selling soups and beans also demonstrates a deeper understanding of the values a brand can hold. “Are we selling a tin of soup, or comfort and restoration? Because if you’re clear on what you’re selling, you can do much more powerful work. Soup, for example, is really quite a flexible property. Soup is a category that’s increasingly relevant in cold weather but, like beans, our brand image has shifted a lot towards naturalised goodness. It shows how modern the Heinz brand can be.”

The latest brand to receive attention is HP Sauce. Like a lot of table sauces, sales have been in decline for some time. But it’s a “fantastic brand”, says Hill. And the new marketing campaign, launched last autumn, is unashamedly masculine, with liberal use of moustaches and references to manstops and manliness.

“We have tried to encapsulate an attitude, and we’re starting to see some encouraging results,” says Hill. “That campaign has got real talkability (half a million hits on YouTube), but also real leverage in store, and in foodservice.”

While the majority of Heinz’s leading brands are in value and volume growth, some new programmes haven’t worked. A poster-based ad campaign for Lea & Perrins, for example, failed to ignite sales. “It’s got massive potential,” says Hill. “And like HP, we were pleased with the creative. I’m working on unlocking it. And when we’ve solved it we’ll put money behind it.”

It’s for kids - LOL

A lot of new innovation has been exclusively developed for the UK. But Hill is also able to call on Heinz’s global sourcing and manufacturing network, with smoothies from Italy, and new salad creams and mayos brought across from the US, while the Fridge Pack, like HP Sauce, is manufactured in Holland.

He’s also encouraging his team to think outside the box. LOL would have been unthinkable as a Heinz innovation before Hill’s arrival. It’s a soft drink targeted at young children, taking its packaging format cues from energy drinks like Red Bull - without the taurine and caffeine - while the branding captures the wannabe teenager’s text argot.

Hill won’t comment on LOL’s performance (“it’s doing well”), but if it proves only one thing, it’s that Heinz isn’t limited, either in ambition or scope. With other brands such as Amoy, Aunt Bessie’s and WeightWatchers within the stable, that might seem self-evident.

But for all its power and resonance as a consumer brand, Hill wants Heinz to stand for more. “I can see a real strength in [our slogan]. It’s a consumer truth. And engaging people in that truth is incredibly powerful. Pretty much any food concept we put in front of consumers with the Heinz brand, they get it.

“But I’m not limiting the focus to the Heinz brand. We’re thinking long term. And I’m definitely thinking broader than the Heinz brand.” Who says it has to be Heinz, indeed?