Food Network SVP of Marketing and Brand Strategy Susie Fogelson on leadership, innovation and the importance of building an emotional connection with consumers
The floral-sweet scent of apples and the sharp tingle of cinnamon wafting through the house, comforts and warms; it feeds the soul. Food evokes powerful emotions. In the movie “Like Water for Chocolate,” food brings people to their knees with sadness, but it also causes them to burn with passion.
Like an executive chef who understands and feeds off of people’s intimate connection with food, Susie Fogelson, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy, has connected in a similar way with the core demographic of Food Network. A can-do attitude, effective leadership and a talent-driven marketing strategy across numerous platforms have helped Fogelson revolutionize Food Network into one of the most successful networks and brands in the food and entertainment industry.
When Nail Polish Inspires
Like a chef, Fogelson understands people and what they want. She went to UCLA to study Sociology. That fascination with human interactions, group behavior, social causes and social changes, made a stop at a traffic light life-changing, or at least career-changing. As she sat at that stoplight, Fogelson looked up.
“I saw a billboard for nail polish. But I remember thinking to myself, ‘How did they know I was going to be at this stoplight? That I would see that billboard? That I would be interested in the polish? That I would make a mental note about it, and probably seek it out and buy it?’ Obviously, it was a very broad target; outdoor is very broad. I am fascinated by the idea of targeting and media and creative, and how all of those things come together to create a coherent communication strategy. And having it work is even more impressive.”
Fogelson has taken that lure, that curiosity, and put it to work for herself, her team and Food Network.
An Agency Foundation
Prior to joining Food Network more than 14 years ago, Fogelson gleaned a great deal of marketing and business know-how from TBWA/Chiat/Day, a prolific advertising agency with global offices. She credits her time at the agency as the foundation that she needed.
“The agency experience offered a career foundation—the building blocks [for] how to differentiate and outline a goal, strategize as well as move a project through executing tactics. Executing flawlessly is also something I learned at Chiat. I learned that great ideas and great creative can be game-changing for any brand.”
She also credits being around people and in a company that is so creative, which can be quite “infectious.” “I tell young people all the time,” Fogelson said, “that an agency background is just a great foundation for any career in business.”
Innovating at Every Turn
Like the people at Chiat and the diverse and gifted chefs and culinary talent at Food Network, Fogelson is continually on a creative journey that is comprised of targeting, planning, handling managerial issues, and creatively navigating meeting all of the demands of her busy life, including being a busy parent of two young girls.
“Creative strategy and knowing how and where to phase in different tools to meet different goals remains a macro challenge I thrive from,” Fogelson said. “Creative motivation. A great idea. Landing on a perfect tagline, recognized from a sea of words otherwise commonplace. Fresh, inventive ways to partner with another team and maximize collective results. There are any number of ways to look at something and find inspiration; this is where I feel most comfortable.”
Evolution of Food Network
Even though a television brand’s most powerful tool is on-air time, Fogelson wanted to go a step further in elevating the brand. Her greatest challenge was to find a way to capture Food Network’s culinary variety while highlighting the diversity of entertainment on the network.
“It is about developing a strategy that is more inclusive—one that casts the widest net,” she said.
Fogelson and her team set out to accomplish that goal, and they developed a campaign demonstrating that “Food Network is about way more than cooking. Cooking is at the core of what we do,” she said, “but we’re about so much more. Showcasing a variety of food programming really helped us get to the next level.”
Talent & Passion
Fogelson admits that Food Network is a brand first, but one that is heavily talent dependent. The on-air personalities are easy to market because they have something special.
“They are not actors,” she noted. “They are really passionate food people. Passion is their No. 1 ingredient.”
Marketing them may be straightforward enough, but as Food Network helps their talent build their own brands, the network must stay on the frontline for developing new talent and personalities to introduce to their audience. Therefore, Fogelson is always on the lookout for new talent that will fill the “next-now-new” needs of the Food Network audience.
“[It is] exciting as a marketer,” she said. “We are really focused on who we bring into the family—great people with great character and great skills to take us to the next level.”
Along with talent, Fogelson keeps her “eyes open” for the next and best platforms that enable fans to interact. “There are unique opportunities for our brand to connect with consumers across multiple platforms,” she conveyed. “Our brand is unique in its ability to connect to consumers across multiple devices—whether it is to lean in and get ideas and inspiration from food and cooking with a tablet, or leaning back and watching ‘Chopped.’”
Effective leadership is a must for Fogelson, who oversees not only the Marketing team, but also Brand Strategy, Public Relations and Communications. Her leadership, in large part, is the reason the Marketing team is one of the best. She has her kitchen running as one you may find the likes of Bobby Flay leading.
Fogelson has no problem admitting that keeping things running smoothly isn’t all about her, that it has a lot to do with hiring the best. It requires admitting that she doesn’t know everything. And hiring people who are even smarter than she is to help her manage, devise and implement strategy and deliver constant and consistent messaging.
Another essential ingredient in Fogelson’s kitchen is being as far from a micromanager as possible. Her own leader, network President Brooke Johnson, taught her the value and compliment that is paid with giving one’s team autonomy. “It gives you a license to go and be great!” Fogelson exclaimed.
Being in charge of a large team spanning multiple areas means a lot less time to dedicate to any one person or team, so Fogelson often uses her time after work, while cooking dinner, to reflect on her day and how she could have connected more and listened better. “During my downtime,” she said, “I ruminate on the events of the day and use them as a guide to improve my interactions and skills.”
One facet of her management style that has her direct reports executing organically is encouraging them to work laterally. “They understand that in order to grow ideas, they need one another. They realize they don’t need each other to do their day-to-day, but they do need each other to get it done well.”
Fogelson has it figured out: Great ideas, talent, execution and ingredients, along with a great team, equals a delicious meal. “Food brings friends together. It brings families closer. And [it] gives people a great place to talk and gather,” she said. “We have a deep emotional connection to our friends, fans, consumers and users. Food Network is by all means a TV brand, but it has real heart because of the topic we cover.”
Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.