Hall of Fame Profile: April Carlisle

Bill Schober
Editor Emeritus
Bill Schober profile picture

April Carlisle, VP, Shopper Marketing, at The Coca-Cola Co., is one of three 2019 selections for the Path to Purchase Institute Hall of Fame. We interviewed her in February at Coca-Cola's headquarters.

Photos by Todd McQueen

April Carlisle

Title: VP, Shopper Marketing

Company: The Coca-Cola Co.

Years in industry: 30

Years in current position: 1

Education: Bachelor’s in Education, Ball State University, Summa Cum Laude and Honors College; Adjunct Professor, Northwestern University, Medill IMC

Community/industry activity: Shopper Marketing Effie judge; Path to Purchase Institute; Association of National Advertisers (ANA); Network of Executive Women (NEW); P2PI League of Leaders Distinguished Faculty; P2PI “Who’s Who” for 10 consecutive years.

Hobbies: running (5K to half-marathons); reading; religion.

April Carlisle’s title is VP, shopper marketing, for Coca-Cola, which is no mean feat, but it still doesn’t begin to describe the breadth and depth of her contributions to marketing over the past 30 years. She’s been an industry speaker, classroom educator, innovator, pioneer and all-around agitator for getting shopper marketing that proverbial “seat at the table.” One little known fact: Years ago, she was the prime behind-the-scenes contributor to the Path to Purchase Institute’s very first wall chart, “The Retailer Receptivity Guide,” a project that has helped countless executives in their day-to-day work ever since.

Today she leads shopper marketing across the entire portfolio of Coca-Cola brands, developing strategic vision, plans and measurement – which includes shopper marketing plans with customers; shopper marketing insights, strategies, and toolkits developed with brands from the center; managing budgets and 50-plus field-based shopper marketers that are embedded in the key customer teams; and the shopper marketing vision/strategies/governance for the 64 Coca-Cola bottlers.

On May 16, Carlisle – along with Jody Kalmbach, VP, digital experience, The Kroger Co.; and Peter McGuinness, chief marketing & commercial officer, Chobani – will be honored at P2PI’s 26th Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held in conjunction with the Shopper Marketing Effie Celebration in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Both events are part of the Path to Purchase Summit.

In February, Bill Schober interviewed Carlisle at Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Let’s start at the start: Where did you grow up?

Carlisle: My dad was an engineer at Ford Motor Co. and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. When I was 4, we moved to Columbus, Indiana, so my dad could work for Cummins, which makes engines for Mack trucks. It was a small, 30,000-person town in Southern Indiana filled with executives from all over the world, so you can imagine: The arts and entertainment were fantastic; we had a Robert Trent Jones golf course; National Geographic called Columbus an architectural jewel. So I got to grow up in a traditional household in a place filled with interesting experiences.

Did you have any interesting work experiences as a kid?

CARLISLE: Three summers in high school waitressing at a Po’ Folks restaurant, which was kind of a poor man’s Bob Evans. It was all Southern-style country food and drinks in mason jars, and we had to speak in a Southern accent or get fired. My opening line was, “Howdy. Welcome to Po’ Folks! What can I get you all for a belly washer?” Yes, it was corny, but as I look back now, it was all built on storytelling. For example, whenever somebody ordered a Moon Pie dessert, we had to pull a little Radio Flyer cart out and go tell the Moon Pie story. I got really good at it, and the other waitresses would tip me extra if I’d do it for them.

Your plan was to become a teacher. What happened?

CARLISLE: I started down that path, attending Ball State, one of the top elementary education schools in the U.S., with a focus on hearing-impaired children. I was actually “Future Teacher of the Year” at Ball State. In my senior year, I was student teaching and busy with other activities like student senate when, out of the blue, I received an invitation from the campus recruiting center to interview with Procter & Gamble. My roommate dared me to go. I didn’t do any research – nothing.


Why do you think you got the letter?

CARLISLE: Back in the 1980s, the P&G recruiters didn’t care what your major was. They’d come on campus and ask professors who were the leaders on campus. P&G’s first interview involved taking a test with a lot of sales math. I passed that and then a series of interviews and eventually got an offer. I think my father, who is very traditional, wanted me to stick with teaching, but he wrote me a letter that said, “I will support you in whatever you want to do.” So here I am. I guess I wanted a challenge.

