The Green Line Series: Serving Up Sustainable Social Media With Kettle Food’s Michelle Peterman Hunt

09speaker_MichelleHuntKettle Brand Foods produces all-natural and tasty potato chips–but they’ve also built an impressive array of sustainable components into their business model. Now they’re delving into social media to share the details of their story on the consumer’s turf. Vice-President of Marketing, Michelle Peterman Hunt shares her take on social media and how to use it to engage consumers where the conversation is already taking place. She reminds us that social media is not a silver or a green bullet, but that it can boost traditional communication in ways we’ve never seen before.

GG: Can you give us a brief overview of how a company can use social media to engage and grow a tribe?
MPH: Social media is one component of how to grow a tribe. The primary vehicle we use at Kettle Brand Potato Chips are the chips themselves. It’s the wonderful flavors that people experience through our chips that ultimately grow the biggest tribe. Beyond that, social media is an area where we’re just starting to dip our toes in the water. We know our tribe is already out there on Facebook and on Twitter, because we’ve been watching and listening to them for a while. We know that it’s really important to have a two-way conversation with them and to be where the conversation is already happening.

Mainly, in the last couple of years, we’ve relied mostly on traditional marketing tactics: The chips in the bag, the bag design, traditional PR. That’s a conversation generated from us to the consumer. The transition for us is to be where that conversation is already taking place. That requires a build up of tools to be able to do that in a good way. I always challenge my team to do whatever we do in the marketplace very, very well.

GG: How can social media be used to spread the word about green programs and initiatives?
MPH: At Kettle Foods, we do a lot of little things that aren’t necessarily worth writing a press release about. For example, we have a wetlands at our Salem, OR facility where we’re always watching the return of the birds every year. It’s not something we would write a press release about or on the back of the bag, but social media gives us a forum to say that. Now, we’ve also mentioned the birds at the wetlands on our website, but that requires the consumer to find us. Being engaged in social media allows us to join the conversation where it’s taking place and bring our story there.

GG: Do you think social media has the capability to boost the bottom line?
MPH: The bottom line isn’t driving our commitment to social media. It’s about relationships with our customers. The degree to which we can increase engagement with our brand, ultimately can have an impact if people buy more chips because of it. But that’s not the calculation we go through to drive initiatives with social media. If you’re talking about the “green line”—from an environmental standpoint—then I think that if the work that Kettle Foods does inspires people to minimize their impact, then that’s a bonus.

GG: Can you tell us about a few of the green initiatives you have going on at Kettle Foods?
MPH: The way I frame our sustainability commitment is less about initiatives and more about the way we run our business. Specifically, a potato plant we built in Wisconsin in 2006 was the first Gold LEED certified food-manufacturing facility in the nation. That’s more than just an initiative. That’s sustainability baked right into the product—literally.

Similarly, the way we power our potato chip plants is increasingly sustainable. We have solar panels built onto the roof in Salem. When it was built, it was the largest solar array in the Pacific Northwest. We have wind turbines on one of our facilities. We offset all of our electrical purchases with wind credits. We recycle all of our waste chip oil to bio-diesel. It’s built right into the business and these are practices we would do regardless of whether we talk about it. We have a very high threshold for what we will choose to announce and that’s press-worthy. Sustainability is built into this work and we certainly don’t want to be accused of green washing. That’s the last thing we want to see happen, because this is a commitment to the way we run our business—it’s not initiative lead.

GG: Other than treating “green” as business as usual, how do you rise above green washing by others in the industry?
MPH: Authenticity is what you should focus on. Authenticity is paramount to our brand and it should be to any brand. It’s at the root of everything that we do. Authenticity, if you do it right, comes through in any marketing program that you do, social media or otherwise. What that means—speaking back to the standard that we hold for ourselves—is that we want to talk about things from the standpoint of investing in the marketplace first, as opposed to overloading our fan base with every single thing that we do.

Social media is a form where you can introduce some of the smaller things that you’re doing. Such as, “Kettle Foods just learned how to improve our waste water impact by 5 percent!” There might be people out there who want to know that. It’s not something we would tell national press about, because that would smack of green washing. But for the dedicated fan base who are interested in hearing about that, social media is a fantastic forum to discuss things along these lines.

GG: Does that provide an amount of leverage against the competition?
MPH: Kettle isn’t about “going green”—it’s about doing business in a sustainable way. From my standpoint, corporate sustainability needs to be part of core business principles, not just a marketing initiative. We go up against the competition by making fantastic, tasty and all-natural potato chips. That’s how we compete in the marketplace. We wouldn’t bring our sustainability story as a tactic to compete, necessarily. We would also never go out and say, we’re doing something better than someone else. We cut our own path. We do this work because it’s the way we run our business. If people want to make comparisons, that’s for them to do, but that’s not the way we run our program.

GG: How would you advise a business to engage consumers in social media?
MPH: Well, we’re still learning. We hope that in the future we’ll be able to share some of the things that we’ve been able to do and use it as a platform for people to think about a new way of communicating—not only their core business composition, but also communicating their environmental impact. I should also note here that Kettle Brand isn’t necessarily an advocacy brand. Sustainability is a part of our overall philosophy and core principles, in addition to great taste and being all-natural. Again, it’s not initiative lead. In engaging people through social media, it’s been our experience—and it’s a limited experience—that this has been a transition between traditional marketing and this new space, and we’re trying to do it really well. I would say the success that we’ve had is connected to the product that we make.

Specifically, we had a social media campaign on Facebook when we launched a product in 2008 called Death Valley Chipotle. Just to give you a little background, Death Valley Chipotle was selected as the brand to launch for Kettle Foods in 2008 as a result of our People’s Choice Campaign. The People’s Choice Campaign is a traditional online campaign. People had to come to our website and select a flavor from a list of five that we were thinking about and Kettle Foods went on to make the winner.

With the Death Valley Chipotle launch last year, we also had a Facebook application where people there could download a thermometer. We had a contest through Facebook, where once the temperature in Death Valley National Park reached 120 degrees, people could enter a sweepstakes to win chips for an entire year. What that required was going to that Facebook application everyday to see if the temperature had reached 120 degrees. We had approximately 15,000 people download that application. That event was also a fundraiser for the Death Valley National Park’s Death Valley ROCKS program, and we raised $5,000 for them in two weeks.

Death Valley Chipotle then went on to be released in the more traditional manner—with a press release, etc. What social media added was a buzz factor. The benefit of that is having a conversation directly with your consumer base. We didn’t need to wait or go through the traditional media channels—where you have to appeal to an editor and a writer and they have to decide to write about it. Going to the consumer directly has an advantage in that it’s very efficient from a time standpoint and a cost standpoint. The challenge in that is to come up with something creative enough to capture the  mind share that’s available. There’s a lot of competition for eyeballs and for time. Your program has to be something that is really compelling.

Michelle Peterman Hunt is a speaker the GoGreen ‘09 Conference, October 7th, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. To hear more from Peterman Hunt and our other 40+ eco-visionary speakers on embedding your business with a sustainable commitment , register today at Tickets are $175 per person or $150 per person for groups of two or more.

For more information about Kettle Brand Foods, please visit:

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