“You can never underestimate the power of brand and consumer loyalty when you create an emotional connection with your fans,” Director of Marketing for Bard Valley Date Growers, Erin Hanagan-Muths, explains to me as she reflects on her 26 years of experience creating powerful product branding campaigns. “Ultimately, I have learned that consumers are drawn towards brands that not only deliver exceptional product experiences, but also offer opportunities to connect on a deeper emotional level.”
For the woman whose career includes working on high-profile campaigns for companies like Neutrogena and The Walt Disney Company, creating connections with consumers is something that comes naturally to Erin. Whether it’s building trust and authenticity around beauty and skin care products, or delivering an integrated brand experience in the entertainment industry, Erin has seen firsthand the power of successful consumer brands.
So how can we bring world-class branding power into the produce aisle? If anyone is up to such a challenge, it’s Erin Hanagan-Muths.
“I think what a lot of people in our industry haven’t yet realized is the power of a brand in the eyes of a consumer. Consumers are savvy—while we put our products in categories like center store, produce and deli and the like, shoppers don’t make purchasing decisions along these lines,” Erin tells me. “We have a tremendous opportunity in the produce industry to break out of our traditional category norms and market our products like some of the world’s best consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands.”
Amid a year filled with four integrated consumer and trade campaigns that span print, digital, mobile, and social media channels, strong sales have resulted in Natural Delights rising as a top Medjool Date brand. So how did Erin’s story unfold as she gained the skills it would take to implement such strong national campaigns? From a classroom, to skin care, to entertainment, and, finally, to the world of produce, Erin’s tale is much different than those born-and-raised farmers whose passion was born on a tractor.
“I know I don’t have what you might call the traditional produce marketer’s story. My father was a teacher, so my college training was focused on a career in education. Looking back on it, I learned that if you can make math interesting to a room full of unruly seventh graders, a boardroom is suddenly no problem,” she laughs as we talk about her roots. “An important thing you have to learn as an educator is getting straight to the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect of marketing. You have to see your product from a consumer’s perspective, and I do that all the time for the Natural Delights brand at Bard Valley Date Growers.”
Erin’s teaching career was cut short by an opportunity to step into the corporate world as an Assistant Marketer for one of the largest skincare brands in the country, the Neutrogena division of Johnson & Johnson. Erin was soon promoted to Director of Training. Finding herself adept at evaluating trends within the marketplace, she used her time at the world-renowned pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods multinational to hone her marketing skills—skills she says were integral in the development of her methodology for brand management and new product development at Bard Valley Date Growers.
“About six years into my career at Neutrogena, the company decided to take on cosmetics for the first time. Before then, our brand had only been focused on a dermatologist-approved line of skin-care products. Imagine trying to assuage the fears of a network of dermatologists who believe that cosmetics are actually a detriment to skin health,” Erin reminisces about one of her biggest early challenges. “I was met with a lot of uncertainty when I told our team that getting the dermatologists on board was critical to the product's success. But I quickly learned that you can't make decisions about your product without vetting it with both your customers and your stakeholders. Alienating your base is the worst thing you can do as a marketer.”
Under the supervision of one of her biggest early mentors, former Neutrogena VP of Marketing Lori Bush, Erin ended up bringing in dermatologists as endorsers of the product by creating stakeholder dialogue—essentially having a major hand in creating the Neutrogena line of cosmetics that is still wildly successful today. And if that wasn’t already an impressive enough resume, let's talk Erin's years with the branding masters at The Walt Disney Company.
Erin’s five-year tenure with one of the largest media and entertainment companies in the world gave her the opportunity to work in corporate product licensing and the brand partnerships division. Not only did she develop programs to expand the reach of the Disney brand, she worked to create powerful synergies through partnerships with other mega brands like Kellogg's and Lego.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in the produce industry to break out of our traditional category norms and market our products like some of the world’s best consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands.”
- Erin Hanagan-Muths
“One of the most important things I learned at Disney was the power of creating memories and emotional connections for people and the impact this has on brand trust and loyalty,” Erin reflects. “Brands like Disney helped me understand that a brand’s work is never done. There is always opportunity to improve and work every single day to delight your customer.”
At this point you’re probably still wondering how someone with such strong experience in corporate marketing found themselves at a family-owned cooperative of date growers in Yuma, Arizona, but to Erin, the job was just a natural progression in the career she had wanted to build for herself. After an opportunity presented itself to her and her husband to move to Yuma, Erin landed an interview that would not only reaffirm her love of marketing, but also reintroduce her to a love she had as a child—Medjool dates.
