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What’s in a role: Mollie Chen, VP of Brand and Customer Experience at Hungryroot

By Amanda Mulay, Senior Talent Manager

In this series, “What’s in a role,” we ask portfolio company leaders about their career paths, the best way to break into their vertical, and what operators should know about hiring for their position. Past posts profile a COO, Internal Recruiter, and a People Analytics Manager.

On the surface level, a visually beautiful brand is effective in catching attention — on subway advertising, on packaging, on Instagram, or wherever you might stumble across it. But, brand is way more than HEX codes, typefaces, and tone guidelines. Brand is about a customer’s relationship with a product. And smart companies are investing in building a strong brand and experience that hooks and retains customers.

We’ve seen the power of brand time and again. We backed Casper, Glossier, Allbirds, Everlane, and many more in the early days because we believed those founders could build their ideas into household names that would evolve and grow with their customers.

I was interested in learning more about the intersection of brand and user experience, and thought Mollie Chen, VP of Brand and Customer Experience at healthy food products company Hungryroot, would be a perfect candidate to discuss the evolving function of managing a company’s relationship with its customers. In our conversation, she shared how she transitioned from editor to cofounder at Birchbox to Hungryroot, what makes top brands so successful, how brand and customer experience correlate with product development, and much more.

(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Amanda Mulay: Tell us a bit about your background and how it led your current position as VP Brand and Customer Experience at Hungryroot?

Mollie Chen: I started my career as an editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine. I spent five years there learning how to create engaging content for beauty then food, which ended up being the two main themes of my career. At Condé I got an amazing foundation for the skill set that I now still use. I learned how to be an editor, I learned how to tell great stories, how to think about words with a really clear and discerning eye. At the same time that magazines we’re declining, digital content was starting to take off. When considering my next steps, I knew I wanted to be somewhere fast-moving where I could see the impact of my work more quickly.

Ultimately I decided I wanted to be somewhere where I had a direct connection to the customer. I started reaching out to startups and other digital-first companies in New York and at the same time helped Hayley Barna (my best friend from college) and Katia Beauchamp on an idea for a beauty discovery subscription service called Birchbox. I worked on a beta test with them and got hooked on the idea of personalized beauty products delivered to consumers. I left Condé Nast in May 2010 to join them as a cofounder and first employee. My job was to create the voice and brand that would get people to trust us and let us into their home, and to create the content and community that would add value to that experience.

I spent six years at Birchbox and my job changed a million times, but from prelaunch to when I left, my role was about answering: “What’s the voice of Birchbox?”, “How do we connect with our customers?” and “How do we make them care?” In between Birchbox and Hungryroot, I consulted for early-stage startups like Collective Retreats, Sakara, and MIRROR before deciding I missed being part of a team. A friend connected me to Hungryroot last January and I fell in love with the company’s mission and culture, as well as the broad scope of my new role.

Mulay: Why did this specific job speak to you and what kind of projects do you touch?

Chen: I was looking for a role where I wasn’t going to just put brand, voice, and community on top of something, but where I actually got to impact the product. What got me so excited about my role at Hungryroot, besides the vision, industry, and mission, was the chance to impact the actual product and touch the end-to-end customer experience.

One of the things that’s core to my role is a focus on how we’re presenting ourselves. So, what are the marketing campaigns? That can mean understanding how they’re doing or planning the next round of creative. Right now we’re planning our subway campaign and preparing for a retail store in April. My priorities right now are to create compelling creative that communicates the Hungryroot brand (in terms of looking at assets, copy, photos) and how that plays out on our food products in our pipeline. I’m also looking at our NPS score every week to see how we can be constantly improving.

Mulay: You have a two part title: Brand and Customer Experience. How do the two relate to each other in your day-to-day responsibilities?

Chen: To me, brand and customer experience are two sides of the same coin. Customer experience is about how do you create the best experience — whether that’s the best food or best social experience — for the customer and how they live it. Brand is about how do you look at that through the lens of who you are as a business and what your business goals are. I think that brand goals and Hungryroot’s goals aren’t always the same — so we ask what’s good for Hungryroot and what’s good for the customer? Brand serves as a lens for looking at customer experience.

