On the show today, we have Katie Washburn, Manager of Marketing Partnerships for Suja Juice, discussing how to break the internet with influencer marketing. Katie has been with Suja since they were just a local San Diego brand selling a few hundred bottles per week, to where they are now bottling 800k bottles per week.
We’ll be diving into how Suja launched their Midnight Tonic last October with an influencer campaign that was so successful, it crashed their website and they sold out of the product in just three days.
On the episode, Katie discusses:
- Why a follower count isn’t the only thing you should look at when selecting influencers
- How to build an influencer program that’s sustainable for the long term
- What platforms you should focus on for the most effective influencer marketing
And of course, what made the launch of their Midnight Tonic so ridiculously successful. If you’ve had influencer marketing on your radar or you’re thinking it’s time to up your game, you are in for a treat.
The Leader Phrase Book – Patrick Alain
Alex: So Katie, thank you so much for being on the show.
Katie: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to talk to you.
Alex: Can you tell our listeners just a little bit about yourself, and how you guys started with Suja, and how you came to be in your current role.
Katie: I grew up in Iowa and I went to the University of Iowa. I studied marketing and human physiology, and I had this dream of moving to California, and going to UCLA, and, you know, living this amazing Hollywood life which is opposite of what’s going on in Iowa. And I ended up realizing that I couldn’t be my own yet, I didn’t know how to do my own laundry, I can’t go to school on the West Coast. So I kind of held that dream for a while, and I ended up in San Diego where my uncle lives.
As far Suja goes, I really, genuinely lucked out. I had taken a couple of job interviews, nothing turned out to be anything that I was interested in, and so I reached out anyone that I had a mutual friend with and I just asked if they had any opportunities for someone with a background in nutrition and health, as well as marketing.
And someone else had been working for a company in San Diego and she said, “Well, there’s this juice company we’re just starting to work on, you can check it out. It’s called Suja juice.” And I was like, “Sign me up.”
And I actually, which I look back and I think it’s hilarious, I originally got hired because I had experience working in a warehouse, which is so funny to me now looking back at everything that I’ve done at Suja.
But back then in 2012 we were only available in San Diego at the natural food stores, and so I was doing customer service and packing boxes.
Our CEO would call us on the weekends to help out in the kitchen pouring bottles, and hand capping, and doing all this manual labor, and, you know, we were just always so… It’s so great to look back on the growth that we’ve had, because we were so excited when we had 20 orders online or 5,000 bottles to make, and now we’re doing, you know, 800,000 bottles a week.
And so the growth has been tremendous. And going back to my role, you know, at beginning, we weren’t as well known, so just answering the phones, and answering emails, and all of that good stuff, and then we started getting a lot more orders, we were sold on Amazon, we grew to be sold in different retailers nationwide.
And so that role got a lot more busy in my life, but I always had a passion for the influencer and celebrity world.
I’d like to say that either you like it or you don’t, and I don’t if it’s because I was just from Iowa and this whole realm of wealth and fame which is so interesting and intriguing to me, but I always had a passion for it.
And after a few years working in customer service, our CEO came to me and said that they had created a new role and I’d be managing this influencer program as well as doing some college marketing, which a year later turned into more just partnerships and influencers.
So that’s where I’m at, and I’m super grateful for everything that I’ve learned at Suja and the growth that I’ve been able to witness in just a short amount of time. It’s been about four and a half to five years.
Alex: Wow, so you’ve seen some pretty substantial growth with…it’s just funny to hear back to the days where you guys were excited about 20 orders coming in online, and just funny thinking of a brand like Suja being in that stage and now where you guys are at now. It’s so different.
Katie: I know, it’s so funny. I always… Like, from the outside looking in, it’s probably people think we’re this huge company, but, you know, we still are a small team and we’re hustling, wearing a lotta hats, and just trying to get the juice out there. So we still like to think of ourselves as a small startup.
Alex: That’s great. So since you started influencer marketing, it was kind of in its infancy. I mean, social media isn’t really that old, so influencer marketing through social at least can’t be that old either. So have you seen influencer marketing change or evolve over the past several years since you’ve started working in that industry?
