The Big Cheese
Cabot's extra-sharp marketing guru preaches the gospel on the Vermont brand
Roberta MacDonald is a true believer in the Church of Cabot. According to her faith, cows and dairy farmers are holy, cheddar is a sacrament, and Vermont is the Promised Land. Her mission: Bring as many people as possible into the fold of “Caboteers” and take other Vermont companies along as the company grows. One might call it the “Vermont whey.”
On a recent Thursday evening, MacDonald — Berta to her friends — was at Killington’s Summit Lodge preaching from her “marketing bible” to members of the Vermont Specialty Food Association, an organization she helped found 25 years ago. As Cabot’s senior vice president of marketing, she was speaking on the staid-sounding topic of “Taking Your Brand to the Next Level,” but her presentation had the religious fervor of a tent revival, complete with refrains of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”
“Are you feeling the love?” MacDonald shouted to the 40 reps of small- and medium-sized food producers in attendance, all of whom were there to learn from her decades of experience.
When MacDonald began at Cabot in August 1988, the quaint dairy cooperative was only vaguely associated with the Green Mountain State; the state’s image was on the logo, but the word “Vermont” was not. Today, Cabot is one of the region’s largest producers of cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products, and is as much a Vermont icon as skis and maple syrup.
As the public face of Cabot, MacDonald, 59, is anything but the stereotypical corporate flack. Dressed in a pink Cabot T-shirt and wearing rimless glasses on the tip of her nose, she has a warm, approachable smile and looks a bit like Janis Joplin. She can be loud, brash and un-PC, with a delivery as bracing to the senses as a fresh cow patty. Little wonder MacDonald describes her style as “an acquired taste.”
For example, during her marketing presentation, she endearingly referred to her old friend Jerry Kelly, the former deputy ag commissioner who helped found the Specialty Food Association, as “a slither snake” who “could have sold ice to Eskimos.” She freely boasted, “I inhaled,” and jokingly called herself “a whorebag for the company.”
When someone in the room asked if MacDonald thought Vermont should shut down its highway rest areas, she replied, “I say, ‘Shut ’em all down and get people off the road. Pee in the store on Main Street, not on the highway...’ Is that controversial enough?”
Despite her potty mouth and occasional hippie-trippy metaphors, MacDonald is also a self-described “numbers freak” with a shrewd head for marketing and a fertile imagination for pitching — sometimes literally — Cabot products to new customers. She once commissioned Burton Snowboards to design a board with Cabot’s red plaid logo, then got volunteer kids to ride the boards at Vermont ski areas, lobbing hunks of cheese at out-of-town visitors.
When she heard U.S. women’s soccer star Julie Foudy bitching about the bland American cheese served in hotels, MacDonald sent her a shipment of cheddar. In gratitude, Foudy filmed a free commercial for Cabot. In it, she says, “We won the World Cup after having the world’s best cheddar. Think there’s a connection?”
With a minuscule marketing budget— about 3.5 percent of revenues, compared with 10 to 20 percent at larger food-products companies — MacDonald relies heavily on Cabot’s family of 1200 farmers, their friends and relatives as her de facto marketing team. She’s persuaded them to “practice random acts of cheddar,” such as visiting firehouses, police stations and post offices and handing out free cheese with a card that reads, “You’ve just been thanked.”
“It’s all karma building,” she told the specialty food group. “The more you do, the more you get back.”’
When she first moved here, MacDonald didn’t even know the “green blob” on the Cabot label was Vermont. In 1984, Gov. Madeleine Kunin tapped MacDonald — a former marketing executive for such upscale corporate entities as CBS, American Express, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation — to be the state’s first marketing director. Before moving to Cabot in 1988, McDonald built the state’s original database of Vermont-based companies and launched research on marketing the Vermont identity.
The ex-wife of Vermont Sen. Mark MacDonald — “I married him for the genetic upgrade for beautiful kids, and got them,” she says — MacDonald is now single and lives in Burlington. She recently spoke to Seven Days about why she’s so passionate about Cabot’s 1200 farmer-owners. In a nutshell, says McDonald: “I wasn’t born black. I wasn’t a guy in Vietnam. I got the farmers. They’re my mission.”
SEVEN DAYS: When you joined Cabot in 1988, it was in the dark ages from a marketing standpoint.
ROBERTA MACDONALD: It had a VP of marketing, but the guy was a sales guy. That’s classically what companies do. They call them VPs of marketing and sales, but they’re really salespeople, so that means they’re peddling what the company makes. Marketing, fundamentally, is finding out what people want. So they’re very different sides of the brain, in my opinion, and they [require] very different personalities.
SD: Did your job change much when Agri-Mark came in?
