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“Know Your Users Better Than They Know Themselves” with Val Toothman and Chaya Weiner

Know Your Users Better Than They Know Themselves! One of the fastest ways to become a trusted brand is to create a product that meets a need the user him/herself hasn’t yet fully recognized. That’s the moment they go “Wow! This brand gets me!” At Drinkworks, we found early on that no one who was […]

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Know Your Users Better Than They Know Themselves! One of the fastest ways to become a trusted brand is to create a product that meets a need the user him/herself hasn’t yet fully recognized. That’s the moment they go “Wow! This brand gets me!” At Drinkworks, we found early on that no one who was drinking wine, beer or a simple mixed drink on a Tuesday night at home was thinking or saying, “Having my favorite bar cocktail at the touch of a button would really take this night to the next level.” However, by talking to them about their lives and watching their behavior, we realized it wasn’t because it wasn’t true. It was because they couldn’t imagine a world in which having a freshly-made, bar-quality version of their favorite drink at the touch of a button was possible. Watching someone’s face light up when they find out our Home Bar System does make that possible is absolutely priceless!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Val Toothman. As Executive Vice President, Brand & Beverage Marketing of Drinkworks, Val supervises national brand strategy, design, marketing, and innovation to support the company’s growth and mission to change the way consumers enjoy alcohol. Combined with her passion, visionary approach and 14 years of experience across product development, engineering and brand marketing roles, Val leads a diverse portfolio of work to support the brand’s direction, strategy and commitment to consumers. Prior to Drinkworks, Val held various leadership roles at Anheuser-Busch, most recently as VP, U.S. Marketing Innovation where she oversaw product development, packaging innovation and marketing strategy. She and her team were responsible for the creation and national rollout of Bud Light Lime, Lime-a-Rita, Budweiser 1933 Repeal Reserve and recent line extensions of the Michelob ULTRA, Budweiser and Bud Light franchises. Val joined Anheuser-Busch in 2007, and worked as a brand manager for the High End and Longtail Libations businesses from 2007 to 2009. She worked within the Marketing Innovation department from 2008–2018, quickly advancing to the VP Innovation role in 2015. During her tenure in Innovation she played an integral role in launching more than 50 products that have delivered over five billion dollars of revenue. Before joining Anheuser-Busch, Val built an eclectic career across a broad range of experiences as both a medical device design engineer and by teaching and coaching within the Department of Defense Dependent School System. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis — Olin Business School.


Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

There are two main ‘ah-ha’ moments that stand out through my career. I was a medical device design engineer up until 2006, I loved the aspects of designing, building and hearing real-time customer feedback, but two years into my career I realized I wouldn’t be a top engineer, as this required rigorous additional schooling. This led me to realize that achieving more business acumen would help me to make more of an impact on the universe. I ultimately went back for my MBA, where in my first marketing class I had my first big lightbulb moment: marketing isn’t just fluffy TV ads, it’s strategy performed in a creative setting.

My second lightbulb came during my origins of working at Anheuser-Busch, when their team came on campus to WashU and I realized — not only could I do marketing, I could do it in the alcohol and beer industry, which made it all the more exciting.

These two shifts in outlook lead me to a career that previously was never on my radar, and transformed my life.

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?

My engineering background led me towards the idea that there is an equation and answer for everything, and that it all has to do with numbers. When I was an intern at Anheuser-Busch, I was assigned a pricing strategy for a newly acquired brand, and as I talked to people they tried to explain to me that there is no exact model for a strategy like this.

