Guiding Growth for a Passion Brand

08.01.18 / David Lemley

We’ve seen it so often it’s become a cliché: The veteran marketer, disillusioned by the lack of opportunity for career growth in a big CPG company, jumps to an emerging food or wellness brand. She’s inspired by the founder’s passion and excited to bring her expertise to the table.

And then a few weeks into the job, she realizes that things aren’t … well … as she expected they’d be.

The founder/owner’s drive, passion, and ability to move quickly and on the cheap works great until about $5mm, and then it gets in the way. The brand is ripe for growth, yet the team is hesitant to let go of what brought them this far. And while there’s tons of opportunity for new revenue, the owner doesn’t want to be seen as chasing big bucks.

Sound familiar?

If you’ve come from a big marketing engine to help a fledgling brand grow, you’ll likely find that most of what you know isn’t going to work for your new boss. And until he recognizes that you truly get his vision and share his passion, he’ll resist — or even fear — your expertise.

Over years of working with CMOs in the exact spot you’re in, we’ve devised a number of strategies that can help you get your job done in a way that makes a meaningful difference for your brand. Let us show you the way:

Recognize that your No. 1 job isn’t marketing. It’s talking the founder/owner off the ledge. Convincing her that business success does not come at the expense of personal reputation or brand history.

Understand that it’s not business, it’s personal. The brand’s biggest hurdle is the founder’s emotional relationship with it. He looks back with nostalgia to the good old days. Fear lies at the core of the problem: The founder fears that the origin story will be overwritten, and that success will make him look like a sellout.

The founder’s deep attachments affect everything from the color used on a logo to the proper use of the office coffee maker. These preferences may appear irrational, but they’re seated in the owner’s blood, sweat, and tears.

Be an archaeologist. Your first task is to understand the brand’s history so that when you make a recommendation it’s steeped in that history. Dig deep, find every bone in the dirt and bring it to the surface, ask tons of questions. This process of excavation should take three to four months.

And a psychologist. Founders are passionate, entrepreneurial, driven people who are great at invention. But when it comes to maturing a brand or facing a growth challenge, they often make decisions based on personal biases. As the new CMO, you’ll find yourself in the role of therapist as your boss transitions the brand into something different. She’ll be learning to trust others, let go of the past, and with your guidance, develop a new ideal for the brand she started.

Listen reflectively. In every meeting with the owner, every casual conversation, repeat what he says — not to be a parrot but to clarify, learn, and check your assumptions.

Practice tough love. This where your best negotiating/politicking skills will come into play. Whether you do the work internally or hire an external firm, you’ll be in the middle of the relationship, as the founder who has hired you to grow or salvage the company will be intimately involved in each conversation and decision.

Take it slow. Resist the urge to solve the problem immediately. What might make you look like a superhero will feel threatening to the founder. If it’s that easy to right the ship, he’ll feel incompetent for not having done it himself.

If you find yourself in this position, know that you’re not alone: So many CMOs that have landed with passion-driven food and wellness brands have been here, too — and we’ve worked with a lot of them. You’re in for an up-and-down ride. And your biggest challenge may be ahead because you’ll soon start to lose some of the objectivity that made you such a great hire.

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