Katie: Yeah, definitely. When I think back on some really great brand partnerships even 10 years ago, I always think of Beyonce and Pepsi, or Taylor and Diet Coke, and I think one that really changed the game was 50 cent and Vitamin Water which my manager actually got to oversee, which I always ask her all of the questions on that.
But I think a lot that’s changed is that it’s more focused on social media now.
So a lot of companies, if you can afford it, you can do those big awesome commercials and partnerships with the, you know, magazine ads and tying it into retailer. But a lot of times these companies, especially smaller ones, are just finding those influencers that match their brand and the lifestyle that they’re looking for and just really focusing on some social media partnerships.
Alex: The term “influencer marketing” is…it’s not a new concept if you think of the “The got milk?” campaign, every single person in those magazine ads were huge celebrities. So that is influencer marketing, but it’s different with social media.
So how…I guess how have you seen, or how has your mindset and approach to influencer marketing really evolved or shaped with social media versus say a partnership like Vitamin Water with 50 cent?
Katie: Yeah, I think that even in the past few years with being at Suja, I think it’s changed in that now there’s just so many realms of influencer. You’ve obviously got the celebrities and the A-listers, but then you got bloggers, and then you got social media influencers, and those are the people that, you know, have this huge following and may not have been known if social media wasn’t a thing.
So something that we’ve really started to focus on on Suja, again, everyone is equally as important, but something that we’re starting to look at are those micro-influencers.
So those are the people who maybe have tens of thousands of followers, but their voice is so loud with those people that are following them that they can make as big of an impact as some of those bigger celebrities.
So how we like to look at it is if you got your friend group, you got the person that you go to for book recommendations, you got the person that you go to for fashion advice, so maybe they’re an influencer in their own right, but they obviously might not have a huge following, but they still, you know, you listen to what they’re saying and you take it all in, and maybe you make some choices based on that.
And I think that’s really where we’ve changed at Suja, is that we’re recognizing the people who are influencers in their own rights.
Alex: So I’m sure that this varies, whether it’s a mirco-influencer or an A-list celebrity, but are you able to give us a ball park range of what it would cost…what it cost you guys to do the paid influencer post?
Katie: Yeah, so I mean, I guess the better question would be how much do these people charge? So we’ve seen a wide array of different prices that people charge for the different partnerships, and I know that a lot of these people have turned this into their business or, you know, their full-time job, and we totally respect the time and what it takes to create these beautiful photos and these great partnerships.
But where we’re at Suja, we’ve been so lucky that we have a wide range of people who have been with us for so long and just genuinely and organically love the brand that we really don’t do any paid post.
Katie: Mm-hmm. Super lucky, and I know that it’s kind of hard to believe, but we really are so thankful for the people who are coming along on this ride, and some of ’em have been fans of Suja for the first four years, and so. you know, having them on our side and seeing the growth, and know once and if we do have that opportunity to have a bigger budget for some of these awesome influencer programs, we’ve got those people who have been with us for so long and they’re the ones that come to mind when we think of someone we wanna work with.
break the internet with influencer marketing
Alex: Wow, that’s impressive. So is it…it’s a combination of kind of building these relationships and sending out new products, or how does that work?
Katie: Yeah, so, I mean, from the beginning we were lucky where we were so blessed to have this group of people working at Suja that just happened to know everyone.
And when we were first starting back in 2012, we just shipped the product to anyone and everyone, and we just happened to get it into the right hands and start these relationships, whether it’s with the agent, or a manager, an assistant for these big name celebrities, and they’ve just kind of been on board since the beginning.
But it’s just about, you know, figuring out flavors are their favorites and kind of knowing what’s going on in their lives, whether it’s a birthday or maybe they’re sick and they need some probiotics in their life, and that’s where Suja comes in.
But really building these relationships and keeping them in mind for different campaigns that we’re launching and different flavors that we’re launching, and using them to really spread the word with what’s going on at Suja, because even from the beginning, you know, we’ve had…we started with 10-ish flavors, and now we have over 80.
Katie: And yeah, it’s been crazy. And the influencers, you know, they come to us or we come to them, however it works out, but you just start this kinda friendship with these guys, and you figure out, you know, when they need Suja in their lives, and you send it.
