Donna Josephson / SVP, Chief Marketing Officer / Corner Bakery

Donna is an executive brand leader with proven skills in driving sales and profit results. Her consistent record of success in product R&D, brand planning and execution in the quick casual space brought her to the lead marketing role at Corner Bakery. She is heading up marketing, product R&D and supply chain management.
Founded in 1991, Corner Bakery Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner options to guests in 23 states and Washington, D.C. There are nearly 200 company-owned and franchised locations around the country. The bakery-café chain’s extensive menu and welcoming atmosphere are just a couple of the reasons it has garnered positive reviews from guests.

Digitent: So, tell me a little bit about what you do with Corner Bakery.

Donna: I’m Donna Josephson and I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at Corner Bakery and, obviously, I have marketing, but I’m also fortunate enough to have product R&D, and I also oversee Supply Chain management.

Digitent: Wow, so supply chain, marketing, R&D. New products, new things to bring into the stores. It sounds fun.

Donna: It is. It’s really fun. Especially the product part. It is always interesting to find out what consumers want and then how to make that fit and bring it to life at your restaurants. Plus, it tastes really good. I taste a lot of really neat new cutting-edge products and it’s a lot of fun.

Digitent: What’s the scope of Corner Bakery? Are you US-focused or international?

Donna: We’re US-focused right now. We’re in a lot of major metros from LA to Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, all the way across to DC and Philly. So, a lot of our cafes are in urban markets and all in the United States. Around 200 restaurants.

Digitent: That’s great. One thing I’ve always admired about your brand was your ability to manage going out the back door with catering. It seemed like I had read that catering was as big as the retail storefront.

Donna: Right, it’s a big part of the business. It’s about a quarter of the business not quite bigger than retail but yes, definitely something that we’re very good at – we’ve been good at it for a long time. It’s in our DNA and we do an awful lot of it. So, everything we do from a product development standpoint we’ll say, “Hey, how does this work retail and now how do we make that great at catering as well?”

Digitent: Primarily you’re targeting businesses, B2B, or you doing individual catering?

Donna: We do both. We do business to business catering. But we also do social catering and social catering, of course, has been on the uptick as well. So, we run the gamut.

Digitent: Is there a new product coming in or that you just introduced that we should know about?

Donna: There are all kinds. So most recently we kicked off some new elevations in the brand and we brought in new oven-roasted turkey that is making our turkey sandwich delicious. We’ve got a new pecan smoked ham that we’re using that is again another elevation for the brand. But at breakfast time, we’ve introduced egg bowls, they egg bowls are protein-packed — (people) on a low carb or Keto diet will find exactly what they’re looking for in one of the egg bowls. And we also have new desserts like truffle cake bites. So, if you have got a sweet tooth and you’re not on keto welcome to the truffle cake bite, for just that perfect sweet treat. So, a lot of new things going on at Corner Bakery.

Digitent: Obviously having lots of hats to wear there, how would you talk to ambition as part of your journey in becoming a marketing leader and a CMO? And what do you think about the idea of being an ambitious marketer?

Donna: I thought that was an interesting question when you brought this up and I think my entire life I’ve been around people who are ambitious. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way – from my parents to mentors that I’ve had, everyone has been movers and shakers if you will. People who like to leave the world a little bit better or a business a little bit better than it was when they got there. And so, I’ve just watched ambition my whole life and for me, I have a desire and a drive to make results happen and to take action, to make things better. I just love solving business problems, whether it’s a brand problem, a marketing problem, an operations issue, and then finding what the solutions are, executing the solutions, and making things better. That’s success and that’s what drives me. I think ambition is a positive thing and because of that desire that I’ve always had it’s helped me to be a learner and a person who is happy to take on more responsibility and get things done.

Digitent: Well put. Have you been in food your whole career or have you been in different Industries?

Donna: There was a little bit of my early career where I was in logistics. Isn’t that weird now I have supply chain? But it was a very short period of time and it wasn’t food logistics. So, then I very quickly got into the food business and once – a lot of people say this – once you have that food and restaurant experience it sort of gets in your blood and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

Digitent: As you step back and look at your overall marketing organization at Corner Bakery Café, what sort of Ambitions do you tee up? Do you have goals or certain KPI you go after or how do you see ambition playing into your business?

