By nickjohnson - June 26th, 2013

Nicki Briggs is the Chief Marketing Officer at Chobani, the US-based Greek Yogurt company. She is one of the Chief Marketing and Communications Officers contributed to the Incite: Summit East (September 18 - 19, 2013, NYC).

In this interview, we discuss consumer advocacy, listening, brand loyalty and why it's so important to remain relevant to your consumers.


Could you describe your role as Chief Communications Officer at Chobani?


I look at my primary responsibilities as:


  1. Serving as the voice for our company
  2. Building, protecting and elevating our reputation


What does ‘serving as the voice for our company’ entail, practically? I assume that other departments - like marketing - have a role in development and use of that voice too?


We work very closely with our marketing teams. We are completely integrated.


But because my team is so closely linked to the consumer - through our visual engagement team and customer loyalty team, amongst others - we make sure that everything we’re saying is consistent with our DNA. And that it's something that consumers can really get involved in.


Everything we try to create is around being authentic and transparent like that.


So that means my team ensures that we're involved in all stages of our marketing development - from developing the concept to the production of creative - to ensure we can steer things towards our DNA and protect it.


You say you do work very closely with marketing. How does that manifest itself? Is it through multiple meetings, elaborate internal software? 


It starts at the beginning. Even from the writing of a project brief. Whether it’s done by my team or marketing team, we always make sure to get the others’ input so that we’re completely aligned in what we’re creating.


There’s someone from both groups at each meeting we have on a project, too. To ensure we can equally weigh in, that things are aligned, etc.


If you were to break down the core focus of the two teams, marketing and communications, then the marketing team is really working to activate a campaign and deliver on brand messaging. My team, the Communications team, is very much looking at being a consumer advocate.


Can you expand on what you mean by being a 'consumer advocate'?


It’s about maintaining that DNA of who we are. So it’s around being real, and authentic, and transparent.


So although we have a role in messaging, we want to make sure that what we’re saying is always going to be true, and sustainable - something we feel at end of day delivers value to consumers, and is not self-serving towards us.


That brings us into 'customer-centricity'. You’re speaking in our keynote at the Incite Summit on developing a customer-centric culture.


Could you give some detail on how it is you have made Chobani focus more on the customer, than on the production and selling of products?


First off - I think that both of those things are very important!


We look at ourselves as a manufacturing company, not a yoghurt company. So everybody throughout the company is focused on making best product possible.


But it all ladders up to delivering the best experience for the consumer.


Whether that’s through the product itself, the experience on our website, a piece of communication - we try wherever we can to allow people to interact with our brand, and become a part of the conversation.


That’s what built our brand. It started from a grassroots movement where people wanted to discover Chobani and share with other people.


So now everything we do is designed to ensure that as we grow, we stay true to those roots.


There’s an element of risk involved in allowing your customer to be such an important part of your communications function.

How did you manage to convince people internally that you could give this level of control and power to the consumer, not retain it?

Often brands face opposition from the CEO and from the legal department. Did you have that problem?


To be honest, no, we didn’t. It’s naturally a part of who we are. It’s not forced, it’s what we believe. It’s how we have always been.


One of the core principles in our company stems from the notion of 'the golden rule' - treating our consumers the way we want to be treated ourselves if we were buying that product.


So this conversational approach is inherently part of who we are as a brand, and how we function.


If that has been part of your ethos since day one, that’s fantastic.

But that's not the case for a lot of companies. If you were speaking to an older brand, who didn't have this focus on the customer built in from the start, what advice would you give them?


That notion of empathy is core here. One should always try to keep in mind that at the end of the day, if you were on the other end of this communication, what kind of messaging would you be wanting?


Second, when considering this increased consumer focus, people need to bear in mind the benefits here. You do this right, and it will boost your bottom line.


Allowing your consumer to truly believe in your brand, get behind it, and identify with it at a deeper level than simply buying products. It's enormously powerful.


That’s our goal - we don’t want people to just buy our products, we want people to buy our brand.


When a company sets out to better align with their customer, one must enhance their understanding of said customer. It's impossible to align when you don't know what you're aligning with.

So - how do you listen to your customer? What tools do you use to ensure that you're in tune with their priorities and needs?


It’s really about seeing what consumers are saying,  and taking actual insights from the community - online and on the ground. And then ensuring  that everything we’re doing is serving a deeper need.


Our business really is driven by this community - and we can only do that by extensive listening.


And then what we hear is pipelined across the company to relevant individuals and departments. And that ensures that everything we do really does come from them.


Can you give us an example of where your focus on the customer has allowed you to improve your business, and direct your future strategy?


It happens every day.


One area is product innovation. Every new flavor we put out has come either from Facebook recommendations, or  people calling and talking to loyalty team.


We track the amount of recommendations we get, and that funnels directly to R&D and innovation, but also to our CEO. He spends a great deal of time on Facebook, and he also gets every email that goes to our Customer loyalty team on his cellphone.


Another example - our close focus on Pinterest has also helped us to develop new products. We spotted that our fans were ‘pinning’ pictures of how they mixed our yogurt with granola etc Our fans naturally liked to put their own crunchy mixes into their yogurt.


