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'Chaos' with process: creative thoughts from Chobani's CCO

Chobani factory

Leland Maschmeyer, chief creative officer at yogurt maker Chobani, enjoys the chaos of the creative process. The commotion allows creativity to thrive, he says, but he tempers that with processes to keep things in check.

Maschmeyer came to Chobani nearly four years ago to help overhaul the brand’s imaging, packaging and marketing direction. As its chief creative officer, he has helped the company expand its product offerings and create packaging to fit the brand’s healthy-yet-joyful food-focused lifestyle brand.

He spent over a decade as co-founder and chief creative officer at design agency Collins, but saw a chance to help prop up a growing brand in Chobani. He shared some of his ideas on creativity in marketing with The Drum and with an audience at the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles.

Listen to the customers

Chobani interacts with its consumers often, getting constant feedback, and Maschmeyer says the idea of natural and wellness are the two big topics that consumers talk with them about.

“We've positioned ourselves as a food-focused wellness company, with the idea that we're always bringing real, natural, healthy and affordable food into categories where it hasn't been before. So, the fact that people are getting a key product characteristic that drives our innovation, as well as a broader idea of what we stand for, as we come into a category or even just behave in the world are two critical ideas for us to have achieved,” he says.

Over the last three years, the company has invested heavily in building a first-party database of relationships with consumers through digital and social channels, which allows the company to reach out to a broad focus group when it sometimes has no marketing budget to launch a new product to market, which helps build buzz on some of the smaller products Chobani may release.

Process through chaos

“I'm actually a huge fan of chaos,” says Maschmeyer. “But that doesn't mean that I don't like the process. I think there are moments in the process where you have to allow chaos to bloom and to let it do its thing. Because at the end of the day, chaos is the only thing that wants you to be creative, that shoves ideas in front of you and makes you reckon with them in some way. But at the same time, process is very necessary so that chaos can be productive. One of the things that we've done is, from a process standpoint, we've actually kept it very simple. We haven't over-engineered the process.”

Maschmeyer says trying to over-engineer things was a big mistake that he made early on. “You just end up teaching people and then every project that comes through is an edge case that doesn't fit the process, then you have to rethink them. So, I just threw the whole thing out,” he says.

Chobani now keeps its teams “incredibly small” with no more than five people. There may be more people working on the project, but there are no more than five people who are ever responsible for ushering a project all the way to completion. Those teams gets a background on why a product is important, what success looks like, and then they are left to figure out the how.

“That how is where the chaos kind of starts to happen. But rather than just leave it to chance that the chaos turns into something, we've also tech-enabled the process. We have some different software, data asset managers, so a lot of the process or a lot of things that people in the organization need can be self-help…We don't have to burden the creative teams with doing all this kind of small, non-strategic, non-financially important work,” says Maschmeyer.

Chobani also employs a tracker program, so the team knows where projects are, what may be blocking them and how many resources are being put to them. Data is the other part of the equation, along with learning and logic. But, he says that it's “not in a way that suppresses the necessary chaos of creativity and the fluidity that's right there. We really prioritize that chaos in what we do. But also know that there needs to be some tightness around it so that it can work.”

No prototype, no meeting

“If there's no prototype, there's no meeting. There's no reason to have a meeting. You can have a conversation in the hallway…but if there's not something that has been designed, whether it's an Excel spreadsheet, or it's a media plan, or its some physical design, there is no reason to have a meeting because it hasn't progressed far enough for people to get what's being learned from that prototype,” says Maschmeyer.

In shifting from the agency model to in-house creative, he also had to learn to be hands-off. The agency model, he says, finds that “if you're not billable, you're not important,” which also means making things all the time. At Chobani, Maschmeyer says he’s always communicating, sharing stories, examples and conversations. With that, he says that over time, everyone starts to have a “conceptual understanding of what reality is” in the organization, “because when things do start breaking up into their different departments, each of those departments has its own reality of what's happening in the business, and so it's my responsibility to fight that…by helping craft those stories and sharing information and creating that transparency.”

Creative trends

Outside the Chobani bubble, Maschmeyer sees a creative trend in the convergence of earned media and paid media campaigns.

“With the attention economy the way it is, the sort of financial pressures that every company is under to create growth with fewer resources, the idea of earned media is increasingly important,” he states.

A challenge with that trend, he says, is that earned media doesn't give a predictable reach, frequency nor predictable targeting of people.

“There's no guarantee that it's actually going to affect the business. But it's much, much cheaper. So, I think companies are more comfortable with throwing that in the mix as opposed to just depending on it,” he says.

In that convergence of those two types of campaigns, Maschmeyer sees a lot more creative work that is being engineered to work in both paid and earned areas, which he thinks is a good thing for companies who want to bring more cohesiveness to how they're building their brands, especially in a fragmented consumer marketplace “where I think the historical point of view has been everybody needs to get their own personalized one-to-one message,” he says.

“If you follow that logic out the door too quickly, you become a fractured brand that doesn't add up to a singular evergreen brand story that brings you that financial value. So, I think this this trend of bringing things together, trying to create more of a cohesive story that can work in different types of media is a really important creative trend because it puts a different criteria on the types of ideas that are being generated.”

New market strategies

Chobani, says Maschmeyer, is trying some different strategies to rolling out new products, including starting at a regional level rather than rolling out nationally. That even bleeds over into manufacturing, where they might decide to take it out to a co-packer.

“Or…how do we buy a very small company whose team and culture and products we deeply respect and then potentially even rebrand them so that we can move into the space with a lower risk, higher velocity type of way? And then do the investments there, so in places that we know are going to have an immediate return on value for us, rather than trying to build everything in-house.”

Maschmeyer thinks that through a combination of minimizing risks, using existing assets and being smarter about the types of products Chobani is taking to market will, over time, add up to an ability get small but sustainable footholds into the market for a lot of its new products, like its new oat-based line.

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