Donna: Right. Well in the restaurant business, it’s an interesting time. We’re going to a competitive battle every day and consumer expectations are higher than ever in regard to the quality of product, service and convenience. And so, we have to have goals set, we have to talk about what’s right for a brand as far as how we’re going to differentiate, how we’re going to elevate the food. For example, I spoke earlier of sourcing higher quality proteins, breads and other ingredients that are important to the consumer. We are constantly setting creating the vision and setting goals to achieve to drive the business forward. Not just “hey are these achievable?” or not “that’s fun to achieve the goals”. But what are some stretch goals that we can have that really catch the vision and go after it. If you help the team get excited about making changes and continuing to elevate the brand and goals greater things can be achieved

Digitent: Is there a particular success of a product that you launched or something that stands out that you went “Wow! We did that.”

Donna: Yes, absolutely. So, one that is available right now. Actually, it seems simple, but we didn’t have the protein shrimp on our menu. For most of my team on board, if I said the word shrimp it was almost like it was a dirty word. Don’t say shrimp – we can’t do it; it is difficult to execute. Adding shrimp became a goal of mine (and I think our CEO’s) to achieve “How can we bring in this new flavor profile? What can we do to elevate pastas on the menu?” We started working with the chef and we created this really tasty Shrimp Scampi that is differentiated in our space. In fast-casual you just don’t see a lot of shrimp scampi. We tested it and it did really well. And we said but, we want it to do better than well, and we also want to have credibility instantly with the consumer when we put this on the menu. We launched with our new photography style. We created a beautiful point of purchase and put together enticing social campaigns. We launched it and we were needing to source more shrimp right away because we were blowing through all of our projections. It has been such a big hit people are saying please keep that on the menu, and we are. So those are the kind of goals where we don’t think we can do it. You set the vision and say I think we can do it. Prove that the guests want it from us. Create something that’s fantastic, you test it – it does well, and then you say let’s have it do even better. We didn’t expect it to do as good as it did, but it’s a nice problem to have.

Digitent: Yes, that is ambitious. I mean if you think about introducing something completely different. Most of the time I think, especially in food, people are sort of just rearranging the things that they have.

Donna: Right. It was a great compliment and made my day when a franchisee said, you know, I was really concerned about it but the minute I saw the point of sale, we had instant credibility. That’s one of the nicest things that someone said to me and to our team. That’s exactly what we intended to do and know the sales show that.

Digitent: That’s awesome. What’s your marketing organization like and how are you organized?

Donna: We’re a scrappy team. There’s about nine of us. There are three people in field marketing that support the system. And then we have a brand team that’s to help of product development as well as promotions and creative. We have a social and digital director to guide all digital programming. From a marketing perspective, that’s the team and we also have a chef and a kitchen manager as well as a couple folks in supply chain.

Digitent: In question around your team and looking for the quality of ambition or trying to teach ambition in the frame of trying to accomplish your goals. Do you see that idea playing into who you hire or who you like to work with or anything along those lines?

Donna: I do. It’s interesting when you wonder, “How am I going to get this person motivated or teach them ambition”. I mentioned earlier as I grew up surrounded by ambitious people, it was just natural; everybody in my family were go-getters. Let’s figure out how to make things happen. Not everybody grows up in that environment. So, for teammates that I’m bringing onto the team, one of the things that I like to do is understand their personal and career goals are. What are your life goals? It’s interesting because sometimes you ask people that and they don’t have any. They say,” I don’t know, huh can I have this job” or “Well it depends on how this interview works out.” Other people that I have interviewed I clear in their direction – For example, a current member of the team during her interview said, “this is where I see my career is going,” and proceeded to outline her own vision of her career. That provided me what I needed to help her achieve her goals and to motivate her. You understand where each team member wants to go and as a leader, you can say, “I can help you do that. Let’s help you get there.” Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to figure out what it is that’s really motivating this person. What are their goals? What are the personal goals? What are their career goals? But once you figure that out and you play to that and know they know that you’re interested in helping them reach that, I think that’s when you unlock and ignite some of that ambition, and I’ve seen that happen for people who say, “I have no clue, I just want to get this job,” to “hey, this is where my heart is and this is what I want to go for.”

Digitent: Very interesting. You kind of answered the next question too about what sort of advice you would give to a rising marketer or somebody young coming into a marketing organization. And it sounds like you’re saying, get your head around some goals and then communicate those goals to leadership.

Donna: Yes, I would say that. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s just a personal thing where you can think hey, you know, I’m just going to play here and see if somebody notices me. I know that when I was younger, I used to feel like that – good work will be recognized and I would look at people who were more self- promoting and think wow, they’re always being braggadocios. I learned it’s not that! You want people that don’t hide what they want or hide accomplishments that help the team reach goals. I don’t read minds. No one reads mine. If I want to try something new, I’ve got to let people know. If I want to learn something, I need to let people know what that is and just not be afraid to communicate ask and seek out the opportunity. If I have a great idea no one’s going to know it if I don’t share it. That’s one of the things that makes me happiest is when new team members, or any team member, whether it’s in marketing or another function, comes to me and says, “Hey, I have a crazy idea.” Love it. Share it. I don’t care where the ideas come from. As a leader be open to the ideas. Let people know your ideas and be open.