Well, I got one: On June 20, P&G said they had an immediate opening for a sales territory in downtown Chicago – 300 stores, company car – but I had to start within 10 days.

Thrown into the deep end . . .

CARLISLE: I didn’t know a single person in Chicago, but I quickly found an apartment, moved in, and almost overnight, I suddenly had a territory with pretty much every retailer in Chicago at the time – Target, Zayre, Kmart, Walgreens, CVS – plus a lot of small independents. Everything north of the Eisenhower Expressway up to Schaumburg.

I was the first woman sales rep for this territory. They immediately sent me on ride-alongs throughout Chicago’s South Side, which was an education. Every store manager in those days was male and, yes, there were a lot of crude jokes. P&G had a very strict dress code, so I wasn’t allowed to wear pants; everyday it was a suit, long skirt and bow tie, and I even did overnight resets in high heels. I learned how to work the baler in the back room and build displays. I was battling it out with Colgate-Palmolive, getting my space and discovering that I absolutely loved retail, learning about shoppers and persuasive selling.

I doubt they do orientation like that these days.

CARLISLE: There’s a lot to be said for getting your hands dirty. If you just tap away on computers all day you miss the retail realities. Back then, you not only took orders manually, store by store, but you also had to do things like convince store managers to buy into promotions and put up their endcap displays.

My first division was healthcare – Crest, Scope, Pepto-Bismol. You had to memorize the codes for every SKU so you could call in orders on the Code-A-Phone. I’d be in downtown Chicago, in the middle of winter, running around in high heels looking for a phone booth to punch in digits: “Okay … store 6275, 30 cases, order number 2567,” which might be Crest toothpaste fluoride with mint or something, and so on.

I started as a sales rep and worked my way up to MFR – manufacturer field rep – which was kind of like being a manager in training. I then became a unit manager with a team of eight sales reps that called on Chicago territories, and eventually was calling on Osco Drug headquarters. At the time they were the third largest drug retailer in the U.S. Later I took on regional responsibilities for Osco, Sav-on Drugs and Jewel along with an expanded portfolio of products that included beauty and baby care.

Staying in Chicago was a priority for you?

CARLISLE:It was the late 1990s, and we were growing our family so I really couldn’t move. However, after various restructurings and changes at some key customers, I was told that if I wasn’t willing to move, I’d be demoted. So while I was waiting for that call, Kim Northrup, who was a marketing director I’d worked with on Osco Drug, reached out and told me she thought I‘d be well-suited for shopper marketing. Apparently I’d impressed her while working on a Vicks VapoRub promotion for Osco. They wanted me to sell in an endcap with a bunch of Vicks stuff on it, but I’d argued with them: “Wait a minute, what’s the shopper insight? Why is this right for Osco? Because that’s the only way we are going to get this sold in.”

So I am forever grateful to her. But honestly, I had no idea what the job would entail. Shopper marketing as a discipline was still getting up and running. Dina Howell had just moved to Arkansas to manage the Walmart team working with ThompsonMurray, which would later evolve into Saatchi X. But P&G put me through the company’s marketing boot camp, and I shadowed brand managers to learn their marketing sensibilities. I had that shopper marketing role for three years, and then it was time for a change.

You pivoted back and forth between sales and shopper marketing a lot. Why?

CARLISLE: At P&G, they expect people to rotate every few years. For me every experience was valuable. I went back to sales as national sales leader for cosmetics, leading their CoverGirl and Max Factor businesses at Walgreens, which, at the time, was their second largest customer for cosmetics behind Walmart. It was a multimillion dollar business. I got to know [P&G chief brand officer] Marc Pritchard because he was the marketing director of CoverGirl and Max Factor, and once a month I’d have to tell him if I was making plan or not.

But after a few years I really missed shopper marketing, so I took it over for our Sears business. It was a different time for Sears back then, and I actually did some of my best marketing work there. We were looking at five-year-out appliance trends to help introduce the high-efficiency detergents P&G was developing. One of the key insights was that people would buy high-efficiency washing machines and dishwashers but use traditional detergent. So I developed training programs for Sears appliance salesmen to get them to recommend Tide and Cascade. We also placed sampling packs into the machines when they were delivered. We even did some work with Craftsman around jobs to be done with Bounty and shop towels.

