As a part of our series about “Marketing Strategies From The Top” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hillary Reeves. Hillary is VP of Marketing at Chicory, the NYC-based grocery tech company that pioneered shoppable recipes and now creates the digital ecommerce and media solutions to turn content into commerce. Hillary graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor’s in English and joined Chicory in 2015 as the company’s fourth employee. Today, Hillary leads a team of brand strategists to drive demand for Chicory’s ad tech and ecommerce products among grocery and CPG clients. Hillary is a proven thought leader in the grocery, retail, ecommerce, advertising and marketing industries and is passionate about sharing her insights with fellow industry professionals.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, or readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up I was a really serious singer, but I absolutely hated being in the spotlight. When it was time to go to college, I passed on pursuing the performance route, which left me at a bit of a loss since I had been training in classical vocal performance since I was really young. But I was at school in New York City, so I thought working behind the scenes in the arts would be a cool option that wasn’t totally foreign. That’s how I got started in marketing — I interned in the marketing department of the Met Opera and for a few Broadway shows. Simultaneously, I was becoming a bit of a foodie, so I also interned at a few magazines in the test kitchens. I graduated and worked in the arts for a few years, keeping up a freelance career where I developed recipes on the side for sites like Food52 and my own blog. Eventually, I decided to switch industries, so I could be in the food space, plus I wanted to try out a more fast-paced startup environment. That’s how I landed at Chicory, where I started as a Marketing Manager five years ago. Today, I lead the team as VP of Marketing.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh god; there are so, so many. This one comes to mind, though: in my first job out of college, I was working on a theatrical marketing company’s social media and email marketing. Mind you, this was at the time when no one really knew how to measure the effect of social and it was a bit of a free for all. The company where I worked was hired to help promote the Footloose movie remake and since I knew how to use Twitter and film YouTube videos on my iPhone, they sent me to attend the press junket in Beverly Hills. (Like, WHAT!?) I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I got a free stay overnight at the Ritz Carlton where I lounged around in a fancy robe and ordered room service like I was Kevin McAllister.
The next day, I got to interview Dennis Quaid, Julianna Hough and Miles Teller on camera. That said, watching the footage back, I was in the crappiest store makeup that did not look good on camera with this dorky cardigan that I buttoned up incorrectly. I remember Julianne Hough telling me I looked nervous and was “so cute” and then I googled her afterwards and realized we are the same age. Meanwhile, she was glamorous with perfect hair. Mortifying. Gosh, I hope all evidence of that is destroyed.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I think anyone who really excels in their career always feels like there is more to learn, or like success is still around the corner. But I did feel a palpable change inside myself about a year ago. There was a significant change when my team went from three to four. Something about adding that additional person made me feel more like a leader. Intimate teams are amazing, but there’s still a bit of an “all hands on deck” mentality. When my team started to specialize and really own aspects of the business, coming up with their own objectives and projects, I had to shift to thinking three to six months ahead rather than two to four weeks. I spoke a lot with my business coach at the time who told me this is a common thing, making “the jump,” and it’s really hard to do. You’re thrust back into a lot of self doubt because you’ve gone from training your team to do something you’ve mastered to developing strategy in completely uncharted waters. I think the best thing you can do at this moment is trust your instincts. “Strategies” are really just theories that you’re developing from a place of experience and research. There’s a lot of risk involved, but when they pan out, you win big.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Chicory is so special, particularly in our culture. We’re a really person-led organization, so I think our clients and employees alike have that falling in love feeling when they begin working with us. And as someone who’s way more of a “head” person than a “heart” person, I value Chicory for the way it helped me be a more emotionally intelligent colleague. We do something every Friday called “Friday Wins.” It’s a team-wide meeting where we shout each other out for successes or contributions that may have flown under the radar. It’s so valuable to recognize every person — whether they’ve closed a huge deal, or just complimented my outfit and made my day a little brighter — and reflect on the fact that a business is really just a collection of people working hard toward a collective goal.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on tons on the product, partnerships and operational sides of the business. But I think my proudest moment recently was our launch on a few major publisher sites like Kitchn, Delish, Bon Appetit and Good Housekeeping (where I once interned! Full circle!), which all happened late last year. Adding to our network of sites gives us way more insight into how our product could be optimized for a simpler shopping experience. I think partnering with these incredible publishers will also give us the opportunity to learn about how we can build out features we’ve never considered before.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
The thing about burnout is you often don’t know you’re burnt out until it’s too late. Suddenly, you’re crashing onto your couch, eating a tub of ice cream and crying at Nissan Altima commercials. (Just me?) So it’s not even about listening to yourself — ambitious people have trained themselves to work through discomfort or feeling tired. Instead, take steps to ensure that you’re meeting your needs on a daily basis. Don’t save it for one vacation or holiday — that kind of time off is often not restful (aka running around seeing family during or touring all of the sites on your visit to Paris). Figure out what helps you rest. For me, that means slowing down in the morning so I can have an hour to sip my coffee, taking a luxurious bath a few times a week, and making time for my yoga classes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think the first people that come to mind are the teammates that I’ve had at Chicory since I started. Our co-founders and one of our account managers have seen the company through the past five years along with me and we’ve grown so much together. All of us have had so many jobs throughout our time working together, so it’s really fun to reflect on the days when we were building early versions of our products or even planning our first Christmas party as a company. It makes it that much more satisfying when, today, I can look around at our two-floor office filled with thirty people and remember the days when it was the four of us working out of someone’s apartment.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There are hundreds of memorable marketing campaigns that have become part of the lexicon of our culture. What is your favorite marketing or branding campaign from history? Can you explain why you like that so much?
