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Women of the C-Suite: “Communicate up, down and sideways.” with Suzanne Fanning and Chaya Weiner

Communicate up, down and sideways. Nobody is an island (or at least they shouldn’t be). We do a stand-up meeting called “HOT! HOT! HOT!” every single morning so we all understand the top priorities for the day and know what is coming up next. This gives everybody visibility to what is going on and provides an opportunity for each member of the team to help out or give input. We have also found unique ways to let other departments know what is happening through monthly, individual department liaison meetings, real-time lobby monitor displays and an internal intranet feature. Through these different mediums, our entire staff can see what’s going on at any given moment with our big initiatives. This has created a sense of greater continuity across the entire organization.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Fanning. As Senior Vice President and CMO of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Suzanne focuses on branding, digital advertising, public relations and consumer events, in addition to consumer confidence, farmer outreach and channel/retail marketing. Since joining the organization three years ago, Fanning has played a key role in the start of a marketing transformation for Wisconsin’s 175-year-old cheese industry, revolutionizing how consumers think about Wisconsin Cheese. Fanning’s innovative strategies, including a Guinness World Record achievement, have driven impressive results — increasing social media engagement by over 4,000 percent and achieving over $50 million in national publicity coverage for Wisconsin cheese with features in the New York Times, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine, as well as on The Today Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers. Her efforts have been hailed as “the best of the best in the industry” by Deli Business Magazine, and she was a 2019 Recipient of the People’s Award, reserved for professionals who have raised the bar in the food industry.
Fanning is also a published author and noted speaker. Her work has been featured in Forbes, PRWeek, The Chicago Tribune and more, and she remains active in helping professionals and students learn how to drive big results with small budgets and creative ideas.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always had a passion for understanding people — what they are interested in, what they talk about, and what motivates them to do what they do. If I hadn’t gone into marketing, I probably would have ended up joining the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit! As a result of this innate curiosity, the marketing efforts I lead are always centered on the fans. I believe marketing should go far beyond a point of transaction. Too often you see brands trying to coerce people into simply trying their product or making a purchase. That sets up a shallow relationship dynamic that is simply not sustainable. Nobody wants to feel like they are being marketed to — but everyone wants to feel like they are a part of something bigger and more meaningful. Marketing should focus more on being a part of our brand story because it’s all about you, because we share values, because we care about you not only as a customer, but also as a person. Marketing shouldn’t just get into people’s heads; it should also get into their hearts. My goal is, and always has been, to go beyond marketing campaigns and focus on movements that build over time in order to change people’s attitudes, perceptions and behavior. This philosophy has served me well and led to tripled sales growth for the companies I have worked for.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In 2018, we decided to head to SXSW, the biggest interactive tech conference and music festival in the world, knowing many big brands launch huge initiatives there. As exciting as that was, it posed a couple of challenges. For starters, we are not a tech or music brand. We also didn’t have a budget to do anything that came close to competing with the millions of dollars that brands like HBO and others were spending on their SXSW activations. What we did have going for us was a lot of really great cheese.

Wisconsin wins more awards than any other state in the US or country in the world, and we make over 600 types, styles and varieties. That’s a big and impressive deal, and we decided to pair it with an equally big and impressive activation, by building the world’s longest cheeseboard. Our hope was that in the midst of a major event full of big brands and big-budget activations, people would still take the time to enjoy some cheese and the Wisconsin experience we brought to Austin. It turned out we were right. What we didn’t expect was that our #SXSWisconsin activation and world’s longest cheeseboard was going to set another record by becoming the first time in SXSW history that event organizers had to call in extra security to manage the number of people waiting in line. In addition, our cheese was linked to the biggest conversations of the year at SXSW, alongside Elon Musk, This is Us and West World. Many social posts hailed Wisconsin Cheese as “winning” at SXSW — and after all the great conversations and compliments that ensued during and after the event, we sure felt like winners!