So that pushed us to allow everyone to do this. We now have a new product delivering exactly that. It has a complimentary ‘sidecar’ of ingredients that you can add to your yogurt - so those people that aren't already doing it can join in.


Your ability to evolve and develop product lines based on direct consumer feedback and observation over social media is very advanced.

Would you class Chobani as ahead of the curve in this regard?


I don’t know if it would put us ahead, but I think it makes us very relevant today. And I think most companies are finding that increasingly the world is driven by the consumer, and that being relevant to them is increasingly important.


Unless you go beyond listening, and begin to really act on the insights your customers give you, it’s hard to keep pace. It’s easy to fall behind.


It’s a very flat world we’re living in, and a company cannot afford to fall out of sync with their customer.


When it comes to sharing insight internally, you share with the CEO, and with various other different departments. How do you choose what department gets what info? Does everything go to everyone, or is there filtering going on? 


Everything goes to our Customer Loyalty team, and the members of our executive team also get every email we receive.


We charge our Customer Loyalty team with the responsibility of being that advocate for our consumer. It's their job to take their messages and appropriate them internally.


Be it a product innovation, questions for manufacturing, a request for our mobile team who choose the locations of our 'tour bus'. We basically make sure our consumers have a direct connect to every part of the business.


The Customer Loyalty role isn't a customer service job. It’s so important to differentiate that, because it’s not just a basic customer service role.


It’s really being a consumer advocate, and taking that customer feedback and translating it into insight. And it's incredibly important to empower that group to work harder for the business.


The team is critical to us, and it’s growing year on year. We started with just one person in the role, and now we have 16. It’s central to the company - it’s connected to everything we do.


Two very broad questions to finish. One, what's your biggest learning from 2012? Two, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for you in 2013?


I could give you a whole separate interview on the things I learned in last twelve months! But that’s just speaking to the nature of how dynamic the world that we live in is.


From a pure communications standpoint, there’s a big equalization in the importance and impact of different media channels. Everything that is put out is given equal weight now. Whether it’s coming from a consumer, the media, or a blogger. That's a big change.


To extend on that,  those messages and that conversation can spread SO quickly. That is great, and it  works very hard for you if it’s a positive message. Though it can have an equally detrimental effect if it’s untrue or negative.


The only way one can stay on top in this environment is to have an active listening team - a group that’s completely devoted to empower the consumer, and keeping that consumer connected to the company.


And if that team does their job well, you begin to create advocates. And that's a very powerful thing. When you have these natural advocates, then in any instance where there's conversation around your brand, you'll then have people who will fight for you, and will correct factual inaccuracies on your behalf.
That’s what we found. We now have this organic network of people that are a part of our brand, and will fight for it.


Many companies find it a real challenge to turn followers into advocates. How do you think you have managed to build up such a dynamic and committed group of advocates for Chobani?


For us it has really been about quality, not just quantity.


For a lot of companies, they will go through a typical fan-gaining process - where they encourage certain people to like their brand, just to get numbers against basic metrics up - getting that ‘like’ number up on Facebook to make your brand look good.


That’s wrong.


They’re not talking to the people who really love the brand. They’re offering them incentives to ‘like’ them - and therefore it’s not authentic.


We however, made a conscious effort to ensure that we ONLY ask people to like us if they genuinely want to do it. That they actively want to do because they want to hear from the brand, be part of the conversation.


So although our growth has been slower, it is organic. And that means these people are far more engaged.


I suppose it’s a virtuous circle from then on? Once the community see that you have not only taken their feedback on board, but developed new products/offerings/ways of talking based on their feedback - that must speed things up further, generate more positive views, and more advocates?


Exactly. It becomes a cycle.


What do you see is the biggest challenge or opportunity you're going to face as a Chief Communications Officer next year?


For anyone in the communications field right now, it’s all about keeping up with the conversation, and the way you make sure that you not only control your message, but that you’re empowering consumers to understand what’s true and what’s not true.


There is SO much out there! Everybody is a member of the media now - that’s how we look at it. Our Customer Loyalty team, our digital engagement team, and our public relations team - we think of all of them as ‘media relations’.


We see there being two key issues incoming:


  1. Ensure your own message is relevant, and will resonate
  2. Make sure what is already out there is accurate


How do you do that? How have you ensured that the company is able to ‘keep up’ with the conversation?


Well, we have got a really great team!


We’ve got a very strong digital engagement team that is online 24/7 so that we see everything that is happening in real time.


You have to be real time.


And I don’t think of it as a challenge - it’s an opportunity.


In the old days when you put out a press release, I don’t know how much validity was given to news being put out by a company.


It’s so much more powerful now - you can share news with consumers, and they can spread word for you.


There’s nothing more compelling than person-to-person communication. That’s where it gets back to that authenticity and transparency. People know when they hear something from us that it’s a true message, something they can believe in and get behind.


This concludes our interview with Nicki Briggs, Chief Communications Officer at Chobani. To hear more from Nicki on the core challenges and opportunities for communications executives, you can download a recording of her speaking at the the Incite Summit: East on September 18 - 19, 2013 in New York.

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