Keith Nunes 2019  KANSAS CITY — While expectations of a return to volume growth were the most notable theme in presentations at this year’s Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference, the digital transformation of a company’s processes and procedures was repeatedly identified as a key pillar supporting future volume growth. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies was singled out by several companies as a strategic imperative to support near-term growth and long-term category leadership.

Held annually, the conference, also known as CAGNY, features executives from publicly traded companies who offer business outlooks to securities analysts. It should come as no surprise inflation, a consumer emphasis on value and supply chain headwinds were topics of discussion in many presentations. Interesting was the emphasis placed on digital investments as key to overcoming many challenges facing consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers.

For example, Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman and chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based General Mills, Inc., said the company has made significant investments over the past five years to build its digital and technology infrastructure to add scale and profitability. The new capabilities are being used to run millions of models that help guide General Mills’ innovation process, and AI is being used specifically to connect operations across customer orders, the supply chain and inventory levels to ensure the company has the right product in the right place at the right time.

Mondelez International, Inc. is using data and analytics to ensure the rapid adjustment of price/package architecture to meet demand, and McCormick & Co. said one of its 2024 priorities is to accelerate its digital improvements in customer service and strengthen decision-making by leveraging data and insights.

The investment in digital technologies aligns with recent analysis from Bain & Co. The consultancy concludes the digitalization of business processes — including new capabilities as well as basic processes — has become more urgent, as performance gaps widen between CPG manufacturers that made early, focused investments and those that did not.

“Our analysis found that CPGs tend to reward investors more richly if they also have a high level of digital focus, for example an emphasis on digital in the strategic agenda, the presence of a digital leader on the executive team and board, and a greater willingness to make investment in tech a priority,” according to the report.

Early adopters of digitalization, AI and machine learning have made strides throughout organizations in internal transparency across all levels of the business, automation of certain functions and improvement in the supply and demand planning process. Each improvement delivers immediate benefits and, as more data is generated, offers benefits to achieve process optimization and identify new opportunities for innovation.

For food manufacturers in the early stages of digitalization, Bain & Co. offered some suggestions, including finding the right talent to lead the initiative, focusing on two or three high value digital use cases, developing a data strategy and strengthening consumer insights to improve decision making.

It also must be understood that a digital transformation is a journey that never ends. As technologies evolve there always will be new imperatives to change and improve.