All your grape needs in one placeThe ultimate back-to-school treat!

Marketing an Underdog

Marketing an Underdog

Tristan Simpson insists she’s an underdog. 

On a particularly warm winter morning, I sit down to hear Tristan’s story. She starts with her family—your typical 13-sibling bunch—then jumps to her early days in the industry—beginning at the retail level and working her way backwards to the field—before culminating with where she is now. Through it all, Tristan insists, “I am a feisty underdog who has always liked to be unique and memorable.”

If I were chatting with the Tristan Simpson from 25 years ago, fresh out of college and hungry for experience, who first sent a creative, though risky, cover letter and résumé to Smart & Final, then maybe I would be able to envision Tristan as a scrappy up-and-comer with something still to prove.

“I’ve built a career around helping others and making brands memorable.”

Tristan Simpson,
Founder, tristanmichele™

But, on this winter morning, all I can see is the strong top-dog with industry acclaim. To spot Tristan Simpson on a trade show floor or at an industry event today is akin to witnessing an all-star take to the field at the beginning of a sporting event. She’s a marketing legend, an industry leader who has long since proven her prowess, and yet she still holds tight to the underdog identity.

“When I first started in the industry at 24 years old, I was one of a few female marketers in a predominantly male business. Fast forward to now, and yes, I’ve earned a seat at the table with large companies, but I’ve never lost my scrappiness,” Tristan shares with me. “I’ve built a career around helping others and making brands memorable. As I continue to tread a new path in my career as a private consultant, that underdog spirit continues to drive me.”

Beyond the legacy she has built as a marketer for leading California agribusinesses like Sun Pacific, Sunkist Growers’ Paramount Farms brand, Frieda’s Specialty Produce, and Ready Pac Foods, Tristan points to a few triumphs in her personal life that showcase her fighter identity. At the age of 38, she ran her first marathon. At the age of 46, she went back to get her MBA and graduated from the University of Southern California.

“I believe that it’s never too late to do what you want to do and accomplish what you want to accomplish,” Tristan says. “I ran my first—and last—marathon and returned to school because I wanted to challenge myself. If you think too long about something, you talk yourself out of it, and I didn’t want to talk myself out of challenging myself—both as a human being and as a professional.”

Tristan then pivots to her professional life, an area that she has been equally as devoted to enriching. Specifically, Tristan references the shift in her life’s purpose: Rather than chasing after a paycheck, she has rooted herself in pursuing her passion for being of service to others in the produce industry.

“I left Ready Pac Foods in 2017 because I felt like I had won the Super Bowl by assembling the best team and creating amazing innovations. After the company sold, I just wasn’t ready to get back on the field,” Tristan tells me. “I wanted to be a free agent, so to speak, but I didn’t want to go on the field in the same way that I was before. What I really wanted was to go out on my own. Once I left, quite a few folks started coming to me for help with their marketing strategies because I had something interesting to give.”

“I believe that it’s never too late to do what you want to do and accomplish what you want to accomplish.”

There are no sidelines when it comes to produce; you’re either in the game or you’re not. For Tristan, however, being in the game doesn’t always mean being on the field. In fact, playing the game of produce is unlike any typical ball-in-net competition. Instead, produce requires a unique skillset to outmaneuver consumer habits and implement plays that change shopping behaviors. Over the course of her career, Tristan has defined this skillset and, as a result, earned more Ws than Ls on her scorecard for her work in the fresh, natural, and organic consumer packaged goods sector.

Now, with her marketing consultancy firm, tristanmichele, which she opened in 2017 to specialize in marketing, innovation, product development, public relations, communications, and sales and business development, Tristan is letting her fighter spirit power her forward. She is drafting a new produce game plan to keep those Ws coming for fruit and vegetable purveyors up and down the supply chain.

“The produce business is very family-oriented, and so many emotions are intertwined in the running of operations. I think that’s one of the reasons why I liked the food industry—my own family is a big part of my story and life, so I felt at home in my new produce family,” Tristan explains.

Like I mentioned earlier, Tristan grew up as one of 13 children—10 of whom were adopted—which has not only given her a unique perspective but has also fostered her scrapper spirit in the best possible way.

“I think we were the Kardashians in a pre-Kardashian era. My mom would have been the ‘momager’ for sure,” Tristan jokes.

Like Tristan herself, Tristan’s mother, Margot, has never been “ordinary.” In addition to co-parenting her 13 children with Allen, her husband of 53 years, Margot was a small business owner, held a Ph.D. in Education, and worked as a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Tristan notes that both of her parents, but her mom especially, set an example for her and her siblings and encouraged them to pursue their passions in life.

“There were very few women in produce, let alone female marketers, when I first started. Fortunately, I grew up with my mom as an example. It also didn’t hurt that I have seven brothers who taught me how to navigate people long before I entered the industry. In fact, I think I received the best training grounds in my own family,” Tristan reflects. “Being one of 13 is a numbers game, too, and knowing when to speak up and say something has helped fuel my feisty spirit.”

“There were very few women in the produce industry, let alone female marketers, when I first started. Fortunately, I grew up with my mom as an example.”

Because her family is so integral to who she is, Tristan pays homage to them within her marketing business by adding to their legacies of passion. In some ways, she does this simply by working to build tristanmichele into an industry marketing powerhouse. In others, it’s through the choices she’s made to market herself.

“While the logo I’ve created for tristanmicheleTM looks like me, it’s actually based off of my mom’s signature. She has since passed away from breast cancer, but the drawing of a curly-haired girl she used as her signature lives on,” Tristan says. “When it came time to brand myself, my siblings and I just knew I had to use the drawing. It adds meaning to my business, and it’s memorable—there isn’t another like it in the industry.”

There really isn’t—something many have said and will continue to say about Tristan and her marketing acumen as she throws the weight of her knowledge behind her latest passion project.

“What I am striving to do with tristanmichele is keep my finger on the pulse of what people want and deliver something to them that is really amazing. Most people don’t know what marketing is: marketing is getting people to buy what they didn’t know they needed. We’re human and we gravitate toward what we know and it’s hard to break that. But that’s what I am working to do and help companies to do as well,” Tristan concludes.

At the end of our conversation, I’m still uncertain if she is a true underdog. Whether she’s on the produce pitch or calling plays from the sidelines, Tristan Simpson is an industry marketing competitor with the odds (read: skills) stacked in her favor. But what makes her a winner is not that she has won, but that she doggedly continues to play the game—for the betterment of herself and those she serves. 

Whether that’s the characteristic of an underdog, or maybe just a true leader, I can’t say. What I will say is that it makes Tristan Simpson a player to keep watching.