Clif Bar’s Marketing VP Cooks Up Branding Strategy Aimed At Health-Conscious Consumers

Amy Gesenhues on
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  • As the executive vice president of marketing for Clif Bar & Company, Michelle Ferguson has successfully blended her work with the things she loves doing most. An avid runner, former Ironman athlete and admitted foodie, she manages all  marketing programs, brand development and market analysis for one of the leading makers of nutritious and organic food and drinks.

    Since first joining the company in 1999 as its director of consumer research, Ferguson has held various roles within the organization. In 2009, she was promoted to her current position as the company’s executive vice president of marketing.

    In addition to managing the brand’s marketing efforts, Ferguson oversees Clif Bar’s customer service, research and development, and all in-house design.

    She is a sought-after speaker and has presented at a number of leading business schools, including UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the Presidio School of Management, and the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College.

    After earning her Bachelor’s degree in international agricultural development from the University of California, Ferguson went on to receive a master’s in agricultural economics from Cornell University. She currently resides in Kensington, California, with her husband and two children.

    Michelle Ferguson

    EVP Marketing @ Clif Bar

    • Age: 48
    • HQ: Emeryville, CA
    • First Job: I was an “in-demand” babysitter by age 12.
    • Apple or Android? Apple
    • First Car: Run-down Honda Accord
    • Hobby: I love cooking, am a voracious reader and avid runner.

    What mobile device can you not live without?

    iPhone.

    Can we take a peek at your phone’s homescreen?

    Which apps do you use most often for work?

    It’s not an app, but text messaging has revolutionized the way I work. It is an extremely efficient way to connect with my team at work. And it is also the best way check in with my kids during the day to make sure everything is okay.

    What social media network or website do you frequent most when you’re not working?

    Amazon Prime — I buy almost everything there, from textbooks for the kids to birthday presents to kitchen gadgets. In fact, I just bought a blender.

    The other site I use a lot is Zappos.com – I love shoes, and my kids are constantly outgrowing their shoes.

    What’s the first thing you check on your phone in the morning?

    My work email.

    Take me through your typical workday.

    As a working mom, my work day starts the minute I get up and ends when I go to sleep!

    Finally, before bed, I check my email one last time.

    What has been the most exciting work development during the past year?

    I am really excited about a new product that we launched at the beginning of 2015. CLIF® Organic Energy Food is unique to the performance nutrition category because it satisfies athletes’ cravings for either real fruit or salty comfort food, in a convenient, resealable pouch.

    Unlike energy bars and gels, these recipes are made from real food ingredients and feature delicious sweet and category-first savory flavors that are inspired by the home recipes of our Team CLIF Bar athletes.

    The CLIF Organic Energy Food is now available in sports retailers across the country.

    What does your office look like?

    A clean workspace surrounded by a few somewhat orderly stacks of files.

    I have a three sentimental items in my office — the first is my favorite picture of my family. When schedules are crazy or things are busy at work, it anchors me to the things that really matter.

    The second is a doodle that my son, Iain, did on my whiteboard. He just picked up a pen one day when he was visiting and just started drawing. Now I cannot bare to erase it.

    It inspires me to be brave with my ideas and reminds me that true creativity is uninhibited.

    The third is a really cool drawing of a CLIF Bar wrapper that is hanging on the back wall. Just as a portrait captures a deeper essence of a person, this drawing captures the love, care and pride we put into every CLIF Bar.

    How many miles have you traveled in the last 12 months?

    About 42,000 miles; the most interesting place I got to go was Tokyo, Japan.

    Clif Bar launched last year in Japan, and that gave me a chance to spend some time there. As a marketer, I enjoyed learning about the Japanese culture and how they approach food and eating; and ultimately, what that means for CLIF Bar.

    We also had a lot of fun. We spent quality time with our business partners over some delicious meals, traveled a little bit, and even watched a Sumo wrestling match.

    What work challenge keeps you up at night?

    The rapid evolution of the bar category, and the constantly evolving ways that people are eating. Consumers’ ingredient, flavor and nutritional preferences are changing quickly, and bars are on the cutting edge of those trends.

    We constantly have to anticipate these shifts or we will be left behind. It’s something we have to be on top of 24/7.

    Can you tell us about a campaign or work project you’d like to do over?

    There isn’t anything that I would want to do over, but there are a couple things we could have done faster.

    Bars are on the cutting edge of consumer trends in terms of how and what people eat. Nutrition knowledge, ingredients, flavor preferences, consumer views — they change very quickly. We’ve done a lot of work to improve the pace at which we innovate and launch products, and we are now able to stay ahead of these trends.

    Tell me about the people who have been most influential in your career.

    I feel privileged to have spent the past 15 years working for Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, the owners and co-visionary officers of Clif Bar & Company (also a husband and wife team). Clif Bar’s Five Aspirations — Sustaining our Business, Brands, People, Community and the Planet — are a reflection of their personal values and their deep belief that business can and must create positive change in the world.

    This attitude has empowered me to think beyond conventional marketing practices to find unique and innovative ways for our brands to feed and inspire people’s adventures and to help make the world a better place.

    The best career coach I ever had was my Dad. From a young age my Dad mentored me on how to be a good decision-maker.

    He taught me that good decision-making often has less to do with how decisions are made — whether they are impulsive or carefully considered — and more to do with how you follow through.

    What traits does a person need to succeed in your position?

    Perseverance, thoughtfulness, and a passion for your company’s product.

    Trust is also important. Having a capable and talented team only gets you so far; you need to believe in their abilities and trust in their desire to do great work. Then, very often, you just need to get out the way to let magic happen.

    Can you tell us something about yourself that your team would be surprised to know?

    That I completed an IRONMAN Kona in 1995. My time was 11:00:21, and I placed sixth for the 25–29 age group, my age group at the time, and 28th for women overall.

    Why did you go into marketing?

    It wasn’t the typical route. My degree was in agricultural economics, but I always had a lot of interest in market research.

    Early in my career I got the chance to work on the Gatorade brand. At the time, I was competing in a lot of triathlons and it was the perfect opportunity to work on an inspiring brand that bridged my interest in market research with my passion for sports.

    It was a winning combination for me, and one that ultimately led me to Clif Bar.

    What other career would you like to try and why?

    Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) — I have a lot interest in health, nutrition and wellness. And, I believe that the West can learn a lot from TCM.

    I’ve been a patient for years and I believe that my health and wellness are better for it.

    What’s the last business book you read, and what did you think of it?

    The Harvard Business Review’s The Essentials. It is a great set of essays on everything from leadership to innovation.

    Outside of your company’s efforts, what ad campaign or video caught your eye recently?

    The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. They did a phenomenal job challenging the beauty industry and how individual women perceive themselves and their beauty.


    About The Author

    Amy Gesenhues
    Amy Gesenhues is Third Door Media's General Assignment Reporter, covering the latest news and updates for Marketing Land and Search Engine Land. From 2009 to 2012, she was an award-winning syndicated columnist for a number of daily newspapers from New York to Texas. With more than ten years of marketing management experience, she has contributed to a variety of traditional and online publications, including MarketingProfs.com, SoftwareCEO.com, and Sales and Marketing Management Magazine. Read more of Amy's articles.