RM: Agri-Mark saved us. They brought systems ... They brought stability. They brought more farmers. We were a dwindling number of 400 [farmers]. They brought in a family of more than a thousand. Shockingly, you would think a new CEO would bring in a new staff, but he kept absolutely every one of us.
SD: Agri-Mark wasn’t seen as a large corporation taking over?
RM: You say “corporation,” but I say it was just a bigger co-op. They were three times larger than us, but they were also light- years ahead of us in their financial systems. So, it’s very weird to me that Agri-Mark is perceived as this big corporation, when all it is is farmers from all over New England and upstate New York.
SD: What are your thoughts on the Vermont Seal of Quality?
RM: When I came into the Kunin job ... what you had was this vibrant awareness of Vermont, whether it was from New Yorker cartoons or the really cool people who opened B&Bs. But you saw very few mentions of Vermont on [product] labels. So all we did was quantify in major markets in the Northeast that there was value in the name Vermont. I basically said, “Let’s think Vermont Inc., and we have all these little subsidiaries.” But there’s so much more we can do together.
SD: Should the state be more vigilant about policing the Vermont “brand”?
RM: We’ve done enough consumer testing over the last 20 years [to know] that, because there’s no awareness building around [the seal of quality] — there’s no touting it, there’s no featuring it in women’s magazines, there’s no PR behind it — it has absolutely no meaning. Therefore, all that effort, the paltry sums dedicated to the seal of quality, are spent on regulation. It’s the right idea, but, like a lot of good ideas, it’s a mandate without resources.
SD: Has the Agency of Agriculture been helpful in getting the Cabot name out there?
RM: It’s not their job. Not for Cabot. I think [Secretary of Agriculture] Roger Allbee would tell you that Cabot does more to help other companies than [the state] possibly could ... Those are not funds the state chooses to ante up, even though our efforts contribute to the rooms and meals tax. It’s tourism that is the engine, not agriculture.
SD: Is Cabot sold nationwide?
RM: Well, we think so. When I say “nationwide,” sometimes it’s just a specialty store in Wyoming.
SD: And you’re now on transcontinental flights.
RM: My favorite is, we were on Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, and the stewardesses were warning passengers that the cheese might be too sharp for their taste [laughs].
SD: One message from your presentation was “A rising tide raises all boats.”
SD: Why is Cabot’s fate tied to smaller Vermont companies?
RM: Because we’re a co-op ... It’s the purest form of democracy, allow[ing] capitalism with transparency. Cooperatives agree that everyone shares in the profits. They recognize a community taproot that very few companies do. We’re not going to be sold to [Groupe Danone, owner of] Dannon, like Stonyfield Farm, or Unilever, like Ben & Jerry’s ... As long as there are farmers, we’re here to stay.
SD: In 2007 you had a serious PR challenge when Cabot had to plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act.
RM: You mean the ammonia spill? We didn’t have to plead guilty. We were guilty. We felt horrible about it.
SD: How’d you deal with that from a PR standpoint?
RM: When you have an employee with the greatest intentions in the world [who] violates safety and protocol, [who] does everything wrong for the right reasons, you step up. You say, “We did this.” And here’s the beauty of it ... We found all these disparate community groups and people trying to make a difference ... and put our resources to collecting them, so much so that we got an environmental stewardship award just two months ago from the Agency of Natural Resources ... So we did right by that mistake. Anyone can screw up, but you have to own it.
SD: What’s the biggest mistake Vermont companies make?
RM: Well, they sell out and leave their neighbors behind. I hate that ... The Bible According to Roberta includes karmic obligation. When you forget your roots and forget who had faith in you first, you cut off your psychic supply line to your opportunities and good luck.
That’s so hokey! How’s that gonna sound? They’re gonna say I’m dropping acid. I never did.
SD: Isn’t speaking your mind an asset, especially when you represent farmers, who are inherently no-bullshit kind of people?
RM: Amen! And they recognize me as an acquired taste ... There’s no makeup or hair dye. The clothes are practical. They’re not trendy ... It’s very reflective of my owners.
SD: How does that style go over in the corporate world outside Vermont?
RM: I think the world is changing as far as those superficial judgments, for the most part. I do find that I’m probably the most quickly embraced person at any meeting. I mean, literally embraced. There’s something so refreshing for people that there is no [stiff] collar. But it comes more from the passion I feel for the farmer-owners. I am on a mission. This is my religion. I believe what we do here keeps farmers farming. And their community depends on the success of all the contributors to that community. Hence all these companies. It’s symbiosis.
SD: Do you have unachieved goals for Cabot?
RM: When we were in our worst financial shape, farmers owned a single-digit percentage of the company. The rest was debt. We’re now approaching a 50 percent equity position ... The thing I’d love to do in my tenure is make sure the debt is less than 20 percent. That’d be so cool, so full circle.