In this episode of Ecommerce Marketing with the Pitbulls, we're excited to have Mike Grill, the Director of Digital Marketing & Ecommerce Strategy at Seattle Chocolate Company, as our special guest.
Mike talks about the company's sustainability initiatives and how it's been able to balance being serious about sustainability while maintaining a fun and irreverent brand. Mike highlights Seattle Chocolate's carbon-neutral certification, ethical sourcing, and use of compostable wrappers, among other initiatives. He also emphasizes the importance of authenticity and transparency in promoting a brand's sustainability initiatives and how Seattle Chocolate avoids greenwashing. The company's flagship store and tours of the chocolate factory help to tie the brand to Seattle while still being accessible nationwide. Mike also emphasizes the importance of creativity and flexibility in a brand's messaging and how Seattle Chocolate's playful and authentic approach has helped to deepen its relationship with its customers.
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Mike, please introduce yourself. Give us some of your background and what you’re doing for Seattle Chocolate.
I started with Seattle Chocolate in August 2022. I’ve worked for agencies for the past ten years and now I’ve moved in-house, where I feel more comfortable. It’s been a ton of fun; and not just because of the chocolate!
I live in Portland and go up to the office about once a month. It’s really nice to be able to work remotely still and not have a lot of expectations about being in the office a certain number of days a week. Seattle Chocolate is a fantastic brand! They hit all the cool things without even trying: they’re woman-owned, they received Carbon-Neutral Certification recently, 10% of profits are donated to charity, our products are ethically sourced, and we’re sustainable. Without the climate to grow chocolate, we don’t have a company, so we’re working hard to make people aware of climate change and sustainability as best we can.
Right, especially nowadays, we’re focused on sustainability and transparency as some of the key components customers are demanding of their brands. You hit on that on a couple of levels. From environmental sustainability, operating carbon-neutral, your packaging, and the social components. You do such a beautiful job combining all those things together in a cohesive brand story that works well and is authentic.
Talk to us about how sustainability is a focus of yours. Can you be specific about some of the points you’re hitting in that category?
We’re trying to hit on everything. One of the conversations we’ve been having lately is how to present ourselves as a sustainable company - a carbon-neutral company - with all these initiatives, without greenwashing. We don’t want to say we allow our employees to work remote two days a week and call that sustainability. That’s good. In fact, one of our scientists did a study and found that we save one pound of carbon emission with every mile we don’t drive. So it’s not insignificant. But that’s something that’s easy for anybody to do.
One of the biggest initiatives we’ve done is to have compostable wrappers on all of our truffles. They’re shiny and look like any other plastic wrapper, but they break down in about three months. That’s super cool! Carbon neutrality is not something we take lightly.
As serious as we are with these initiatives, we still like to come at things from a fun, creative standpoint. We have a lot of fun in our meetings, but we’re pushing these really serious initiatives to help our company grow in a way that isn’t just about looking at the bottom line. It’s more like, “How do we set an example for the rest of the chocolate industry to be carbon-neutral or sustainable?”
We have a lot of fun in everything, from working with farmers directly in Peru and other growing regions, as well as making sure all our employees know how to compost correctly. We are working on keeping tons of plastic out of landfills by reusing what we get in plastic packaging. We reuse those as garbage bags. Then it’s not just as a company, but how do we as individuals within the company support sustainability?
All of that resonated with me when I was looking for a job, So it was an easy step.
Do you find that, as a marketer, this really authentic story makes it easier to pull ads together so that you’re speaking the main talking points? Especially the fact that the company lives it every day. I mean making sure every employee is trained to compost properly is not something that hits the bottom line, or is even very visible, but I think it shows through in the authenticity of the brand.
Yeah, it flows much easier in marketing. This is a brand I’m aligned with which makes it easier when brainstorming ideas for headlines. It’s much easier to just say what I’m thinking. There isn’t an extra process of editing to get it in the mindset of the company.
You mentioned greenwashing earlier, which is something I think about a lot. Customers are getting savvier with sustainability. Even when they’re pulling back on spending, sustainability and transparency are important to them. What kinds of things would you suggest other brands or marketers avoid? What can you do to avoid greenwashing? I’m sure it’s simple like walk the walk and talk the talk, but how do you employ that at Seattle Chocolate?
