Do you ever find yourself at odds with making final decisions within your marketing team?

Everyone at some point can relate to feeling that their idea is THE way to tackle a problem, especially in the food and beverage industry which tends to attract a lot of passionate people. Food marketing leadership has plenty to learn from this interview.

Today’s guest is Maude Manoukian, and she is the CMO of the Forager Project. Maude has a method to fostering a collaborative work environment. She’s been able to tease from these internal discussions what’s really best for the brand, and it’s led to some great things for Forager.

On this episode, we talk about:

  • What marketing leaders can do to foster a productive and collaborative environment
  • How to build a trusting consumer base around a food product
  • What you need to consider when building an effective marketing team
  • And a lot more…


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Alex: Being CMO – that’s a pretty big responsibility especially for a company like Forager. What is most of your day spent on?

I need to erase the notion that CMO at a start-up like Forager is the same as being a CMO of a big consumer packaged goods company. The gist of what I do is pretty wide. From very strategic down to extremely practical – writing a note back to someone, responding to an emailed inquiry. It runs the gamut for me. I’m helping with new product development, doing some of the analytical research for that, but then also working with our product developers, too. Some of it’s off the cuff, either it’s things we’ve seen or this is an ingredient we’ve discovered and we’re intrigued by it.

I’ll be involved in that process down to things like, “Hey, this needs to get uploaded onto the website or posted on social media.” What I do is pretty varied and not typical of a CMO but that’s because we’re a newer company and we wear multiple hats. I’m not the only one, it’s across the board. I think we are just now starting to get to a place where we are getting a little more into our corners and focusing on our specific areas.

Alex: Given the space and how many different competitors there are, Forager does have a lot of shelf-space. There must be something to that.

So many of us have not only been around in the natural foods industry for a long time, but there several of us that worked together at Odwalla who know how things work. We know it’s a fight – and I mean “a fight” in a good sense of the word. We’re not spending a ton of money on direct-to-consumer marketing outside of our packaging. Our website would be one other place where we are really doing that and a little bit on social media, but it really is a battle of the shelf.

The cold pressed juice category is heavily competitive. It’s been exciting and it’s been challenging. If you are going to do this kind of work, you’ve got to be prepared to get beat up. You are going to get beat up – you are going to get knocked down.

You have to have that resilience and you have to have a belief in the product that you are putting out there. I also think the people you’re working with – you have to believe in them.  If you have those things and you’re a go-getter, you have a shot.

Alex: What is an example in the past year that you can give of a scenario where Forager as a company, or you personally in your work, have had a setback from a marketing standpoint?

Ha..There are many, and they’re not always these really big, epic things – sometimes they are just small things. A lot of retailers have particular times of year where they are open to you presenting new products to them and sometimes they say no.

You spend many months preparing for them to say “yes” and then sometimes they say “no”.  You don’t put products out there if you just don’t believe in them. To be successful, you have to have some emotional skin in the game – in the kind of company Forager is, you do. I have been fortunate because I really have only worked for companies like that where you are really emotionally invested.

When a retailer says “no” or you might get feedback that “Hey, I like this but I think you need to tweak this about it,” then you have to go back and do more work. Especially in the natural and organic category, your hard core consumer is really a demanding consumer. They really want a lot from you.

Alex: Transparency is especially important in the natural products and organics segment because the customer who is buying that kind of product is the one who cares the most about what’s on the label. Without putting too much budget towards ad-spend and actually getting the word out there, how do you go about educating your consumers?

Maude: A lot of it has to be done at the shelf, on the package, and obviously there’s huge limitations with that. You can also do it on your website.

At Forager, that’s where we go – if we have something deeper, that’s where we would put it. In the age of information, what’s beautiful is we have so much access to information and lots detail, and the challenge is we have access to so much information and so much detail.

There is a lot of wrong information out there, as much as there is good information. So, for us, where we don’t spend money on any of the traditional marketing stuff yet, we do have to leverage the package. We do have to leverage our website when it is appropriate, and then you build trust through rapport.

Alex: I know from our past conversations that Forager is very focused on building the brand. Which is obviously the perfect place to be as a start-up. Whether it’s responses on social media, if it’s the copy that you put on the packaging, or the branding and design – how do you guys make sure it’s all consistent, and you are building that trust with consistent voice and personality across each of those different mediums?

Part of how you stay consistent is going back to your vision. Our vision is to be honest. Our vision is to bring healthy plant-based foods to a wide audience of people, trying to make it acceptable to as many people as possible. Steven Williamson, one of our founders and the CEO of our company, has a really strong vision so he is very involved with all the different pieces.

You vet things with people – if I am writing copy for a package, I am going to get with the other people. It’s a collaborative experience.

Food Marketing Leadership Makes All The Difference

Alex: I know Forager is extremely collaborative as a company and that it speaks a lot toward the leadership. How have you seen the leadership create an environment where collaboration is highly encouraged rather than being overly influenced by the person whose brainchild a certain idea is – especially if it’s someone at the top?

By something that sounds so simple – by asking people “What’s your opinion?” I remember, the first time I met Steven Williamson was in a warehouse in San Francisco when I was doing something very operationally based. I was probably dirty and sweaty, preparing something for local marketing, which is what I was doing then.

He came over and he introduced himself, “Hi, I am Steven Williamson,” and I said “Hi I’m Maude. We met at this thing a couple months and you probably don’t remember me.” I said something like there’s only one ‘you’, (meaning there’s only one CEO) and there’s several employees and he looked at me and said, “Well, there is only one you.”

He was really sincere about it.