I ended up creating an enormous, unmanageable, excel spreadsheet that required the work of 8 interns to create this model that we thought would transform industry. It ended up being a massive failure, however, I did learn something I still practice today: first, the right tool for the right job is extremely important — this holds true for marketing and engineering. Without the right tools, all the analysis in the world isn’t going to help.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Two things:

  1. Drinkworks is a truly mission-based company. We have a slightly non-traditional mission of bringing people together and as we like to say, “elevating the everyday.” We make this our mission through every consumer aspect — from purchase of our products, to creation, to enjoyment.
  2. The unique aspect of our business — we are using an agile consumer centric approach in CPG setting, which is very unusual. We are essentially writing a book through action as we go. With traditional ways of working, it was tough to keep this top of mind and move with speed toward letting feedback of consumers shape what we were doing. Our founder, Nathaniel Davis, back in 2018 changed our companies entire process to agile and scribe — from sales to marketing and finance. With this approach, we are able to to hyper-focus on consumers being the cornerstone on efforts across teams, consistently delivering small increments of value that can be released into the world to gain consumer feedback. This agile approach comes as a surprise to many, especially in the context that we adopted this method with our Anheuser-Busch and Keurig roots.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always looking for partners to add incremental value to our system.

Beyond that, we are tapping into AI-ML (machine learning) platform that connects customers to even more at home experiences custom to them. We are working with household-level user data that allows us to tie consumer practices into our marketing and sales database. This allows us to create truly personalized marketing programs and system adjustments like auto drink refills and surprise and delight programs to get people excited about the occasions they are drinking in.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

The product is the ‘what’ and brand is the ‘why’. A product is the physical attribute or features whereas a brand is the thing that as marketers, we are appealing to system 1 thinking — looking for an automatic, unconscious ‘feel’ people have about something.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Simon Sinek, the grandfather of the idea that it all starts with ‘why’ would have said this best. As long as the product you are delivering serves a purpose in the person’s life (provides functional value), then at the end of the day people are going to buy into the ‘why’ in a market where there are other options.

There is social and emotional value delivered by a brand. You need to make sure people know what you represent and the social and emotional value you bring to the table. People choose a brand within a product category that represents a brand ‘person’ they’d want to associate with, bring into their home and engage in conversation with. Beyond a product, you need to understand who a brand is as a person. Conversation and experience is in the forefront of this understanding.

Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or provide an example for each.

  1. Know Your Users Better Than They Know Themselves! One of the fastest ways to become a trusted brand is to create a product that meets a need the user him/herself hasn’t yet fully recognized. That’s the moment they go “Wow! This brand gets me!” At Drinkworks, we found early on that no one who was drinking wine, beer or a simple mixed drink on a Tuesday night at home was thinking or saying, “Having my favorite bar cocktail at the touch of a button would really take this night to the next level.” However, by talking to them about their lives and watching their behavior, we realized it wasn’t because it wasn’t true. It was because they couldn’t imagine a world in which having a freshly-made, bar-quality version of their favorite drink at the touch of a button was possible. Watching someone’s face light up when they find out our Home Bar System does make that possible is absolutely priceless!
  2. Add Real Value to A User’s Life! As you think about where you spend your money, always ask, “What will maximize the value — functional, emotional and/or social — I can add to the greatest number of my current and potential users?” As marketers there are lots of tactics we can undertake that look great on PowerPoint presentations and in recap videos, but at the end of the day if we haven’t added any real value to the world, our ability to extract it back out in a virtuous cycle will be low. At Drinkworks, a tough early decision was keeping our call center open more than the standard 8 hour workday and have a team waiting at the ready to do on-site troubleshooting in the home if needed. It was going to be expensive and a definite trade-off of resources to be as available as possible when our system owners needed us, but still today, I believe it was the best possible use of our resources…especially in the early days of our existence when the technology and experience are yet to be battle-tested in the real world!
  3. Be a Friend They Want to Invite In. In my experience, people trust and believe in brands the same way they trust and believe in people. If you think of your brand as a person who needs to earn the right to be invited into their home, be a friend worth following on social media, and ultimately be worthy of sharing with those they love most, it pretty quickly becomes clear what tone of voice, visual identity, messages, and tactics will be most trustworthy & believable. At Drinkworks we know that our users are gracious hosts who feel most rewarded in life by tending to the needs of those around them. So for us, it’s a no-brainer to spend marketing budget on programs like a recent partnership with Lyft where we offered system owners a code that allowed them to help provide a safe ride home for their guests. “Getting” them helps us continue to be invited into their lives and into their conversations with others.
  4. Aim to Deliver Remarkable in All You Do! If you want people to trust and believe in your brand, you need to define what “remarkable” means in each interaction point on the customer journey and then focus resources in a way that allows you to deliver that. Early on at Drinkworks we made the choice to absorb the cost and complexity of making our Drinkmaker Bluetooth-enabled. What that allows, though, is that for those who opt in to data sharing, we have the benefit of being able to do things like alert them when the water is cooled to just the right temperature, being able to better diagnose what’s going on in the rare case that they have any issues with the machine, and in the future maybe even help them to track and replenish their favorite cocktails automatically. This is ground-breaking stuff in the CPG world but was all done in service of delivering a truly remarkable total experience to our system owners.
  5. Be Consistent! To truly earn the trust of your users, every time they interact with you, you MUST consistently deliver at or above their expectations. In order to deliver that at Drinkworks, we have implemented an Agile/scrum way of working across the total organization (including our agency partners). Most employees at Drinkworks come from big companies with a standard way of working. However, we quickly found that for us to be able to truly seek out, react to and adjust priorities around user feedback on an on-going basis, we had to work differently. Applying Agile to the Marketing arena is nearly unprecedented — so we’re writing the proverbial “book” on it as we go. However, we believe the pain is worth the gain, and it is one of our most important tools in focusing everyone’s efforts on using real-time user feedback to consistently improve the user experience across every touchpoint of the customer journey.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Taco Bell. They have a strong, unwavering brand positioning and brand voice. The brand is irreverent and youthful, while their marketing campaigns and product innovation do a great job of reflecting a true, cohesive consumer-centric mindset — dorito taco to midnight campaign. They’ve gone out and defined which occasions are ‘Taco Bell Occasions’, which as marketers, is something we always want to do.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

