Unplugged Chats: Susan Vann

We sat down with Susan Vann, COO of Konscious Foods, ahead of February's BCAMA Annual Agency Panel.

March 20, 2024

An unplugged chat with Konscious Foods COO, Susan Vann

Susan recently moderated the BCAMA’s Annual Agency Panel in mid-Feb. Before the event, we sat down with her to get her thoughts on marketing in 2024.

Tell us about the roles you’ve had in your career that have shaped your current role.

My current role is Chief Operating Officer at Konscious Foods. We launched the world's first frozen sushi rolls onigiri, which are their stuffed rice snacks and pokey bowls, all made from plant-based food. At Konscious, we started a brand from scratch, and we had to create product that was great for our consumers. So, if I look at my previous roles that best prepared me to do that, there are two particular brand that influenced me. The first was when I worked for Robeez Shoes. It was a BC business success story. It was baby shoes… and it grew quite significantly. The business grew in retail and DTC (direct to consumer). I initially started with them on the strategy side, and one of the lessons I learned there was how important it is to understand consumers and to adapt to their changing needs.

And the other thing I'd say I learned from Robeez was the importance of alignment of team, ensuring that the internal culture aligned with our external brand and culture, because it helped make sure that all our marketing activities were aligned.

The second example is The Little Potato Company. It's a leading player in North American little potatoes. Huge growth. And I started when it was a small company and left when it was doing very well. The most critical lesson I learned there was importance of brand. Really, we took a generic product, and we give it a personality. And we focused on differentiation, standing out in a crowded category. And it took time to develop that strategy. A lot of effort from everyone, but everything we did at that company was about passion, and everyone had that passion. And because that passion was shared, our consumers were wanting to give us feedback, and they came on that journey with us. So that really was a great experience in terms of lessons learned and preparing me for the role that I'm in right now.

What do you know that that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?

Well, everyone starts their careers at different times, and this might sound a bit cliché, but when we start our careers, we think it's about us. And we think “I'm going to work hard, and they're going to see how great I am.”

And the reality is, you know, it’s really all about the power of teamwork and creating alignment throughout the organization. And when you do that, you can develop trust. And one of the things about marketing, it is about trust, and it doesn't come automatically. It takes time to develop trust within your team within the organization, and then to get that trust with your customers. So, I think that something that's important is teamwork - relationship building and developing trust.

The other thing is consistency of the details of the brand in every single touch point. Often you see brands who have a different message on TikTok or Instagram versus what their brand page, what their packaging is, their external earned paid media. Those all have to be aligned, and they have to be aligned internally and externally to have that consistency.

One last thing is taking risks. I wish, at the beginning of my career, I knew how important it was to take risks, and to go out on the limb and try something new. And you will fail…that is absolutely for sure. But you only learn with failure, and that's something I really encourage all younger people that I work with go out, take a bunch of risks and you might fail. And that's okay.

If I can just say one more thing about that, I think Covid had a bigger impact to younger employees who hadn't been in the workplace. And now they are and I get it. They're comfortable in their home offices, and they haven't had the chance to focus as much on developing those relationships. And, when you don't have a relationship, you're not as keen on taking a risk.


What skills should marketers be developing these days?

Broad-based skills. I think a broad perspective is important.

I think I'll start with the idea that I believe some marketers have focused too much on data. And trust me, data is important. I mean my background is in engineering, so I know the value of accurate data. In my role now, I know I need to make sure there is data to report on to the board. I have the metrics, and that's very important. But at the end of the day, marketing is about making connections and encouraging people to buy the product. And it's about emotional decisions. And that is very, very difficult to measure.

So, I think it's important to have the data, but it is not the most critical factor. I think one of the most important skills is to develop storytelling skills. To be a great marketer, you've got to be able to tell a story. You’ve got to be able to answer the why…..why does someone want to buy this product? What's the brand? It doesn't matter if you're in food products like me, or whether you’re in B2B, it’s about understanding your brand and knowing how you can tell that story. And then you need to understand your product and you can start thinking about what you need to do to drive that trial awareness

It can be a whole combination. There are some skills that you can outsource (like PR), but you should have a broad understanding of these. Digital, social, shopper activation, who are the right influencers to be working with….it’s important to have a broad perspective on all of these various aspects of marketing. Particularly if you want to be a leader.