However, Julie Eddleman’s shopper marketing group had grown to more than 80 people, and they realized they needed a Center of Excellence. I got that job by creating a spreadsheet that presented my understanding of the work to be done and how I could manage it most effectively by not moving to Cincinnati. Most of the shopper agencies were in Chicago, for example.

What was the Center of Excellence’s role?

CARLISLE: I looked for common needs across multiple constituents, or barriers that needed to be busted, or tools that would help shopper marketers in their roles. I would lead training sessions with the brands on what their customer needs were. I brought over something that was started in Western Europe, the “Store Thought Clinic,” to get the brands to think about the store early on as they developed their innovation pipelines. I’d help them forecast which chains would or wouldn’t allow something, or get ahead of unusual challenges that might be posed at the shelf level – that sort of thing. P&G requires a lot of rigor before you can move initiatives forward, and “Store Thought Clinics” actually won an internal award for best capability building and marketing.

Reporting to Julie was amazing. I learned all about media buying through her. I’ll never forget the first time she took me to Google and we could see, early on, how they were going to change things.

Would people just randomly call you with their problems and issues?

CARLISLE: All the time – it was great. I held training sessions and “Store Thought Clinics” every other week so I got to meet all the brand and marketing people. Eventually I was asked to do training sessions in Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong … I started expanding the global footprint.



Left to right: Tammy Brumfield, assistant vice president, shopper marketing, West; Joseph Vizcarra, group vice president, shopper marketing, Walmart; Lynn Campbell, group vice president, shopper marketing, 7-Eleven; April Carlisle, vice president, shopper marketing; Rachel Smith, group director, shopper marketing drug/value; Dana Barba, group director, shopper marketing, East; Doug Middlebrooks, group director, shopper marketing, convenience retail.


Can you train anybody in shopper marketing, or does it require people who “get it” intuitively?

CARLISLE: I think you can if they have strengths in several areas. If they can look at pounds of data and pull it together into a story, that’s a key capability: storytelling. Being able to persuade – getting a retailer to change a strategy or do something differently – that could come through storytelling as well. Then I think you have to have tenacity because quite often, this is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back business.

And you have to love retail. You just do, and there are some people who don’t and that’s fine. But if you have some combination of those things, then where you come from doesn’t matter. A lot of P&G engineers, for example, became successful shopper marketers because they not only knew how to get projects through a system, but could also challenge a process and improve it while still getting things done.

The shopper marketing discipline is in transition right now. Some people pigeonhole it inside merchandising while others seem to call everything “marketing to shoppers.” What’s your take?

CARLISLE: It’s a fair point. With the “always-on shopper,” the delineation between marketing to consumers and marketing to shoppers is breaking down. But we have to figure out a way to think about the role of the retailer. Whether it’s pure-play or brick-and-mortar, you must build the brand’s equities and the retailer’s equities at the same time. Yes, a lot of work right now is around building brand equities within the context of a customer’s touchpoint – Amazon, right? And yet the best shopper marketing work is where you are helping the retailer build trial or loyalty. When done right, the power of your brand can facilitate that, and without diminishing any of your brand’s equity.

Actually, I believe that the best term is “OmniCommerce.” When you go down omnichannel routes it becomes very tactical: I have to stay within this channel or talk to you on TV or just focus on this or that. But “OmniCommerce” is what shopper marketing does; it’s thinking through all of those touchpoints, whether they’re coming from the brand or from the retailer, and converting. It is a behavior change at retail.

Why did you move to Arc Worldwide?

CARLISLE: I’d been with P&G for 24 years and hadn’t thought about ever leaving. It’s a promote-from-within-company where virtually everyone starts at the bottom and works his or her way up the pyramid. However, P&G had gone from a pyramid shape to a birthday cake; there were way too many people in the middle so it was restructuring.

It was a fork-in-the-road moment for me anyway. I’d long felt that I needed agency experience to round out my credentials as a shopper marketing professional. Still, resigning from P&G in October 2012 was, hands down, the hardest decision of my life. Ironically, the day that Arc offered a job as senior vice president of global shopper marketing, Shopper Marketing magazine showed up in the mail with me on the cover.

