“There is something about Montana that makes your heart grow bigger”

Open Road — Week 4 by Team THIS

These were the words of an Open Road alum that stuck with us when we left our farewell dinner in Detroit, as we kicked off the long five-week journey. Having never visited Montana before, the four of us were excited to see what those words truly meant (and maybe even meet Montana resident, John Mayer). After a grueling yet beautiful 12-hour drive (which included Mt. Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Wall Drug) from Sioux Falls we arrived in Paradise Valley, MT late Saturday evening just in time to see the beautiful sunset over the mountains. Our Montana partner was Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE), whose mission is to preserve Montana’s natural resources by supporting a local, sustainable food system.

Lill Erikson, Executive Director, and Chris Mehus, Beef Marketing Coordinator, met us early at our Airbnb at 5:30am on Sunday to give us a proper Montana welcome. Starting with a tour of Yellowstone National Park, we spotted black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, deer, prairie dogs, mountain goats and hundreds of bison as we cruised through the park. With each new animal we spotted, Lill and Chris were quick to remind us that WSE’s mission was to preserve these beautiful animals and picturesque landscape. Our hearts grew a bit bigger!

Team THIS (Left to Right: Thai Ha-Ngoc, Steph Dollan, Jinny Han, Tsering Sherpa) on a private tour of Yellowstone National Park with Chris Mehus and Lill Erikson!

Lill Erikson moved to Paradise Valley to work with a rancher and quickly fell in love with the landscape and the community. In 1994, she created Western Sustainability Exchange, to preserve the landscape of Montana. WSE does this by promoting sustainable ranching practices, establishing marketplaces through a farmers market, and provides educational materials to ranchers and restaurateurs.

As the organization grew in size and reach, Lill wanted to be more deliberate and intentional in the organization’s efforts. Despite their accomplishments, WSE had limited brand recognition among the local residents. The one exception was their signature farmers’ market. Our task was to create marketing communications that would showcase the impressive work that ranchers and restaurants were doing while also highlighting WSE’s role as a resource in the community.

Learning about regenerative ranching from Roger and Betsy Indreland of Indreland Ranch

This work took us to the heart of the local community. We interviewed the owners of two family ranches, Omega Beef and Indreland Ranch, and the general manager and executive Chef Dave Wells of Chico Hot Springs, one of the most famous landmarks in Livingston. Throughout our conversations, we consistently heard about the personal connections to the surrounding landscape and a passion for preserving Paradise Valley. Reflecting back on this experience, Team THIS was able to bring an outsiders perspective to what consumers value about WSE. After many conversations, we were able to distill the key features that WSE customers desire and prominently highlight them in the customer marketing profiles we developed.

Tasting the local flavors with Chef Dave Wells from Chico Hot Springs

In addition to these profiles, we also worked with WSE in evaluating an e-commerce platform that would connect local ranchers with local restaurants in Montana. After rigorous research, we recommended that WSE partner with some of the newer startups that are focused on removing the hurdles for purchasing directly from the producers and ranchers.

By Week 4, we were tired, but thanks to the magnificent sunsets, the scene of bison grazing, and the clean air of Montana, we were energized and excited to partner with WSE. Lill Erikson is succeeding in her mission to preserve one of the most beautiful and thriving landscapes in the country. The four of us were honored to have partnered with such a committed founder and organization.

Grazing Buffalo at Yellowstone National Park