And you know, at the end of the day, marketing is about creating the magic. That's really the job. And by creating that magic, you can stand out from the competition so you’re right there when they make that decision, that emotional decision.


What are you watching/reading right now?

I recently watched a film called Golda. It's about the first Israeli Prime Minister. Great movie to watch! It's about leadership, relationships, making some really difficult decisions and, I'd say, making some mistakes, taking certain risks and the impact of these risks. I think it aligns well with business and marketing, because sometimes you’re going to have to make decisions without having all of the perfect data.

In terms of books, I just read Drive by Daniel Pink. One of the things I'm always interested in is what makes people motivated. Because, you know, I'm in an environment where we have all different ages, different ethnic backgrounds, people that have different thoughts and I always come back to it….what do you need to do when you're working with a diverse team? How do you motivate them? And what's important? And it's different for everyone and trying to understand that a little bit better is important to me.


What brands do you love and why?

Aritzia. I’m just impressed with what they do. Their stock has gone up and down, but from a brand perspective, they've done a great job on consistency with their product, understanding who their consumers are, and we pay a premium for their products, and I think they've done a good job in that. And they also really embrace diversity in in everything they do, and you see it in their advertising, how they promote, and where they promote.

On the other end, and I mean a very different product, is SmartSweets. And I just like their approach to innovation and the risk that the founder took. This is a pretty big risk and high reward, too, for her. The brand is about fun. It's not about being conventional, you know? I've met the founder a few times. I heard her speak a few times, and she is probably not someone that you're going to be putting in front of your marketing class. It’s just a different approach. But I love it because it really embraces that risk I was mentioning before, and doing things a bit differently.


What’s been the hardest thing for marketing teams in recent years?

Prior to joining Konscious, I was at Herschel Supply Company, in charge of the people and talent strategy and it was very, very difficult with Covid. There was a lack of personal connections and what ended up happening with Covid, a lot of people stayed at home. And at Konscious, we are an in-office work environment. We know Zoom's great, but going out and, you know, sharing a lunch, sharing stories, getting that personal connection is important.

I try to encourage our team to have these lunches, and get a chance to even meet with consumers. We need our people to know how to go out and ask good questions and have those one on one conversations. I think it’s critical.

And it’s been hard to find the balance needed to create those personal connections. You have to have balance, and you need to be flexible as well.

We have some members of our team who never come in the office because of personal situations, and I'm fine of that. But at the same time, we might be having a team get together where I want them there. So it's not for work, but I want them in the office for the socialization aspect. They know that it’s not about “Oh, I want to see if works being done,” but it's about making those connections and knowing about what motivates them, and how we're going to get better results together.

It's in person that you get those passionate discussions that help the business push further.

But, you know the reality is, that we have to make sure it works for our employees, and it also works for the business.


What do you think is the biggest myth in marketing these days?

That you can measure everything.

There is a lot you can measure, in particular for digital marketing. Teams can provide plenty of reports. But you cannot measure human behavior, and I know there have been lots of attempts. So, it's a combination – you still need KPIs, you need measurements. You need tools to do that. But you also need to understand the impact on human behavior and what impact it's going to have on selling your product and making sure that you're building that awareness.


What can marketers learn about human behaviour right now?

It all goes to understanding your consumers to inform what channels you want to be in. Who are your consumers…and then listening to them. Learning from them. I mean, you know, sometimes I'll get data from marketers and they’ll say “Yes, we did all this feedback surveys, and we got all this feedback.” And I’ll ask what the report said. And they say “Let me get the report.”

I go “No, no, I don't want to see a report. What are the 3 things you learnt?” And they will try to insist that they need the report.

Well then they didn't learn anything. They should be able to tell me. I don't need to see a hundred-page report. You should know what you learnt. Then you can go into the data, but if you cannot tell your product team or your sales team what you learnt, then that’s a problem. How do you take that information and do something with it?


What question should marketers be asking themselves?

I think it's to take a really close look at what influences the purchase decision. We learnt this at Konscious. We have a great product. It's crafted by chefs. We've got 4 chefs, executive chefs who are food scientists, and we did taste testing, then put it in operation, and we were able to get it into the store. The sales team did a great job – we were in over 50 stores. And it was a huge accomplishment.

And then we said, That's good. But we forgot one very important piece. How do you get it off the shelf? How do you drive awareness, get a trial, and create that buzz?

So that is probably a question that I would say to marketers. How are you going to get a consumer to make that emotional decision to try it?