Pursuit: on marshmallows, marketing, and conclusions first

 Divya Pahwa writes about young-lady career advice in the monthly series Pursuit, here on the McGill Caps Blog.

This is my last post with McGill Caps! Today, you’ll read about three really different things: (1) Marshmallows: I got to interview the founder of a quirky marshmallow company in California. She is an incredibly warm lady. I really like the way she goes about doing “business.” (2) Marketing: Some thoughts on marketing and arts education. (3) Conclusions First: an interesting way for (gals) to get their point across quicker and with more weight. (If you’ve enjoyed hearing my thoughts I will be blogging here: http://divyapahwa.com/)

On Marshmallows:

I guess there has to be some backstory about these marshmallows. Last year I had the distinct pleasure to write my honours paper with Professor Michael Smith. I wrote about new product development and looked at the consumer packaged goods industry. I was trying to look at it from both a marketing and sociological lens, to see what’s going on and what determines success.  Basically for four months I was just thrilled whenever I saw a new consumer packaged item. I happened along one brand in particular in a bookstore in Saskatoon. There turns out to be a lot of other life lessons in the story of these marshmallows, I wanted to share : ) Now officially on to marshmallows:

Within the confectionery industry marshmallows are seeing a more refined comeback. One particular company that I came across recently is Plush Puffs – a Southern California based company dedicated to the art and craft of gourmet marshmallows. It’s a small company and they’ve clearly been doing something right since, I’ve been seeing their product in the most random places. In my opinion their product is incredibly innovative – they’ve taken a classic and have added a sophisticated modern spin.

Ann Hickey, Plush Puff’s president, kindly took the time to answer some of my questions. She’s your woman on new product problem solving – from figuring out details with distributors, re-shuffling orders, and keeping her customers happy.

Hi Ann!

Big Idea: People Love Your Product

Ann says her and her team realized early on that marshmallows could get serious.  They started off selling Plush Puffs at craft shows and local coffee shops. She says, “At our fist high traffic craft fair, we thought we really needed to get this concept of a toasted marshmallow across to our customers. So we got a couple of kitchen torches and started skewering marshmallows toasting them for samples. Next thing we know we have a line of 30 people deep to get a sample and buy product.” Ann saw the crowd, took a break, and when she came back the crowd was still there – it was then she realized they were on to something.

Team Dynamics: Patience and Balance

Ann, health educator turn chef, started on Plush Puff’s with a friend from culinary school.  She credits her friend for teaching her the art of patience and tenacity, Hickey comments “I really did not like the idea of waiting around for (another) 20 minutes for a batch of sugar mixture to boil, cool and get ready to whip, add flavors and “hope” it turned out well. Thankfully, she did!

Test, re-test and test again. Multiple prototypes are a necessity.

“Building a successful product for us involved a combination of a number of aspects. From honing the recipe for nearly three years straight to get it right, getting a shelf life longer that a couple of months, bringing it market,(and) the right packaging…”

Customers are key. You need to incorporate their voice.

Customers mean the world to Plush Puffs. They started small; put on the market what they felt would sell well, and put their feelers out. They really listened to their customers, she says “… if enough [customers] came in looking for a distinct change, we made that change.” They let consumer insights guide some major decisions: “We heard most people were looking for a bite size, so we started making them smaller.”

The value of money lies in what it can do: “Egos and penny pinching on quality are two areas that have to be checked at the door.”

A bit size marshmallow incurred more expense per product; Ann says this was a justified change since the change in margins would pay off in the end. Hickey comments that a very big part of building success is looking at the investment and additional small expenses as “long term payoffs.” She states, “If we hadn’t been willing to put down some serious money for good photography, we never would have gotten the good (and free) media coverage we’ve had.” Ann’s favorite media piece is the shout out in FORTUNE Small Business. I can understand why too, she comments how, “At the time my dad was struggling with cancer and I’ll never forget the look on his face when I showed him that piece.  He was always a VERY tough guy to impress and I think I managed to get a nod that day.”

What I really love about Ann’s story is just how patient and thoughtful she is and how she went about her business. She, was really honest, kind, and took the time out of her busy schedule to connect with me multiple times.  I did this interview over email in DECEMBER – yup Christmas time, when the sweet goodness of specialty candies is at its highest demand. It makes sense to me that they’re doing super well.