They are different. You can measure the success of a branding campaign on either two ends of the consumer journey:

1. During discovery and acquisition. This is an important moment in customer acquisitions before sales is even involved.

2. On the back end of a consumer experience when the focus shifts to advocacy and brand building. When people understand what you are about, you have the opportunity to respond to reactive association with new customers which is exactly what you want.

There is also a crucial time in between where we are looking to capture awareness, and looking at degrees of engagement — this includes the time spent on our site, viewing patterns, and conversations taking place on social.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media leads to broader awareness. The targeted nature of your awareness campaign differs between paid and organic approaches.

Paid is a good way to create targeted awareness about people who have trackable affinities for what we are bringing to the world.

Organic social is useful when looking at the degree of engagement, and trying to make sure your brand message is clear, and share-worthy.

To us, social is the place where we engage in conversation and we hope that people who love us also want to engage with us and draw more people in to conversations being had.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

For me, taking a job in an industry you love is a solution to burnout, as it never truly feels like work — I am playing out my passion everyday.

Additionally, I advise business leaders to hire people who are or have the potential to be better than themselves. As they realize their own potential and become more empowered to delegate and take on ownership, this will preserve mindspace for you to focus on bigger strategies while knowing business is well taken care of by your team.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

In reference to my current role, CSR is a huge cornerstone of our efforts. Its fulfilling to be a part of a company who stands for true inclusion in our own HR, and encourages conversations worth having in the world over a cocktail or a beer.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Only by adding value to the world do you earn the right to extract it back out”. This quote is really grounded in the ‘Jobs to Be Done theory’ of Clay Christianson & Bob Moesta, which speaks to how a great innovation adds functional, social and emotional value to users and therefore people are willing to pay for it time and time again, but it applies in a more ethereal sense as well.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d have two dinner guests. First, Ed Catmul of Pixar — I loved his book Creativity Inc., and his work as an innovator is just astounding. Second, Clay Christenson — he has a deep innovation background and is the father of many modern innovation theories.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow Drinkworks on social through the following handles:

Twitter: @drinkworks

Facebook: DrinkworksUS

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/drinkworks/

Instagram: @drinkworks

Thank you for all of these great insights!

— –

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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