It is walking the walk but at the same time spelling that out as a way to promote yourself is putting yourself in that greenwashing area. We can definitely say our employees only commute to work two days a week and reduce our carbon footprint by this much. But we have the numbers because we did the research to figure it out instead of guessing. Whereas making our products and packaging, as much as possible, either recyclable, compostable, or reusable, that’s a huge time and money investment I think most consumers understand.
For example, when you get a shampoo bar instead of shampoo in a bottle, it’s obvious that someone took the time to figure out how to take this liquid soap out of the bottle and make it usable. That reduces the packaging by about 90% and you can wrap the bar in paper and you have virtually no carbon footprint for the bar. There are a lot of things like that because they are automatically transparent.
Our social media does a phenomenal job at this. It’s promoting your message without sounding preachy. Or like being transparent and down-to-earth by saying here’s how we try. We all make mistakes and we all mess up. Sometimes we recycle something dirty or we don’t compost because it’s easier to wash it down the drain. We’re all on this journey together.
When you work somewhere or do something that aligns with your values well, it makes it easier to promote, not in so much an advertising way, but something you’re proud of.
That’s something you all do better than a lot of brands. It’s not performative. As you go through and get to know the brand better, peeling back the layers, you get to see happy little surprises. Even after we had been working together for a little while and I got my first bag of truffles, I hadn’t seen anywhere in the brand literature that we had been working on that the wrappers were compostable. But you open one up and it’s right there! It’s kind of neat that the story sort of unwraps itself - pun intended there!
Those kinds of surprises that are revealed as you get to know the brand better help to deepen the relationship with the consumer because they feel like it’s more of a personal relationship.
It’s like a sprinkling of our four pillars: giving back, women-led, carbon-neutral, and ethically sourced. Think of it like a first date. If someone came and said all of those things at once, you’d thank them for their time and get the check. It’s kind of been acceptable for companies to do that, but hitting people over the head with what they think consumers like isn’t always the best.
What Seattle Chocolate has done an impressive job of is making really good chocolate. At the end of the day, that’s what it does. We try to make the best chocolate and get it to customers. Oh, and also, we have a fantastic CEO and the other pillars come from her as well. That’s one of the things about being CEO - saying what you’re passionate about and then having your company go in that direction. The authenticity and the transparency all flow from that.
How do you strike a balance between your brand attributes, all the serious things we’ve been discussing, and your fun, kind of irreverent, brand? You have cartoons on the packaging and local artists painting them. So how do you balance talking about the serious topics, but still bring that fun irreverence to your messaging?
That’s the human side. There can be that dichotomy, in that we don’t have to be serious all the time. Back to that first date analogy, if you’re serious all the time, you’re probably not going to attract that many people. But, if you get to be who you are, that creativity can flow from there.
Sometimes our brainstorming meetings can get really long, but these are some of the most fun meetings! We’re coming up with ideas about what kind of merchandise we want to sell in-store or online. Like coffee mugs. They make sense and are inoffensive to most people unless you hate coffee. Coffee and chocolate go together. Or can we do temporary tattoos? Can we bring in a tattoo artist and giveaway tattoos with our brand? People in the Pacific Northwest probably would get a free tattoo just to get it. That creative side is a lot of fun.
So our serious side is about everybody and our creative side is about everybody. It’s not a hard switch to make. It’s not about saying we now have to be serious. It’s about what creative things we can do to push sustainability. Can we do a film teaching people how to recycle or what to do with our packaging when they’re done with it? We could make that a very serious training video or we could have fun with it and still get the point across.
I have to give a nod to your background. Your creativity is clearly on display here - take note of the pie chart, the cake chart, and the flow chart; they’re all beautiful pieces. It’s easier when you have a team and you’re given that space to be creative. Have you noticed in your background with agencies or other companies, that some companies don’t allow that space? Maybe Seattle Chocolate is doing that because they have that inherent space to allow creativity.
Absolutely. I used to manage a pizza restaurant and people would come in and ask for shirts, but we didn’t want to make the shirts and sell them. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? Even if you just break even, you have a bunch of people walking around with branded shirts for “free” advertising.