My favorite marketing is the marketing that is kind of weird and risky. I’m also admittedly nostalgic for and partial to TV commercials. It’s just such a great way to tell a cool story in an impactful way.
I was obsessed with this Skittles commercial for the longest time that had an unhinged rabbit screeching operatic arias. Like, what does this have to do with tasting the rainbow? I can’t tell you, but I think about it all the time.
Or, remember when Gossip Girl did that whole “I see you, haters” thing by including quotes from op-eds that called the show inappropriate on ads? They took a stance and basically turned watching their show into a character statement. Brilliant.
I think this is why Geico’s commercials are so great, too. They’re irreverent and weird and arguably irrelevant to the brand, but counterintuitively makes their brand stronger. Geico’s caveman campaigns showed that the brand doesn’t take itself super seriously and is willing to have fun. So, people who think of themselves that way want to work with them.
If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Please share some stories or examples of your ideas.
I mean, the blueprint is simple in theory:
- Understand who you want to reach
- Figure out what they care about
- Figure out where they hear about things
- Develop messaging about how your brand also cares about what they care about
- Distribute said message in the places where they hear about things
It’s doing this in practice that has become more and more complicated over time. There’s no longer one soap that you can advertise on to reach all of America. So, a blueprint for the 21st century might look more like:
- Stand for something. Be self aware about it, but also authentic. Wait, but not overly earnest; that’s not cool.
- Develop visuals that can be inserted seamlessly into Instagram.
- Now, spread your message consistently across all of your channels, but not in a performative way. And try to get people to buy what you’re selling, but in a way that’s extremely convenient for them.
- Find spokespeople to help you spread your story, but ideally ones that genuinely believe and love your brand so you don’t look thirsty.
- Repeat. But only if you actually have an incredible product or else get ready to be torn apart online.
Some brands that are doing this extremely well right now, I think, include Dirty Lemon, Glossier, Billie Eilish and everything Rihanna does with Fenty.
Companies like Google and Facebook have totally disrupted how companies market over the past 15 years. At the same time, consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going?
We’re really focused on contextual commerce at Chicory. CCPA and data regulation are major disruptors and Google announced that they’ll be phasing out third party cookies. So, if behavioral data becomes further regulated, we’ll have to move away from this style of targeting as an industry. That’s where contextual targeting (not cool for, maybe, fifteen years) becomes the darling of advertisers. We’ll move away from over-personification of our buyers and will need to re-think channels. I think this will also contribute to publishers taking back a lot of power and monetizing their audience and brand rather than the display ad space in their content. For Chicory, we think about context in terms of food and CPG. We use recipes to advertise, so rather than Perdue chicken, for example, targeting people who some third-party data provider says have purchased Perdue chicken before, instead they can target shoppers looking at recipes containing “chicken” in the list of ingredients. Recipes, as we all know, are often the start of a shopping list or meal plan, so that context becomes a really impactful moment and the start of their commerce journey.
Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t do meaningless networking. I went to so many “networking” events early in my career but they don’t have nearly the impact as going out for drinks with a great former boss or college classmate.
- Stay in touch with people. It surprised me, all of the paths that people took after college or old jobs. I kicked myself so many times for not staying in touch with someone who started an awesome travel blog or career in journalism. It always feels awkward to reach out after people find success, so just be friends with everyone!
- Read job descriptions (heck, even take interviews). Some of the best marketing learnings I’ve received is from seeing how other companies structure their teams and name certain positions. Yes, it is probably not a good idea to look at job descriptions at work, but spend some time reading role designs after hours, particularly at companies where you’d like to work one day. It helps to show the skills you should be honing.
- Don’t over-specialize. Marketing, these days, has what feels like hundreds of specializations. Resist becoming too pigeon-holed, particularly since certain marketing trends go out of style so quickly. Know your stuff, but there’s value in remaining somewhat of a generalist.
- Seek out management training. Most people wind up on a management track at some point, and very, very few are trained for that. For the lucky ones, management skills come naturally. For the rest of us, learning to manage people is really, really hard. Find a coach or try to get management training within your company prior to making that jump.
Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers?
Honestly, become really good at Google Analytics and Excel. Learning to create Excel dashboards will change your life, particularly when you’re not ready to invest in data visualization tools like Tableau or another business intelligence software.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skils?
Personally, I stay most in-tune with grocery and CPG trends through industry newsletters like WBR Insights, GroceryDive and FoodTech Connect. For broader marketing trends, I like AdWeek, MarketingDive and The Drum. That said, some of the best stuff finds me on LinkedIn. Follow marketers you admire and they’ll engage with posts that you’ll, in turn, see in your homepage timeline. I’m also a total podcast junkie, but these tend to help me think in more macro- ways. I love Hidden Brain, Startup, You Must Remember This (yes, early Hollywood history weirdly contains some great branding lessons), Radiolab and Who? Weekly.
Who is your hero? Can you explain or share a story about why that person resonates with you?
I’m honestly not sure I have one. My personality doesn’t idolize as much as it obsesses. Today, I’m feeling inspired by Bong Joon Ho, the Real Housewives of New York trailer, my best friend who just had a momentous birthday, and this podcast about viral TikTok songs.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.