Mulay: Why have companies focused so much on brand building in the past few years?

Chen: With how saturated the consumer landscape is, companies are realizing that brand isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s something that differentiates you and makes everything work better and allows you to have these really deep and lasting customer relationships. It’s a function of what’s happening in the market, when there are a lot of great brands. It’s a product of a lot of great branding agencies, great founders, great ideas, and, when the landscape is more cluttered, you have to have a way to stand out. Brand is one of the best ways you can do that.

Mulay: What traits make a brand really successful?

Chen: You have to know your reason for being. We talk a lot about the “so what?” I’ve always said that to any team I’ve run as a framework. When you’re writing something, thinking about events, you have to think about the “so what?” People are busy, we exist to make their lives better, easier, more fun. If you don’t have a “so what” then you’re not going to be important to that person. I think brands have to understand what they’re putting out there and why. Why should customers care? My least favorite thing is when a brand comes out with a message and a product that’s all about them. And also, you have to know who you are, you have to have a clear voice and a true north. The brands that have that can stand out and their customers believe who they are and trust them.

Mulay: How do your past experiences as an editor for Condé Nast, cofounder of Birchbox, and brand voice advisor to startups relate to what you’re doing now?

Chen: It all comes down to trust and building a relationship. What do you have to offer customers, and why should they care? You have to think about what is unique to your brand and your value proposition and then follow through and make sure everything you do delivers something useful to the customer.

Mulay: What’s one professional hurdle you’ve navigated?

Chen: At Birchbox especially, I had to learn how to create something (brand, voice, content strategy etc.) and then let go as I hired people and taught them how to do what I did. It’s not unique to me or my role, but it was something I see a lot of early-stage employees having to do and it can be challenging. I’ve also had to learn how to balance being a customer advocate and an executive and make sure I’m always balancing business needs with customer needs.

Mulay: When should a founder or hiring manager consider bringing on a brand and/or customer experience exec?

Chen: You always need to know what your brand is and you always need someone who is thinking of the customer. There are companies that have that from the beginning because the founder has that clear vision (or it’s a first employee, head of content, etc). It really depends on where a company starts. When a business is trying to grow and is finding that it doesn’t actually know what its voice is or how to clearly articulate what the company is to the customer, that’s probably a good sign that you need someone to help you do it. If you’re going to go through the effort of having a branding agency create this nice new brand for you, you owe it to yourself to make sure someone who can carry it forward because that brand is going to have to evolve. You’re going to be handed something static and you use that to build your brand.

Mulay: What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting into a job as a brand and/or customer experience manager?

Chen: If you want to be successful in a customer experience role, you have to understand what the customer is experiencing and you have to understand all the different functions of the business. It’s about understanding what’s possible and what all the different tensions are between functions so that you can advocate for the customer in a way that’s also productive for the business. In a brand role, one of the most important things is understanding what a brand can do and that means thinking about ROI on everything you’re doing. There are some things you can’t quantify and other things you can.

Mulay: You have an active Instagram account centered around healthy cooking. How do you get inspired and have time to cook during the week?

Chen: I’m lucky that my husband and I both love cooking and making real, whole food for our growing family. Food is definitely my hobby. I find food and exercise very therapeutic and balancing. I love thinking about food and helping people find what’s right for them, especially in the food world. So I love giving people recipe recommendations and that really dovetails with what I do with Hungryroot.

Interested in a role at Hungryroot? Check out current job openings here.

If this post made you hungry, check out Mollie’s favorite Hungryroot staples:

Black Bean Brownie Batter: This stuff is unreal. I keep it in the freezer and eat a spoonful when I need a sweet fix.

Red Lentil Fusilli: Not only is this grain-free and super tasty, but it cooks in 3 minutes, which is like magic.

Thai Peanut: You can put this sauce on literally anything. I love it with any of our sauteed veggies but also make it into a dressing by adding lime juice and a little water.

Hot Smoked Roasted Salmon: I have to fight my toddler for this salmon; it’s delicious on salads or even with eggs for breakfast.

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Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is the most active early-stage venture capital fund in New York.