People were so excited about what we did at SXSW, that we decided to actually work with Guinness to achieve an official world record a few months later. We built the World’s Largest Cheese Board (with over 4,000 pounds of cheese) in our home state in front of about 40,000 people. It grabbed so much national attention and drove so much publicity that we even ended up on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first job after graduate school was doing marketing for a line of high-end aquariums embedded in furniture like coffee tables and all-glass grandfather clocks. I was constantly challenged with getting new, cool photography of tropical fish from a variety of sources for our marketing materials. One day, I set up a meeting to buy photos from a photographer, but I didn’t know the company I worked for still owed him a LOT of money. We had met for lunch, and I spent the whole meeting trying to apologize and negotiating with him to give me the new photos in spite of the company’s well overdue payment. What made it even more awkward was the fact that he had brought a friend with him who witnessed the entire event. Well, it took a lot of convincing, but the photographer finally agreed to give me the pictures, I met my deadline, and the company I worked for finally paid him. In a strange and unexpected twist, the friend he had brought along, who witnessed my mad negotiation skills, later asked me to marry him. That friend and I are still happily married with three kids. I guess the lesson is that if you bring passion to all you do, no matter how big or small, you can turn a “no” into a “yes.” And hey, you may even discover another unexpected passion along the way. :)

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We exist to be tireless advocates for the dairy farmers and to drive demand for their milk. In Wisconsin, 90% of the milk produced goes into making cheese and 90% of that cheese is sold outside of Wisconsin’s borders. In fact, we’ve been making cheese here since before Wisconsin was a state. Not only are the dairy farmers’ livelihoods dependent on our success, but also the state’s economy, as dairy is a $45 billion industry in Wisconsin. As the dairy industry goes, so goes Wisconsin because the dairy industry IS Wisconsin. Every carton of milk, stick of butter, cup of yogurt or wedge of world-class cheese we export is a kind of ambassador, shorthand for the people and values that make Wisconsin the special place that it is. Dairy is our birthright. It’s in our blood, it’s in the dirt beneath our feet, it’s in the air we breathe — it’s who we are.

What we do here matters — a lot — both to the dairy farmers we are privileged to work for and to the reputation and wellbeing of the state that we all call home.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently working on building a community of cheese lovers called Cheeselandia, which launched in November. We sought out the biggest Wisconsin Cheese advocates across the country to help kick things off. Just to be clear — we didn’t find influencers and pay them to post about us. We found existing cheese lovers who were already singing our praises and sent them a variety of cheeses from different Wisconsin cheesemakers (along with some other hosting goodies) to host house parties with their friends and family. By acknowledging and celebrating their love of cheese, we laid the foundation for positive relationships and an authentic movement centered around Wisconsin Cheese. In the months since, our fans have continued going above and beyond, sharing their love of Wisconsin Cheese in unique ways, online and offline. The cheese might be made in Wisconsin, but the conversation about and love for it is happening all over the country. You can check it out on @visitcheeselandia on Instagram.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

It’s important to find time to understand team members and help them achieve their individual goals. You should also be a role model for the behaviors you want your team to adopt. For my team, those behaviors are passion, intelligent decision making, sense of humor and hard work. They see me living these things every day, and they are each a part of our team culture and ethos. I am so fortunate to manage an absolutely wonderful team with members ranging from their 20s to their 60s, each brilliant in their own way. My job has been to uncover that brilliance in each of them and move obstacles out of their path to help them shine.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

With a large team, it is imperative that everyone understands how their role fits into the big picture, so they can see how they make an impact every day. Trust is also hugely important, and it goes both ways. It’s not just that they are accountable to you — you are also accountable to them. A good leader knows how to motivate a team, must have emotional intelligence, is paying attention to what’s going on, and must give and receive feedback freely — not just at review time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