Digitent: Oh, that’s great. That is great advice.

Donna: I think some of the greatest product ideas, don’t always come from The Test Kitchen. Not all the greatest marketing ideas come from the marketing team. It is important to listen to The Operators that are with the customer every day.

Digitent: Is same-store sales and growth a key performance metric or is its other data or other analytics? How do you guys like to see that you’re getting where you want to be?

Donna: Success depends on the objectives, of course, but at the bottom line, there’s always the profitable sales and guest traffic, if you want to stay in business as a restaurant you have to have those but sometimes the objective is just increasing our consumer awareness or driving new guests into a loyalty program, which we know once they’re in the loyalty program will increase their guest frequency. So, we look at the data. We analyze it. We look mostly at profitable sales and traffic, but we’re always looking at additional data, consumer information to figure out if we’re successful in our programming.

Digitent: Just out of curiosity, do you find focus groups tend to map to future success or is it kind of hit and miss?

Donna: Generally, & Directionally they’re good. I think they give us some good feedback. It was interesting. I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker just last week at a conference and he was talking about how you can put them in a room and hear what they had to say and some of the answers may be what they think you want to hear. He says, go actually sit in the living rooms, see how they really behave, what their actions are, and I think I’ll use an example from the way back machine when I was at Applebee’s. We launched a Weight Watchers menu while I was there. We partnered with Weight Watchers and it was great, and consumers told us that’s what they wanted, and they would come to us more often. The metrics on those items were so low and at first, everyone thought wow, this is just a fail. The consumer said they wanted it. They wanted it. They didn’t really want to buy it – They wanted to know that they could eat healthier, but they didn’t always choose those items. I’d say overall guest panels – they work – focus groups – they work. But there may be some new creative ways that we need to use to find out what the guests are really doing.

Digitent: I understand. Are there any particular challenges that keep you up at night? We talked a lot sort of inside our walls about the fragmentation of the media landscape and how we try to reach our customers and best engage them. Do you run into challenges with the landscape these days? Or is that changing for your industry?

Donna: We run into that challenge. We don’t do traditional media buying at Corner Bakery. So, no television per se, no radio, so very much a digital presence, as well as communicating directly to our consumers through our loyalty club. But I would say that that’s part of what keeps me up at night. Figuring out how to communicate with them in a very fragmented space and then additionally, just the sheer pace of change that is happening so rapidly. Once you think you’ve got it figured out something else pops up. I just wish I had a crystal ball so I could predict the next leap innovation in the marketing space so you could try and get out in front of that and figure out how better to communicate with consumers.

Digitent: Beyond that, do you see anything else that hinders you reaching some goals or is there anything that you’ve overcome of late that you’re proud of you would point to?

Donna: I’m proud of a lot of things that we’re doing right now. I try not to focus on what’s hindering the goals. I try to focus on how to jump over those hurdles and workaround. So, if there’s something that’s in my way, it’s not like I bowl it over, but we try to say okay, “what are we going to do in order to make this work?” So, I’ll give you an example: With 200 cafes were not nearly as penetrated as our major competitor. They have a lot more restaurants and our consumers were telling us we’re not as convenient. We’d shied away from third-party delivery because of the fees and we decided, we’re going to look at this a little differently and this is not going to be a roadblock to our success. We’re going to become more convenient. We’re going to partner and actually embrace third party partners. We’ve got a very small marketing budget, we are not on traditional radio, TV, and media like that, so we’re going to actually use third party delivery partners to help market our brand, and that’s what we’re doing. We’ve gone forward and we find it to be about 80% incremental in the business. We see new people trying Corner Bakery who may not have tried Corner Bakery previously because we weren’t in their neighborhood. And so, while some brands are looking at that as a major roadblock or hurdle to success, we’re saying it’s actually a tool we’re going to use to drive the business. Helping us meet our sales goals.

Digitent: So, it sounds like Corner Bakery has got a great ambitious marketer leading thing. Is there anything else you’d add to what we’ve already talked about?

Donna: I don’t know if I have anything to add. I think that people have to define what they want and go for it. Business, personal or otherwise.

Digitent: Well said. Thank you so much Donna for taking the time to chat with us. It’s been enlightening and it’s also lots of fun to get a glimpse at what goes on to make brands operate the way we experience them, and nice to see all that stuff come together. And we’ll be looking out for lots more great things from y’all.

Donna: We hope to deliver on that!