That was probably 20 years ago, that exchange, and I will never forget it. He has that genuine interest in people and the things that are going on around him. When you’re that way, you can attract people that are similar.

Everybody has a point of view and when you understand different points of view, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to change what you are doing, but it can add nuance, it can add texture. It may in certain moments have that bigger impact of – “oh we were going to go one course and somebody brought up a really great point and we shifted because of that one person.”

I don’t know that’s it’s a highly conscious thing that happens here. It’s just a way of being and it’s a way of experiencing each other. It’s an example that’s just set through action. I think you start that process through listening and asking questions, and then listening to hear what someone’s telling you.

Alex: I’m sure you’ve seen a scenario arise where if there’s a new project or a new product launching, and there are very strong differing opinions, some people believe something should be one way, and some people believe it should be another way. How do you guys come to a conclusion on the best solution when that happens?

Compromise. That’s a simple concept but it’s so hard to put into action. Whether it’s in their career or in their personal lives – compromising can be really challenging and doing it in the right way where you are not compromising who you are, but you are compromising something in a moment. Compromising is trust – trusting that the people you are working with have the same end goal that you do. It starts with you.

Alex: From your experience working on smaller teams when the sampling population is quite a bit smaller, say a team of 5 people, how do you vet an idea or an opinion to make sure that what is going on amongst those 5 people is actually how the outside world is going to react?

Part of it starts with how are you building your team up. It’s such a mistake to hire people that are a mirror of yourself. That’s not where you are going to get the best ideas. That’s not where you are going to really grow creatively.

Food-Marketing-Leadership

It’s such a mistake to hire people that are a mirror of yourself. That’s not where you are going to… Click To Tweet

It’s also not where you are going to grow as a person. If everybody is just like you and you all have the same experiences and the same point of view, then there is nothing to mix it up. Friction is where growth happens. I think part of it just starts there.

We’ve progressed enough that there is actually a little marketing team now at Forager. It’s just about four of us where marketing is our primary focus. We debate and we refine. Then we take it out to other people in the company and ask for their feedback.

So, I think it’s by how you construct your team – how’ve you built it. What are the different people that are on there? Are they bringing out the best in each other?

One model that I heard a long time ago that I’ve always liked is the “Can do; will do; will fit” approach. Does the person have person have the basic skills to do the job you are asking? Do they have the drive, the personality, the interest to do it – the “will do”? And then, how will they fit with the rest of your team?

It is true that ‘one bad apple that can spoil the bunch’. The opposite is true, too. If you get someone on your team and they have an energy that is uplifting, that can have the reverse effect. All of a sudden, you’ve changed the dynamic of your team and it becomes much more high-functioning because that person brought a particular energy that your team needed – it’s like lighting a match.

The fuse was already there, it just needed the spark to light it and that one hire was the spark.

Hiring Right is Paramount

Alex: With a smaller team especially, the next person that you bring on the team makes up a massive percentage of your entire team. Especially when you’re a smaller organization, I can see where that upfront vetting of potential employees can go a long way down the road.

For me, I don’t limit that to the smaller team. With the smaller teams, if you are on a see-saw, you feel it right away that something’s gone awry – that you’re off balance. On a larger team, you won’t feel it as quickly but sometimes that can be even more insidious.

It creates that slow growth effect that can happen on teams where you don’t see it soon enough, and by the time you do see it, it’s taken over and you have a much larger group of people that have been affected.

That’s the danger of the other side of it. I think that’s a huge asset or deficit to your business – the people that you hire.

Alex: There are so many management and people skills that go into identifying that early on. That speaks to you and your leadership also. I want to get into some questions about you personally. Being that you are wearing so many different hats in a quickly growing company like Forage, you must be extremely busy. Are there any productivity hacks that you use on a daily basis?

Making a to-do list the night before or morning of with things that you want to accomplish for that day. I’ve read it in multiple places but it’s really true. It helps you get more done. It helps you stay on track with what your priorities are. Plus, it’s simple and I find it really impactful.

“Rush but don’t rush” – that’s something that I learned through martial arts. There is no point in going faster than you really are meant to go on something. You’ll end up going back and spending more time on it.

Giving projects the amount of time that they really need and not rushing. If you need to go 10 miles an hour instead of 50 miles an hour on that particular task for it to be done right, then go 10 miles. Or, if 10 miles is the max threshold that you can go, then identify that and be disciplined around that.

I also think knowing when to ask for help is critical. Throughout my career, it hasn’t been a direct path and I like to learn through doing. It’s one of the things I continue to learn now, but in the last few years, I’ve focused on is saying “Yes, I need support on this, I really need to push this to someone else, even though it may not be done exactly how I would do it, it’s still going to get done at a quality level and then it’s going to get done a lot more quickly.”

You also have this residual effect you create, strengthening your team environment by asking for help. People want to help each other. Asking for help – it helps to get things done and it helps to build relationships with other people and builds the trust that we talked about earlier.

Books For Those In Food Marketing Leadership

Alex: Are there any books that you have read recently or throughout your career that have really had a significant impact in how you view your job and what you do?

Maude: I am a big reader. I love reading. I love hearing what other people are reading. There are so many of them out there and there are lots of good ones. There are also social responsibility books – like Natural Capitalism, the New Economy of Nature – the books that I am thinking about.

Reading across genres – you are going to get ideas and you see these things that pop, and that are fairly universal, that work. I think a lot of what I say is pretty boring and obvious a lot of the times, but people lack the discipline to do the obvious things.

Making a list – a lot of people talk about making a list – it’s not a flashy thing to do, but there are a lot of people that are not disciplined in doing that, and if they were, it would be amazing for them.

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