Alex: So I’m curious, as far as…because you’ve seen both sides of the spectrum with having grown to Suja since they’re just in San Diego to being where they’re at now. Is there any difference to the effectiveness of outreach when you’re a small brand versus when you’re a big brand that people know and love?
Katie: Yeah, I think what’s something that’s changed with Suja is when we first started, there weren’t many competitors, and now there are so many local juice companies and other juice companies that are creating products, that sometimes the beverage world can be a little noisy. And so something that we are focusing on now that we are bigger, is working with what we call battleground markets.
So we have a field team that’s in five different cities around the United States, and we really wanna get influencers in those areas so that when we do events, we can invite them when we get tickets to shows and whatever is going on in the area, we have these people who are kind of the voice of Suja in that area above the team that we have, or as well as the team that we have there. So that’s what’s a lot different.
When we were smaller, it was really just about brand awareness and getting the word out, and so bigger name people were really helpful definitely, but you’d be surprised at how many people haven’t heard of Suja.
Like when we first started Boston, you know, coming from San Diego and that’s where Suja is made and lives, going to Boston and hearing that people didn’t know what Suja was, it was really crazy for me, and I think that’s…and even in Iowa, I mean, when we first started we had one Whole Foods.
So not a lotta people knew what Suja was, and it’s just about having those teams on the streets helping getting the word out, and those local influencers, whether it’s a personal trainer or maybe it’s an athlete on one of the local NFL or NBA teams is really helping build out those programs in the different regions.
Alex: So if you could offer any advice to any of our listeners who work or own smaller brands, when it comes to engaging or first doing outreach to an influencer or celebrity, how do you go about first making that initial contact if you’re not a well-known brand? How do you approach that?
Katie: Yeah, I mean, there are a ton of platforms out there now that help you connect with different influencers, but something that I think is even more important and it shows the personality of the brand, is just old fashion outreach.
So if you’re, let’s say, you’re based on Miami. So you can look up on Instagram the hashtag “Miami blogger”, and then you get this slew of post from these people that are based in there, and I’ve done this a lot.
And you just go to their profiles, find their email, and reach out to them, say that you love their content. And obviously you wanna be honest, and if it’s a good fit, say that you’d love to introduce them to your product and start that relationship there.
And I think it goes a long way when it comes from the brand versus an agency or, you know, through a platform because it just makes it so much more authentic.
Alex: So when you’re starting to work with some bigger name, A-list celebrities, what is it like working with the agents? When you’re trying to send a package to Eva Longoria or whoever it is, what is the process of getting in touch with an agent?
Katie: That kinda goes back to just being blessed with the team that we have at Suja. We have so many people who are so well connected in different realms.
I…If I…you know, just starting out, I wouldn’t give up. Obviously look for manager or the agents of these people, see what they’re working on and how your brand can relate to what’s going on in their lives.
But working with agents is awesome. A lot of ’em wanna get their clients in front of different brands, and I was personally surprised at these big endorsements and what they really entail versus, you know, maybe that person’s a singer or an actress, but a lot of what they get compensated for is the endorsement.
Alex: So some that you mentioned, whether it’s looking through that hashtag “Miami blogger” or whatever different medium it is, you mentioned blogging influencers, and I think when people think of influencers just in general, they immediately shift their focus to social media.
Do you think there is a lot of value still in reaching out to bloggers for…whether it’s product placement or getting an article written about you?
Katie: I mean definitely, because a lot of these bloggers have a following on social media. A lotta times it overlaps. I still think that there’s such a power of blogger, especially mommy bloggers or the bloggers in the natural food world.
I’m that kinda consumer with a couple bloggers. I love them so much. I will buy whatever they’re talking about.
But yeah, I think bloggers are still really important. Don’t forget about ’em.
Alex: So you’re mentioning a lot of the influencer outreach and the way that you guys actually work with influencers is building these relationships and sending the product to try, and they really give honest feedback through social media.
But with the FTC, really I guess cracking…I don’t know if I would say cracking down, but at least wising up to influencer marketing recently, you’re just starting to see a lot more of these ad hashtags and people making sure they’re blatantly obvious that something was a paid post, or sponsored, or…how does that work? And how do you guys navigate that?