At Arc I was able to work with some fantastic new clients like Coke, Kellogg and McDonald’s. I reconnected with shopper marketing colleagues who were now getting placed throughout the industry, like Remi Kent, marketing director at 3M – our first project together won a Reggie – and Stephanie Robertson, who was taking over as shopper lead at P&G.

I would help on pitches because I still like to sell. So when Nick Jones moved to Geometry, I took over new business development for Arc, reporting to Katie Newman, who is the CMO of Leo Burnett, and we’d pitch together.

While at Arc you got re-involved with training.

CARLISLE: Yes. Our training arm was called Carbon, which was a play on words related to the famous Leo Burnett pencil. When I did the “Store Thought Clinics” at P&G, we’d let the agencies listen in, so Arc knew what I could do and asked me to train some of our clients’ internal teams on shopper marketing. I started with Kraft and then, when my year was up, I did some sessions for P&G in Sao Paulo, and eventually in Russia, Switzerland, Germany – all over the world. I loved that.

Do any nationalities or cultures take to it better than others?

CARLISLE: Asia gets it. I think it’s because they are so mobile centric. They just get the power of leading-edge shopping technologies. The toughest gig ever was in Dubai. There were no women in the audience – just men in traditional dress, and they would not look me in the eye. They wouldn’t even talk to me during breaks. They just took notes furiously.

You’re also a professor of shopper marketing. How did that start?

CARLISLE: When Tim Dorgan [currently SVP, marketing services, at Crossmark] taught marketing at Northwestern as an adjunct, he noticed a void in the curriculum and built a class framework for shopper marketing. Later on he reached out to Arc for some help with content and Elizabeth Harris helped build the first case studies using real world clients such as MillerCoors. Tim saw me speak at an industry conference and asked me in as guest lecturer. The next semester I helped him teach the class. He then decided to do some other things, so Elizabeth and I now share it. We revamped it a bit to put our spin on things, and have been teaching for three years in the fall and spring semesters.

I hear it’s expanding. How so?

CARLISLE: When we first began teaching, it was classified as a “special topics” class. But last year, after a peer review, it was elevated to the full-time curriculum within Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program, which is an honor. We were also asked to develop a live, online version of the class, so right now, every Wednesday night, I’m teaching students from all over the globe. As far as we can tell, this is the first graduate-level shopper marketing class in the world.

How did Coca Cola, after 30 years in Chicago, get you to move to Atlanta?

CARLISLE: Coca- Cola was my client, and when they told me they were looking for a shopper marketing lead, well … I don’t drink coffee; I drink a Diet Coke every single morning, and I’ve been doing that since I was 18 years old, so you can imagine how I felt.

When I told my husband, who is 100% true-blue Chicagoan, that it would involve relocation, he was immediately receptive; he knew what the opportunity to shepherd Coke, arguably the world’s most iconic brand, would mean to me.  So I started the formal process, interviewed and was offered the job. My last day at Arc was April 6 [2018]; I flew down to Atlanta on Sunday, April 8, and started on Monday, April 9.

I always tease Coke people about whether they secretly like Pepsi.

CARLISLE: I grew up in a Coke family, and I can say with confidence that I’ve never ordered a Pepsi in my life. I’ve driven a Coke red car for five years, carry a Coke red suitcase and, right now, I’m wearing Coke jewelry. My daughter has a Coke can collection from all of my travels around the world, and when I accepted the job, she posted it on Instagram and said, “It was meant to be.”

Well, you sure landed in the right place. What is your role here today?

CARLISLE: My primary responsibility is to show the strategic vision of shopper marketing for the total system. The system is defined by our customers, and there are retailer call points that we own and call points that the bottlers own. Some of our shopper marketers also sit at the bottlers for certain kinds of regional work. I’m charged with embedding shopper marketing thinking and expertise within our brand, which we call the “Strategic Marketing Organization,” as well as within the Commercial Team and the internal marketing communications organization as well.

