July 30, 2013
Why CEOs Should Try Serving Veggie Burgers

It always amazes me when I see a company that invests millions of dollars to roll out a new product or service without first investing at least a few bucks in getting to know their customers.

When I worked in theatre, the best part of the day arrived at about 7 p.m. as the audience started to mill about the lobby. You’d go downstairs and see the folks you were working for. Then at 8 p.m. you could sit in the theatre, high up and in the back, and observe them watching the play. You’d learn something every time and never feel out of touch with your audience.

Learning from observation and interaction is one thing movie studios also do very well: preview films to test audiences, then refine them over and over.

Earlier this year, while I attended the Sundance Film Festival, it was obvious that many filmmakers and/or production teams did not practice this most wise of efforts. A few of the films sold well and quickly—those were the true crowd-pleasers—but most of the movies could have used adjustments. Without the benefit of fine-tuning they simply did not reach their potential.

But Sundance’s indie filmmakers didn’t need to look to studios for their inspiration. They could have just ambled up Main St. and got a veggie burger.

That’s where Morningstar Farms, the vegetarian food producer, had set up a burger joint in an effort boost its visibility and learn more about its customers. The line stretched along the sidewalk because the food was free, but that’s not what made this the most effective promotional activity at Sundance—far outstripping lounges run by Acura, HP, Chase Sapphire and the like.

What made Morningstar different? The high level of involvement from senior management. You see, the Morningstar Farms burger joint wasn’t staffed by part-timers or low-level staff. Senior execs served the meals. The Head of HR was at the beginning of the line, and explained the difference between the “Alpine” and the new “Mediterranean.” The Product Development Leader took my order. And the Corporate Controller cleaned up my table.

These executives saw their audience and interacted with them for the entire 10-day festival, from morning to night—not only scoring a huge PR win, but an even bigger win in learning what their customer had to say about their product before going to mass market.

Know what they didn’t do? They didn’t ask us to opt-in. Or data-mine us. Or beg us to “like” their Facebook page. They just took care of us, gave us a warm meal and a place to hang between movies. Win-win for all.

That’s enough to make me a Morningstar Farms evangelist and put a spotlight on their extraordinary level of corporate engagement. By the way, these weren’t just senior Morningstar execs—Kellogg owns Morningstar. The person who bused my table held a senior position at Kellogg—a $21 billion company—yet realized that meeting the audience was more important than crunching numbers for a week.

At Sundance, I wished every filmmaker was that engaged with the folks who buy the tickets. Similarly, I wish all CEOs would make the same effort in getting to know their own customers.

And everyone should try the new Mediterranean burger—it’s pretty damn good.

Adam Leipzig
Adam Leipzig is the CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, the former President of National Geographic Films, and a former Senior VP of Walt Disney Studios. He is on the faculty of the Haas School of Executive Education at UC Berkeley, the publisher of the popular digital magazine Cultural Weekly, and the author of a new highly -acclaimed book for independent filmmakers.

Other Articles by Adam Leipzig:

5 Lessons On Leadership From A Hollywood Producer

What ‘March Of The Penguins’ Taught Me About Success & Risk

10 Lessons For Two Types Of Startup Leaders