Katie: Yeah, so I’m definitely not surprised that this started to become a thing. I’m interested to see how it changes in the next few years, but we’re aware of the regulations and we wanna make sure that we’re complying. So because we don’t pay for any post, you would think that we’re in the clear, but it actually states that products is also form of compensation.
So when we’re reaching to these influencers, we always give them guidelines on what they should say, you know, whether that’s, “My friends at Suja,” or “I teamed up with Suja,” just to make sure that their influencers know that it is something that we’re working on together. But that being said, we always work with people who make sense.
I know sometimes you can see different partnerships where you’re like, “Hmm.” But for Suja, it’s all about working with people who fit our brand and fit the lifestyle that we’re going for, and so it’s ultimately up to that influencer to abide by the guidelines that you’ve set for them. We do our best, but you win some, you lose some.
Alex: So kinda along those lines, when it comes to identifying or choosing an influencer that fits with your brand or that you would wanna work with, like what really makes a good influencer? And is it follower count? Is it what they stand for?
Katie: Yeah, I mean, a lot of times or even earlier on I would think, “No, they don’t have enough followers,” and all of that. But we’ve learned that it’s not always about the follower.
First of all, we wanna make sure that their brand, I call it, or just their feed in general kind of matches the mission at Suja and, you know, living healthy lifestyle, but not taking yourself too seriously, and we have that whole balance aspect. But what’s also really important is whether or not they’re engaging with their consumers or with…sorry, with their followers, and if their followers are also engaging with them.
That’s also super important because we want people who, you know, are answering questions, and we try to answer questions on some of our influencer post as well to make sure that the follower is being heard.
But back to the micro-influencers, some of those people who have maybe less than 10,000 or 20,000, those are the people who actually translating to sales. So you can’t really get too hung up on follower count, especially for the people who are up and coming.
You never know. You could get someone when they have 10,000 followers, and within a year they’ll have 100,000 which we’ve definitely seen that.
Alex: The next Logan Paul.
Katie: Exactly, yeah. Shout out to Ohio. Midwest love.
Alex: So the launch of Suja’s Midnight Tonic I think will probably go down as a case study for what was one of the most successful influencer programs in marketing today.
Katie: Oh, well thank you.
Alex: Did you work on that?
Katie: I did, our whole team…we have such an amazing team. I don’t think I’ve touched upon it enough, but our entire marketing team, as well as our chef, and the CEO, and every single person that works at Suja is so passionate and so willing to put time and effort into thinking outside of the box, and doing things that haven’t been done, and that’s really what happened with Midnight Tonic.
You know, we had this idea and we wanted to really make sure that we were doing it right. So that goes down to the recipe, the branding, what we put inside the box, who we send it to, and it’s a whole team effort. And I was lucky enough to be a part of that team, and I think that’s something that we’re so proud of and we look forward to doing some more out of the box things in the future.
Alex: As far as the approach to that influencer initiative with Midnight Tonic, how did you guys go about once the…I guess once the idea was conceived and you got the green light to go ahead with it, how did you guys actually get so many of these big names and A-list celebrities to talk about the brand all at once, and then not even dropping a cent on paid promotion with them?
Katie: I mean, it goes back to the amazing fans that we have and the people who have been with us for so long. It was really more of a surprise and delight situation. We did a campaign last year where, you know, we found people on social media that may not have been having a good day or may have drank too much over the weekend, and we surprised them with some product.
And so we wanted to kind of piggyback off that and really send to people who, you know, would be curious and kind of have fun with us because a lot of these people, actually all of them, never knew what was coming. And so they get this box, and then they get these black bottles that you can hardly read, and they’re kind of like, “What is this?”
And then we had a insert in there that kinda talked upon activated charcoal and its benefits, and you started drinking it and you’re like, “This is really cool. I’ve never seen this before.”
But when we choose who were sending to, it really came down who’s been with us for a long time and who would really appreciate this, and we were so lucky in the responses that we had, and these relationships that we’ve had with people. I mean, I think it was just not luck, it was a lot of work, but I think we sent to the right people and we got a really good response.
Alex: So I’ve read a lot about it, seen a lotta pictures. So it’s a really cool box that you send it in, a black box, obviously with Suja branding, refrigerated, I assume. Was it handwritten note, or how did you guys really spill…
Katie: Yeah, so…
Alex: …the beans that, “This is something cool”?