One thing I’ve always wanted to do was tracksuits. I don’t know why and it seems like a zany idea. If you’ve got people walking around in a chocolate company’s tracksuit, it’s going to raise some questions, especially if it feels kind of exclusive. Maybe the sales team wears them when they travel. So you’ve got a whole row of people all wearing the same tracksuit and people ask what team they’re on. Then we can say we work for a chocolate company. I pitched that idea early on and our CEO said we need to do tracksuits.
It’s this safe space where any of your ideas are okay; within bounds of course. In terms of the direction you want the company to go, there’s this spectrum. At Seattle Chocolate, our customers are all different. We have a pretty good idea of who our core audience is. Being narrowed in on who our demographic is, and being able to cater to and talk to them, takes that kind of creativity and flexibility.
There are some bad ideas sometimes. Not the kind where someone’s going to have to talk to you after the meeting, but those that aren’t really on-brand. But when you have a brand that’s as wide as a chocolate company, you cater to a ton of different people. And maybe one ad caters to a small percentage of those people, but at least they feel they have a voice at your company and are represented at your company.
Another cool thing about your brand is that you have a flagship store, and even your name, Seattle Chocolate, is grounded in a local aspect. Can you speak to that from an eCommerce perspective? How did you balance that, both in-store and outside of the store, a local store with an interest in expanding nationwide, all while trying to tell a broader story?
Food and Seattle are kind of connected. Even food in the Pacific Northwest. There are quite a few brands that have started in the Pacific Northwest and have gone global or national. Having Seattle tied to our name isn’t something that makes us super regional. It kind of gives us that recognition of Seattle being a foodie city. It’s a different sell online. Seattle Chocolate is more of an on-the-shelf brand. We work with a bunch of local and national artists. We like to work with people aligned with us too: activists, eco-activists, or people using their art to tell the same kind of story we’re using chocolate to tell. That makes it more fun and exciting, and much more marketable. Online, you don’t have that impulse buy like when you’re at a cash register. Someone who buys online is actually searching for, in our case, chocolate, online.
Their first interaction with Seattle Chocolate could be a tour of the Seattle Chocolate Factory or visiting the Seattle Chocolate website, where we’re just promoting good chocolate with a cause. It doesn’t have to be tied to Seattle, but it is. And there’s a good story about surviving an earthquake and bringing the brand up from the rubble that our CEO can tell. That ties into a company doing business in the modern age versus just being rooted in Seattle.
That being said, we really do have a cool chocolate factory and we take people on tours. They get to see chocolate being made. It’s also part of the onboarding process for new employees and that’s really cool.
It’s still on my list to get out there and take a tour. My parents went through a few months ago. They were on their way up to an Alaska cruise, so I made sure they got on the tour and they really enjoyed it.
It’s a really good experience and it helps tie in how everything is related. You get a chocolate bar and enjoy it, and that could be the end of your relationship with the chocolate. But when you take a tour or read a little more of the content on our website, you realize that chocolate is its own ecosystem and we have to support it as best we can. I think that’s something the tour does really well. We show some of our CEO’s travels to Peru and you get to look at a cocoa pod and touch the beans. And it’s really weird because you get to see this white bean inside of a yellow pod and it doesn’t look like chocolate. How did somebody get to that? Who opened it up and said they were going to get chocolate out of this?
You get to try different types of chocolate and see the whole process of how we make our truffles and truffle bars. You get to see how we put the whole sustainability part of it into action when we’re actually shipping chocolate from Peru.
It’s a great kind of tour through the brand and a great discussion around what you’re doing with your message; keeping it authentic.
How can people find you?
You can find us at seattlechocolate.com and @seattlechoclate on Instagram and Facebook. If you’d like to learn more about our corporate, social, and economic responsibility, you can find us on LinkedIn. Our CEO talks a lot about that there. She gave a Ted Talk in 2018 about the Chocolate Renaissance, which we’re now calling the Chocolate Revolution.
Thank you, Mike Grill, and Seattle Chocolate for allowing us to feature you here. Obviously, we have a tie to your brand, but it truly is one of my favorite brands. I love what you’re doing with living your values and doing a great job of telling the brand’s story in a really fun and authentic way. Thanks for being with us today.