By Hywania Thompson | Photo by Anthony Wahl
Those who partook in the consumption of cheese from the World’s Largest Cheese Board at Madison’s Concerts on the Square in August 2018 have Suzanne Fanning and her team to thank. The record-breaking feat was a follow-up to a cheese board of similar proportions at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March 2018. The Texas festival is typically known for music, film and interactive media — so tables full of cheese seemed unconventional.
It’s that kind of creative thinking that makes Fanning a dynamic marketer. Fanning serves as the senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin/Wisconsin Cheese. The monster cheese board idea came to Fanning early in the morning.
“We were racking our brains trying to think of what we can do that will compel people to come [to the lounge] because we didn’t want to be lame and just be a lounge full of cheese,” she says. But, it ended up not being lame at all. Fanning worked with a Texas company that created a 3D-printed barn; they added all the features of a true Wisconsin farm party and it was a success. Fanning then brought the idea home to Wisconsin and invited Guinness World Records. The rest is history.
For Fanning, the work she does is about people. It’s not necessarily about a product, it’s about how people feel about it — or in this case — how they feel when eating it. That’s why the experiences she’s dreamed up around Wisconsin cheese have been so successful — they focus on the feeling and the food. She notes food fanatics want to understand where their food comes from.
“That’s what all marketers need to do — is understand people,” Fanning says. “Focus less on their product and figure out what they can do for their fans, because in turn, fans will do some amazing things for you.”
In the mid-2000s, Fanning worked in public relations and marketing communications at Fiskars in Middleton. She worked under then-CEO Chad Vincent to drive sales and transform the brand to empower people to pursue their passions, like gardening and crafting. Fanning’s career also included stints at Amway in Michigan, Remington and at WOMMA, a marketing organization in Chicago. Now, Fanning works with Vincent again, who is CEO of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, in her current role. “The greatest honor you can have is to have a boss who wants to hire you again,” says Fanning. “I’ve been really fortunate.” Fanning works in an interesting industry, too — far different than her past employers. Dairy is still primarily a male- dominated industry, though Fanning notes 36% of farmers are female.
“There are so many, even much younger women, who are talking about agriculture and how important it is, and trying to become spokespeople in the industry,” she says. “Females are really making an impact there more than anybody realizes.”
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
“ Trust your instincts and follow your passion. I really go after things that I want, and I take roles and challenges that get me excited. The passion and not giving in and just really believing in yourself.”
What books, podcasts or resources do you enjoy for career insight?
“I’m a huge fan of Chip and Dan Heath. They wrote a book a few years back called ‘Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,’ and they’ve written some others since then. I think those are really, really amazing. I’m also a huge fan of Gary Vaynerchuk. I’ve done a lot of roundtables with him and he’s always on the cutting edge.
I absolutely adore Seth Godin. He is one of my favorites and his wife is a big foodie; I like both of them. All of those people like to come up with really fun ideas and do things in a different way.”
Read more from our “What Women Want at Work” feature here.