Katie: Exactly. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I do remember that I hand wrote, and I had help with our amazing team. We hand wrote all of these notes to these people, just basically saying like, “We wanted to share with you our newest labor of love, and what we’ve been working on,” and just basically saying thank you for all of the support that they’ve given us for so long.
But yeah, it came in an insulated box with ice packs to make sure that it stays cold because it is perishable, and then we had a little insert on what activated charcoal was and then a note of Suja.
And then we also wanted to go the extra step and give these people the opportunity to share it with their friends, and so we had custom codes for a lot of these people, and then they could share it with whoever they thought would really like it. So that was also a fun way to get Suja into the hands of people that we may have not known had it not been for this campaign.
Alex: So did you…do you have estimates of how many people actually posted, and how many impressions, and what the results were?
Katie: Yeah, I believe it was about 13 million impressions, and that was including some of the awesome post that we had from, like, Pop Sugar, and some other…our other media friends, but, you know, we had Eva Longoria which is just amazing, Jessie McCartney, Kristen Cavaleri, and then, you know, we also got thank you’s from a lot of people that maybe we couldn’t have showcased in our PR efforts, but it did not go unnoticed.
A lot of these people were really thankful that we had thought of ’em, which makes working with all of our influencers even better because we have such awesome group of people.
Alex: That’s amazing. And I’m sure the word of mouth that you aren’t able to measure through impression numbers was probably substantial.
Katie: Yeah, of course.
Alex: Kind of along those lines, so how do you measure the effectiveness? Is it simply based off impressions and the amount of people that post?
Katie: For me, it’s kind of a hard question because I always…unless we’re just talking about Midnight Tonic, then I can go another route, but just with influencer marketing in general, I think it’s really hard to prove they are alive, some of these campaigns, because unless you’re strictly sold online, I can’t say that so-and-so posted and it led to thousands of purchases at their local Target, you know? So that’s kind of hard.
So we always look at, you know, did we gain followers? What was the conversation like in these posts and impressions is always helpful, but for us it’s all about just trying new things, and we’re just learning as we go, what works and what doesn’t work, and we’re finding that what might work for one company doesn’t work for another and vice versa.
We’re just so lucky at Suja because we have the leadership and the team that is willing to try these different things.
And, you know, if something might be counted as a failure, then, you know, we don’t do that the next time, and we learn from our mistakes. But it’s all about trying new things.
Alex: And I think that definitely speaks highly of the mindset of the leadership at Suja because it’s clearly effective, and influencer marketing is effective, but you have to have that buy-in to really be okay with the fact that you can’t directly correlate, “All right, we sent out however many dollars worth of product and it translated into X amount of sales within this time period.” So yeah, it definitely helps to…I mean, it’s almost a requirement to have that buy-in.
Katie: Yeah, definitely. And we have such an amazing team that I think it’s just…it’s so awesome to be able to show them what I’m doing, and what our team is doing, and what other brands are doing, and just how important influencer marketing is. So we’re lucky that we have a team that’s willing to put the effort and trust in myself and the entire team that what we’re doing is effective.
Alex: So kinda going back to the Midnight Tonic program, I mean, that’s just an example, but it seemed like that was mainly centered on Instagram and Snapchat which really seemed to be the hot spots for influencer marketing in general, and then you also mentioned reaching out to bloggers and working with them. In your opinion, are those the best places to be for influencer marketing in general at the moment?
Katie: I think so. It’s a little bit hard for me with Snapchat and Instagram stories because unless you have that great relationship with the influencer, you don’t really know how many people screenshot it, or comment it, or even saw it in general.
So Instagram post is the best for, you know, getting those numbers back, and the analytics side of it, but what I’ve learned from just working with a lot of these influencers is that they love showing their followers what they’re doing outside of, you know, a filtered photo.
So you really a get look at their lives. So while you may not be able to see how many people have viewed or liked this picture, it’s still a high quality because they’re showing, you know, “A box arrived at my door. I’m trying it right now. I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” you know?
So I do think that Instagram and Snapchat is where it’s at, but hopefully you can get those numbers from the influencers that you’re work with because that’s even more helpful.