"My interview with Bard Valley was one of the most interesting I'd had in my life. Here I was, coming from a large corporate marketing background, and I found myself in a pickup truck driving around the most beautiful Medjool date groves I could imagine,” Erin remembers, noting how amazed she was that these 8,000 acres of Medjool date groves came from just six mother trees. “I was instantly brought back to my grandma’s kitchen where she baked dates into her cookies, and right away I thought, ‘This is where I need to be, I’m home.’”
After learning about Erin's impressive marketing experience, Grower-Owner and Founding Member of Bard Valley Date Growers Association, David Nelson, asked her, “It's obvious you fit everything we're looking for in a Marketing Director, but do you think you can love this brand?” It was then that Erin says she was sure this was the natural next step for her. She knew that you have to love what you do and be able to love the brand you are managing. Just like a young child’s (or yes, even us adult fans) love for the World of Disney, these emotional connections tie everything together.
“Every single person I had met that day had such passion and belief in what they were doing. It makes the job so much more satisfying,” Erin tells me about her move to Bard Valley. "I must tell you, moving from big corporations to an organization that is more connected to the land was really a breath of fresh air. Everyone here is deeply involved in every aspect of the business and we are all connected with a shared love for the brand and desire to deliver a product experience that our customers can connect with.”
So, what are some of these marketing initiatives that Erin has on the books for the Natural Delights brand in 2016? As mentioned earlier, Erin has not one, but four consumer campaigns running this calendar year. All four campaigns will run nationally, focus on different lifestyle themes, and utilize one of the tried-and-true tactics employed by successful CPG brands—emotional connectivity.
Starting with “Your Date With Fitness,” Natural Delights kicked off the year with a campaign designed to drive retail sales among health-minded shoppers. The campaign was supported with a full suite of retail partnership opportunities designed to increase store level performance and connect with consumers.
"...a brand’s work is never done. There is always opportunity to improve and work every single day to delight your customer.”
“We believe in supporting our retail partners with all the tools they need to carry our brand values and experiences to the end consumer. While it’s been a challenge to get a few retailers out of the old produce commodity paradigm, our more progressive and performance oriented partners have seen real success by working with us to integrate our programs into their platform,” Erin explains. “It’s just like my days at Disney where we are leveraging the power of two great brands to the betterment of both.”
Next up was a campaign called “Let the Good Times Roll” that was positioned to drive awareness for a series of new Medjool Date Roll flavor offerings to healthy snackers. This was followed up with a consumer favorite called “My First Date” which rewards the creation of user-generated video content.
“My First Date is one of our favorite promotions. Not only because we love seeing all of the fun content our consumers create but it’s what it does for our brand,” Erin tells me. “According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. We have found that this type of word-of-mouth promotion not only helps increase consumption, but also new trial from shoppers who have never enjoyed Medjool Dates before.”
Finally, 2016 will end with the "Naughty or Nice" campaign—a recipe promotion with a theme of holiday entertaining.
With more plantings and a larger crop output projected in the coming years, Erin is going to have her hands full continuing to push the growing demand for Medjool dates. She is relying on her big brand experience to develop new markets and drive consumer demand. She has her eyes set on not only connecting the brand to healthy lifestyles and active people, but also tapping into the growing purchasing power of the millennial shopper.
“Millennials are spending more time in the produce aisle than other segments, and are looking for fruits, vegetables, and healthy foods with minimal processing. They’re looking for products that fit into their busy lives and are gravitating towards healthy and fresh snack items like Medjool dates,” Erin tells me. “Millennial shoppers are ultra-connected and can spot a gimmick a mile away, so it is important that we communicate with them with authenticity and transparency.”
Erin’s enthusiasm about the company’s new website, deploying in Q4, was also apparent. The website will highlight consumer-oriented lifestyle video content, bright new recipes, and inspiring photography to help Natural Delights connect with a youthful, health-minded consumer, while allowing a stronger influence in driving demand at retail.
“As a brand we need to drive emotional connections with our target audiences,” Erin shares. “To do this we can’t just stay static and follow the status quo of the produce industry. With the knowledge I have gained working at some of the biggest brands in the world, I’ll keep pushing forward and thinking of new ways we can delight, inspire, and deliver an exceptional product experience with our consumers.”
For some reason, I don’t see this as being too much of a problem for someone with Erin’s enthusiasm, experience, and drive.