One of the things I’ve focused on over the past nine months is setting forth a “Shopper Marketing 2020-2025 Vision.” It’s a vision for our system: Where we need to go and what capabilities we’ll need given emerging challenges such as search via our customer-owned platforms, click-and-collect, or defining and measuring what’s true shopper marketing versus promotional activity.

Can you briefly describe how the organization is structured?

CARLISLE: Think about it as three pillars: Strategic Marketing includes all of the brand work. Then there’s National Retail Sales (NRS), and I’m very comfortable sitting in sales. And in-between is the Commercial Team, which takes in all the initiatives, sorts through them, sets priorities for various time periods and regional needs, and keeps everybody rowing in the same direction.

Which brands are you involved with?

CARLISLE: All of them. We definitely have to deliver on the Sparkling portfolio, which is Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite and so on. Our hydration platform is divided somewhat equally between vitaminwater, smartwater, Powerade, and the work we do with VEB [Venture & Emerging Brands] such as fairlife and Huberts Lemonade. There, I get involved in more of a consultative way, making connections. For example, we’ve brought fairlife milk into our Mondelez partnership.

Here’s my playbook for 2019: It has every program across every brand that my teams are going to execute this year. It’s three inches thick, double-sided paper. 

Could you walk us through the typical retailer collaboration process?

CARLISLE: It starts with the key facts we know about a certain chain – what’s important to them, their revenue by category, and their business objectives across all areas. There are milestones throughout the year, beginning with a look at all the data, and we align all that with the customer and their shopper base.

A typical challenge might be, for example, how convenience retail is changing. It’s traditionally been a huge recruitment channel for teens when they get their driver’s licenses – the first thing they want to do is fill up the tank, and go in and get a Coke, right? Well young people are Ubering everywhere now, so that’s becoming a declining point for recruitment. So we need to be rethinking the role of the convenience channel; how can we sell teens smartwater with their fresh-to-go salads and things, or a 2-liter with take-home pizza?

Once we’re aligned on insights and growth strategies, we bring on the marketing campaigns and brand plans because we are planning a year in advance. I then steward this entire playbook through all of the brands to get their alignment, so we can fund all of these programs. We also take retailers over to Coca-Cola’s collaboration center, the “KO Lab,” to present the innovations we’re coming out with: flavors, snacking platforms trip and transaction drivers. We mock everything up virtually and walk through the store and the various points of inspiration we can create to drive traffic through mobile and digital.

What does Coca-Cola see ahead in its dealings with Amazon, pure-play retail, and digital commerce in general?

CARLISLE: We have announced a new digital integration officer at a senior level, so the pure-play retail and e-commerce work will fit into that. I’m already working hand-in-hand with the digital integration office on best practices for advancing digital integration for the system. By 2020, and that’s next year already, 20% of stores will have click-and-collect, and in that environment you don’t see our brand wall, our instant consumption cooler, our beautiful endcaps. How do we get the impulse purchase? Hershey’s has the same problem. Maybe as you approach a grocery pickup area you’ll get a push notification for a cold Coke for the drive home. Maybe we can work with our bottlers to install cooler equipment at pickup lanes – type in a code and pick it up?

Are there any programs that you are particularly proud of?

CARLISLE: Coca-Cola’s “Make Every Sip Count” platform. The Boys & Girls Club of America is very important to Family Dollar, and while at Arc, my team helped develop this wonderful platform, which donates a percentage of every purchase and leverages celebrities from the Coke family. The Coke shopper marketing team was named “Marketing Vendor of the Year” for Family Dollar and it’s up for an Effie award this year. But most importantly, this is a sustaining platform – it’s not a one-and-done.

Your daughter is in the business.

CARLISLE: She’s a first-generation shopper marketer. She started at Geometry as a copywriter, moved to Mosaic and recently joined TracyLocke. She grew up with me dragging her around stores. She once said, “Mom, you have more pictures of displays on your phone than me.” I’ve been known to walk into Walgreens, take pictures of a Tresemme display, and text her, “Honey, I love your copy on the display.”

Any final thoughts?

CARLISLE: They say “luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” but there’s a whole lot of hard work involved. I love to story-tell, I love to sell, and I love to shop. So, yes, I was lucky – I found my passion point, shopper marketing, and I love to share it with others.

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