CMO of the Week: La Colombe’s Kathryn O’Connor

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Kathryn O’Connor was recently promoted to the newly created position of chief marketing officer at La Colombe, after spending almost nine years working for the brand.

Kathryn O’Connor was recently promoted to the newly created position of chief marketing officer at La Colombe, after spending almost nine years working for the brand.

“It's a first time role for the company,” explains O’Connor. “ It's really about leveling up and fully integrating all of our four channels and understanding from a brand delivery promise perspective, delivering on making people happy with coffee through every interaction, whether it's through product through experience through marketing.”

La Colombe has been around since 1994. The company operates a four channel business – 34 cafes (sometimes in airports), CPG ready-to-drink products, a wholesale roasted coffee and hospitality partnerships which includes partnerships with American Airlines, Whole Foods, the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas and more. The coffee brand is known for experimenting in the craft coffee business and offering things like canned and draft lattes.

We're in a high growth category with a lot of competition,” explains O’Connor, about the need for her new role. “It is about unifying our brand vision across all of our channels and ensuring that consistency.” 

Her vision in the new role is, “to bring the best coffee and cold brews and lattes to more people. We want to deliver amazing delicious coffee at an accessible price to democratize great coffee,”explains O’Connor.  “We want to make people happy with coffee.”

Brand Innovators caught up with O’Connor from her home office in the Philadelphia area to discuss new role, cultivating loyalty and draft lattes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you thinking about innovation?

It's really about meeting the consumer where they are and giving them something that they didn't even realize could be better. We launched our first draft latte product back in 2016. Ready-to-drink iced coffee was already available, but a true crafted canned latte had not. We used nitrous oxide to give that foamy frothy milk texture in a can, which had never been done before. We have always put ourselves in this disruptive position where we're not just doing something new, but we're giving the consumer an even better quality delivery of the product. 

The other thing is we can use our cafes as our incubation hubs. When we first launched the draft latte, we actually did it on tap in our cafes first. We saw an immediate shift from people, ordering iced lattes to getting draught lattes on tap. Now we just introduced a fourth tap seasonal program where we can start to launch new flavors combinations. We have hundreds of baristas in the cafes working directly with consumers every day so we get real live feedback on products, which is not common for a CPG brand. 

How are you collecting that data?

We track purchasing data so that we understand when we launch something, how things are starting to sell. We also will do some emails to customers in the cafes to get feedback on new products. Then we do some consumer testing when we develop something for the CPG world. We'll do the qualitative testing and consumer focus groups, as well.

Who are your key customers and how are you reaching them?

We have different customers depending on the channel, but I always remind myself to step back and at the highest level, we sell coffee. And 80% of adults in the United States consume coffee every day. So it makes our true target very wide. There's a lot of different interaction points that we have with consumers every day within our channels. 

We have cafes in major cities in the United States including: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, LA, and then like right outside of San Diego. We have a lot of direct interaction with those customers every single day. If you can walk into one of our cafes, there is a wide range of customers –students, construction workers, professionals. We see people come looking for a better, cleaner crafted product. We end up getting a lot of e-commerce customers based on either a cafe interaction or CPG. They've been introduced to our products via cafe or CPG, become loyal customers and start to shop online. 

In what ways are you cultivating loyalty among your customers?

We have a loyal customer base online. We see that consumer journey often happen where you may be introduced to us via a cafe or buy one of our products on a shelf or even in hotels. We show up in a lot of different places in the world. You love the product. You have a great experience. You become a loyal customer. You come online. You subscribe. You get products delivered to your door every so often. We really try to cultivate loyalty through the product experience and the positive experience around the brand. 

Can you talk about any marketing campaigns you have running right now? 

National cold brew Day was on 4/20. We used that as our kickoff to the cold brew season. Right now we have a campaign called A Taste Above All. We're doing this Holy Grail of cold brew moments where we talk to real people about their coffee preferences and introduce our coffee to them. There may be another coffee brand that might be their favorite, but we're doing a blind taste test and seeing how people react to La Colombe. 

In early March, we kicked off our annual partnership or annual with the ACLU. We had two coffees launched. One was Lyon, a roasted coffee, and $2 of every product goes to benefit the ACLU. And then we did Lioness which also gives $2 to the ACLU with each purchase. It's specifically for their women's rights project inspired to support the aftermath of the abortion laws this year. Since 2020, we've continued to focus on ACLU and women's rights in particular. We have a number of really strong female leaders in our company and it's something that's important to us. 

Through those campaigns, we have partnered with artists to develop custom artwork for the coffee boxes. We will work with different artists to either help bring the campaign more to life. We just worked with Kendall Ross, a knitter who knitted us a custom sweater that we put on social media to benefit the ACLU and to bring attention to this campaign that we have running.

What is your approach to leadership?

My approach is really to provide space for others to do their work well. Whether it is listening, breaking down barriers for others to and obstacles for others to do the best work that they can, or providing and developing opportunities for people to shine. I spend a lot of time with my team with my individual team leaders, and just understanding what their aspirations are, because everyone across the marketing org for sure is always looking to advance and they have personal and professional goals and so on. I am here to help them achieve those goals. I see myself and my leadership style really as a conduit for bringing opportunity to the folks on my team.

I'm a highly empathetic leader. I'm a mom. I have three kids. I'm very busy in all aspects of life. Personally, I have personal and professional goals and aspirations every day. Everyone in my team has their goals and aspirations personally and professionally. Most of my direct reports are also parents. We talk a lot about both the pros and cons of the busyness of life with kids and a full time workload. Having an empathetic ear just makes us work better and understand each other and have really constructive and fruitful conversations around how we're going to achieve what we want to personally and professionally. 

How are you thinking about the rest of the year?

We have really big goals and in 2023 and beyond. We worked to define those goals at the end of 2022. 2023 is about getting in the weeds, being nimble, being scrappy, and getting things done. I am truly thinking about it day by day and how are we moving forward to meet our objectives? We're a high growth brand in a competitive category. We are working to gain distribution and increase our turn rates every single day. I'm also thinking about how we continue to hold our place in culture and grow it even more. 

We're a mission-driven brand with big brand aspirations and we want to make people happy with amazing, innovative, delicious products. So how do we stay top of mind from a cultural perspective and also leading edge from a product innovation perspective?  

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