They say the greatest compliment you can get in business is for someone to hire you twice. I’m currently working for a CEO who has hired me at two different companies. Over a decade ago, Chad Vincent hired me at a global company where we achieved some very impressive results together. He later followed along with my career as we both worked at other companies. Three years ago, Chad offered me a role helping to lead marketing for Wisconsin’s dairy industry. The chance to once again work with a CEO who was not only inspirational, but also believes in culture and empowerment, made that a very easy decision. As an expert in marketing himself, Chad sets a very high bar. Working with him has truly changed the course of my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am a huge advocate of education. I serve on a number of professional boards, speak at conferences across the country, serve as a guest lecturer for many colleges and universities (both undergraduate and MBA programs) and have even provided marketing content for textbooks. My goal is to inspire people to see possibilities and to realize the impact that they can have in the world.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why?

a. Be very clear about your goal. When people think of cheese, they think of Wisconsin, so Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin didn’t have an awareness problem like many brands face. What we did have was a perception problem. Research showed consumers thought of big blocks of cheddar, foam cheese heads and “factory cheese” when they thought of Wisconsin Cheese. In reality, Wisconsin Cheese wins more awards than any other state or country. We make almost half of all the specialty cheese in the United States, and we are the only place outside of Switzerland that has a master cheesemaker program. Our goal was very straightforward — elevate perceptions of Wisconsin Cheese.

b. Let the team members figure out how to get there. My team took a hard look at everything we did and asked, “Is this program or activity that we’ve been doing really going to elevate perception?” If the answer was no, we either figured out a way to change it (like totally revamping our approach to sponsorships), or stopped it and replaced it with something that would move us closer to our goal of shifting perception (like a new website and brand voice). It was through that process of evaluation, consideration and revision that we transformed our digital strategy, that we figured out how to triple our media coverage, and also how we decided we needed to build our cheese community, Cheeselandia, to build word of mouth and increase our SOV.

c. Communicate up, down and sideways. Nobody is an island (or at least they shouldn’t be). We do a stand-up meeting called “HOT! HOT! HOT!” every single morning so we all understand the top priorities for the day and know what is coming up next. This gives everybody visibility to what is going on and provides an opportunity for each member of the team to help out or give input. We have also found unique ways to let other departments know what is happening through monthly, individual department liaison meetings, real-time lobby monitor displays and an internal intranet feature. Through these different mediums, our entire staff can see what’s going on at any given moment with our big initiatives. This has created a sense of greater continuity across the entire organization.

d. Always have a backup plan. I have told my team repeatedly that they are not judged by what goes wrong, but rather measured by how they handle the situation when things don’t go as planned. It is crucial to have a “plan B” (and in some cases, plans C through G, as well). I encourage creative solutions and a never-say-die mentality.

e. Be your team’s biggest cheerleader. While it is important to expect a lot out of a high-performing team, it’s equally important to take the time to celebrate their successes. I try to take every opportunity to tell the CEO, Board and other employees about the cool and creative things that my team is doing. A leader is not only judged by what they can do, but more importantly, by what they can inspire others to do. My team’s success is everything to me, and I always do my best to give them the credit that they deserve. They are my rock stars. I elevate them and I have their backs — always!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to end the violence that we are seeing in the world daily now. Sadly, it has become a social phenomenon, and fixing the systemic issues to end violence of all kinds would be my dream.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”–Nelson Mandela.

I like to challenge my team to boldly face the impossible head on. You would be amazed at just how many “impossible” things they have pulled off! When someone tells me something will never work, I love to make it happen bigger and better than anyone could have ever imagined. Does it sound impossible to get 17,000 pounds of cheese to Texas for Hurricane Harvey victims? To break a Guinness World Record? To drive a 30-foot cheeseboard from California to NY in 3 days in a blizzard to make it onto Fox News for National Cheese Lovers Day? Of course it does, but we did it all!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Melinda Gates is a shining example of philanthropy and giving back. Her $306 Million commitment to agricultural development, which is intended to help millions of small farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty, is especially near and dear to my heart.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.



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