Challenger Brand Innovators: Foxtrot CMO Carla Dunham

Chicago-based Foxtrot has been trying to disrupt the corner store since 2013, when the challenger brand launched a digital-first delivery app to bring high-end versions of convenience store goodies like ice cream, pizza and beer to Windy City residents. Foxtrot CMO Carla Dunham to discuss the company's evolution, adapting to pandemic times and her background in fusing product and brand marketing.

Chicago-based Foxtrot has been trying to disrupt the corner store since 2013, when the challenger brand launched a digital-first delivery app to bring high-end versions of convenience store goodies like ice cream, pizza and beer to Windy City residents.

Fast forward to 2020: the venture-backed company has raised $17 million in Series A, has an app, an e-commerce site and expanded to brick-and-mortar with eight retail stores in Chicago and Dallas (and two more coming in Washington DC this year.) These stores are designed to draw people in with a highly curated experience that aims to be the antithesis of 7/11.

“We really think of ourselves as disrupting the convenience in-store space,” says Foxtrot CMO Carla Dunham. “I like to think a lot about injecting culture into the convenience store space. If you think about going to a 7/11, and those really fast and inexpensive transactions, they don’t particularly fulfill you or delight you. At Foxtrot, part of the innovation we bring to the table is this emphasis on having products and selection that not only meets your needs but also surpasses your desires.”

These curated products include wines recommended by an in-house sommelier, craft beer and locally roasted coffee from Chicago’s own Metric Coffee. The retailer also offers delivery in under an hour or cafe pick up.

Dunham knows her way around product marketing, having held executive marketing roles at Kate Spade, Amazon Fashion, Saks Fifth Ave and Henri Bendel. She joined Foxtrot from Equinox where she served as VP of Marketing. Her love of product began back when she started her career in merchandising at Target in 2003.

“I started my career at Target as a merchant and that was at the time when Target was just starting to launch their designer collaborations,” Dunham says. “This complete fusion between the brand and the product that if you buy the product you are buying the brand has definitely influenced my approach as a marketer. Always thinking through, how do I make sure that the marketing message is actually going to be positive and ultimately driving the business.”

In August, Foxtrot launched its first brand campaign, “Good Stuff Delivered,” an effort that promotes the joys of everyday pleasures. The campaign plays up the company’s app-based delivery service through tongue-in-cheek black and white illustrations that are running digitally and with revamped store bags and Foxtrot's new line of coffee merchandise.

Brand Innovators caught up with Dunham from her home in Chicago to discuss Foxtrot’s evolution, adapting to pandemic times and her background in fusing product and brand marketing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have experience as a marketing executive for several fashion brands and a gym. How have you brought this into your role at Foxtrot?

In my current role at Foxtrot, I oversee all of marketing,but also all of merchandising and that melding between brand and product is really at the core expression of who Foxtrot is.  A big portion of my role is really zeroing in on our product expression and having that product really support the brand ethos. For example, our commitment to local products. So we have 10-15% of our products in any given market sourced locally. And that starts with our coffee that we brew in-house in Chicago, we carry Metric.

That commitment to having a local roaster on the ground is part and parcel to how we market who we are. We also zero in on categories that feel right for curation and really bring a deep sense of love and authority to the area. So one is another area we are really known for. We have a sommi;lier on staff and his expertise is personally reflected in the fact that all of our bottles are 100% hand picked by him.

Do you use his voice in your marketing as part of your influencer marketing program?

We do. In fact, one of the most successful investments of content that we have done over the past year is a series of pieces that come alive on social but are also shared on email and on our website around this idea of our sommelier’s picks, his favorite bottles of the month. And it is not just, “Oh this is a nice bottle.” There is a story about why those bottles have come together and why he sees them as being so seasonally appropriate. For example, a recent email that went out was focused on Italian wines, with everything from a Chianti Classico to something a little bit bolder and a little bit more high-end.

Grocery has done well this year. As a digital-first corner store how has COVID-19 impacted your business?

At a business level, the diversity of our model which is both brick-and-mortar, as well as on-demand and online delivery really gave us the flexibility to react to COVID as it evolved in real time. Immediately when we went to COVID lockdown it became universal. In March, we saw a really dramatic shift towards online sales, I think that shift has somewhat normalized.