Alex: Yeah, I totally agree, and it’s such a valuable piece of any marketing program, but again, it’s so hard to measure. So if somebody doesn’t grasp the concept from the get-go, it’s difficult to sell it to…from a, I guess, a business case.
For me it is, I guess, I don’t know. Somebody might be listening to this and disagree, but.
Katie: Hey, we all have our opinion.
Alex: So we have a few closing questions, and this has been a really awesome interview to get inside into, honestly, what was one of the more successful influencer programs that I’ve heard about or read about, which has made it great to have you on the show.
Is there anything that you have learned, or I guess everyone has something, but if there’s one thing you could think of that you’ve learned over the course of what you’ve been doing in your current role that you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you first started that woulda made your job much easier?
Katie: Yeah, I mean, I think for Suja, it’s just constantly reminding myself that what we’re doing not every brand will ever have the same situation that we’re in and the growth, and we’re were at.
So I think sometimes it can get frustrating because we don’t have those big dollars that other companies do, but just looking back and reminding yourself that you’re so lucky to have been able to be a part of this team just in general. I think sometimes that’s something that when you have your struggles throughout the day, you kinda forget, so I have to constantly remind myself, and I wish I would’ve done that earlier in this role.
Alex: All right, next question. So this is a new one to the end of the interview questions. So you’d be the first one to answer it.
Katie: Oh man.
Alex: Can you think of one piece of advice in particular on marketing or career advice that you would say is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Katie: Yes, it would be that you wanna do your best and to take your job personal, but don’t take it personally. And I think that might be more relatable for certain personalities like myself, but I would find in my…especially in customer service, I would let one person’s nasty comment, or, you know, mean phone call ruin my day, and I…and so hearing when people would say, you know, “You can’t take it personally. They might just be having a bad day and they’re taking it out on you,” that’s really the best advice that I’ve ever gotten.
Alex: That is good advice, and it’s hard not… And especially, people are looking for a scapegoat when something bad happens, and if, you know, “Well I have someone at this company, I’m definitely gonna take out on them.”
Katie: Yeah, and it can be so hard, but then at the end of the day you’re like, “Okay, they don’t know me. They don’t know…like, it just…it’s just really hard, especially…and then if you’ve been with a brand for so long and it’s kind of like your baby, and so you can easily take things personally when you really shouldn’t.
Alex: All right, so last question here before we wrap up. Is there a book that you’ve ready recently or throughout your career that you always recommend to people?
Katie: Yeah, I actually got this book from a co-worker. So I had quickly touched upon this college program that I was working on last year, and that was really my first experience with managing people, and when you’re a manager, your job is to mentor and help develop everyone that you’re working with. So my co-worker got me this book called “The Leader Phrase Book” by a guy named Patrick Alain, A-L-A-I-N, and it’s just super helpful.
Let me just quick, like, go to one of my favorite pages. So let’s say if someone’s trying to change the topic, it just shows you, like, the right things to say, like, in a polite way versus being rude. So let’s say someone’s trying to change the topic, you’d say, “Good point, we’ll get back to that in a second,” that’s a great way to say it.
Or you could say, “I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall.” Like, and it just has this for so many different…like when someone’s being defensive, when someone’s doubting you, when someone criticizes you, and it’s just really helpful, especially for someone that’s just learning how to manage for the first time and trying to step up their leadership game. So I would definitely recommend it, “The Leader Phrase Book”.
Alex: “Leader Phrase Book”. We’ll definitely link that up in the show notes, and then I’m gonna buy it on Amazon because that sounds like a good read. Okay, thank you so much for coming around to the show.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to hear how you’ve helped Suja and the rest of your team to be so successful, and obviously what you guys are doing is working really well. So kudos to you, and thanks again.
Katie: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, and I’m hoping that some of the listeners can get some good takeaways from this conversation because it’s definitely something that’s new, and no one exactly knows what they’re doing and every brand is in a different phase of development. So just never give up and keep trucking, and I promise things will work out the way they’re supposed to.
Alex: And so where’s the best place that our listeners can go and follow what Suja is doing and what you guys are up to next?
Katie: I would say Instagram, and our handle is @lovesuja.
Alex: That’s a great handle. Thanks again, Katie.