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On Marketing:

I am going to transition from Plush Puffs to something totally different. I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time now, I am going to jump “write” in to it! I’ve taken both business (marketing) and arts classes at McGill and I feel like the two have a great deal to learn from each other. These are my thoughts:

Art’s meet Groupwork:

It was easy peas to make friends in most of my marketing classes. You were often forced to make your own groups and on rare occasions were assigned groups. Group projects accounted for nearly half your mark. For the most part even if you greatly disliked someone you were going to meet them at least once a week. And after you’ve worked with them 10 times you get over your differences or figure out a way to work around them.  On the flip side, most of my arts classes (seminars aside) it was difficult to make friends  mostly because there was no incentive.

Marketing classes would average between 60-100+ students and there WAS STILL groupwork. Because of this, you didn’t feel like “just a number.” You had 4 other students you were seeing regularly, in the same class, going through the same hell. It was great you had your own little possy to complain too and they understood EXACTLY what you were going through. Empathy at its finest.

I know, I groan at groupwork too, but the spillover benefit of FRIENDSHIP is totally worth the headache, i.m.o. For a while there I met more students in sociology in my marketing classes than I did in my sociology classes.  I think there has to be way more groupwork in arts classes, there was a sense of intimacy that was just lacking in many of  sociology classes.

(The exception to this is seminar classes, at least in my sociology classes, there’s something magical and friendship-happy about sitting around a table in circle. My seminars this past semester were also really innovative, one class [shout out to Professor Das], was a student taught class. Yep, every week 3-4 new students “prepared” and decided how the class was going to be taught. Too cool.)

Marketing meet Critical Thought:

Let me define my terms here, I am using “Critical Thought” loosely here. What I mean when I say critical thought is taking a step back and reevaluating every time you say something definitive. And yes there is a huge time cost associated with. The best part of my sociology classes at large was how every argument or thought, even if it was backed up with data and evidence, was pieced apart and criticized. This happened in ALL of my sociology classes. Sometimes it was encouraged through in-class discussion and sometimes through papers.

Everything was unpacked. As the classes got more difficult that analytics of the paper and the evidence was looked at through a critical lens, the coding on the variables (how is “happiness” defined in this data?), the data used (was it nationally representative? What sort of claims is the scholar/author making if it’s not?), the methods used (did they control for everything? Why exactly did the run a linear regression on a set of data that has nominal Y. variables?). Sociology taught me to not take anything at face value. That everything is nuanced, there is politics associated with most things (and  you don’t have to dig too deep to find it), something is funded by something, and all of this, to some extent, should influence how you look at something.

There was sadly, little to none of this in my marketing classes. We did case studies of companies, watched videos of founders, discussed marketing plans, talked about budgets, made companies from scratch, and gave really formal and polished presentations. Unfortunately we rarely asked critical questions about anything. How exactly did this case estimate sales revenues? Where has this marketing portfolio system ACTUALLY been used in the real world? Wait – who actually uses the B.C.G matrix?  That case we looked at, don’t you think there were a bit too harsh on that C.E.O.? Um, what’s the percentage of women in upper management in that accounting firm? You’ll note that most of these questions are NOT even about societal impact (I do think there must be more questions about that too. However, I acknowledge that that’s a big change in undergraduate business schools, and I am all for baby steps). These questions are just asking about the relevance of what’s taught. I really wish there was more “truth asking” in marketing.

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On Conclusions First:

Another transition pour vous! Earlier last year I went to a “Women in Business” panel and had the opportunity to listen to a few women working in upper management at a big bank. The one piece of advice that stuck with me most was: “state your conclusions first.” I really wanted to share this because this has been wildly effective for me. Women/girls tend to make their points by giving a whole bunch of back story and evidence and then getting to the main point.

For example: Well, I noticed the other day that X. was seen in Y. And B. did not really have a big impact.  And I looked it up and it turns out Z. journal and T. paper found the same thing. That’s why I think we should consider doing X. rather than doing B.

And dudes, tend to make their points by giving the main point first and then giving the back story.

For example: We should do X before doing B. The reason I am saying this is because….[backstory/evidence].

I tested this out for 5 months, in class, with profs, with baristas, and with people I work with on regular basis. And for whatever reason, the dude way is more effective if you want your voice heard. Even with other gals. It works, especially well when you’re working with dudes. Try it out!

That’s all! It’s been real swell McGill Caps blog. In case you forgot, I’ll still be blogging, you can find me over here: http://divyapahwa.com/

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One response to “Pursuit: on marshmallows, marketing, and conclusions first”

  1. Punam says:

    I love your blog, very impressive.

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