What we are actually seeing currently is really high performance in our retail stores and our thought behind that is that customers are looking for a bit of diversion. I think we've all been cooped up, working from home for the better part of seven months and sneaking out for a little bit and getting out for a great cup of coffee and your favorite pastry feels like a good way to break up the day. Having flexibility, the business model allowed us to evolve as the customer demand has evolved. And then beyond that we certainly have thought to innovate even further.

How has your messaging evolved to adapt to these new consumer demands?

From a channel perspective, we introduced market pick-up and contactless delivery back in the spring, right when COVID hit. And then just last month, we introduced cafe pickup, which allows you to get your morning coffee and breakfast ready to go waiting for you at the store and you still have that moment of diversion, but you are not waiting in line, you are in and out very quickly. On the brand side, we have also really driven a lot of innovation here internally.

With the consumer being somewhat sequestered at home, not having much diversion, Foxtrot, which has always prided ourselves in being expert in product integration, introducing the element of discovery in all of your shopping trips, we have leaned into that more heavily. We expanded our wine selection in about half of our stores, almost doubling the size of our wine, bringing in a lot of organic wines, interesting varietals, we completely redid our snack assortment, also we redid our frozen assortment and we are in the process of launching gifting. All of that focus on just keeping the assortment super tight, really fresh, I think is intentionally driven around the fact that the consumer is looking for diversion and excitement because we are so limited in the things that we can do unfortunately.

You mentioned your gifting business. Are you ramping that up for the upcoming holiday season?

We have always had a really good gifting business. One of the highlights for us has been last minute gifts on Valentine's Day. That moment of, “Oh my, I forgot to get flowers or a great bottle of wine.” What we saw through COVID is that people really wanted to have that feeling of emotional intimacy but maybe not being able to be there in person. Foxtrot was having a role in being able to express that they were thinking of someone or missing somebody’s birthday. So over the past six months we have really invigorated that category, put a lot more time and attention into the type of gift boxes that we are putting together.

This holiday season, we are launching with a really deep assortment with the focus on wine all with just being able to give gifts that can be ordered and then delivered within an hour. And then in the State of Illinois and in the State of Texas, we will also be delivering those gifts to residents across the state.

Many brands with physical locations shifted to digital marketing this year.  Did this year’s events impact the media play in your brand campaign this summer?

We launched our first big brand campaign in late August and a portion of that campaign was out-of-home, and we did pivot for out-of-home placements that are going to be a bit more ubiquitous so rather than having a billboard in one set location, we actually pivoted and leaned in more heavily for bus backs. We leaned more heavily in wild posting, elements that we felt could be more dynamic, more street level more connected to how customers were actually consuming media.

Digital has always been part of our lexicon and our vocabulary in terms of how we engage with consumers but I definitely think in a world in which everybody is always on all the time, we have thought out innovating and pivoting the message and also creating a deeper narrative to who we are. So in the course of COVID, we have really expanded our investment in influencer outreach and cultivation, because we think that ability to have refresh stories around the utility of our brand told in a way that feels highly personalized that can kind of shift and evolve with the seasons, it just feels a lot fresher than simply running media 24/7.

As we head into the new year what plans do you have for marketing to your consumer?

We have always been somewhat channel agnostic. I think part of what we feel makes our model super compelling is this notion that wherever you are wherever you need us, we are there. Prior to COVD, we always did this customer lifecycle of being multichannel from the outset, so you would come in in the morning, get your morning cup of coffee, maybe comeback at lunch, pick up a salad and then in the evening order delivery and get a great bottle of wine and a pint of ice cream and your favorite frozen pizza. That lifecycle or that day parting across channels remains consistent in today’s environment.

I think that if we are honing in on it more specifically, it is thinking through products that make sense for specific end uses. We think about coffee, that new feature within our app of cafe pick up where you can order your favorite latte ahead of time or if you are a perks customer, get your free batch brew, order it ahead of time and make that quick trip into the store. I think customers want to be out and about. They want to be safe, but there is this need for diversion. And then in the evening what we have been doing is introducing more of these discovery bundles. We are pairing really great wine with our in-house cheese and charcuterie boards, that is much more of an experience that is designed for delivery.

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