Leadership Strategy Video Series

An Interview with Karen Kraft of Johnsonville
Interviewed by Clay Dethloff, Decision Analyst

Decision Analyst interviews Karen Kraft, Senior Consumer Insights Manager, of Johnsonville, on how cpg companies are navigating the covid-19 crisis and how they are planning for the future.


Clay: Hello everyone and welcome to our Leadership Strategy Series. My name is Clay Detloff. I’m Senior Vice President of Qualitative Research at Decision Analyst, a marketing research company based out of Arlington, Texas. With me today, I have the pleasure of being with Karen Kraft, who is the Senior Consumer Insights Manager at Johnsonville. Karen, it’s great to see you, and always good to talk with you. So, thank you for being with us today.

Karen: Thanks Clay. I wish I could see you in person, but today from my home office will have to do.

Clay: Very good, that’s true, seems to be the way these days. Well to begin with, Karen, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, if you don’t mind? Just kind of introduce yourself to to our public here?

Karen: Well, I have been in market research and consumer insights pretty much my whole life. My mom started as a bookkeeper at a firm when I was six. So, I literally grew up in market research. I spent most of my career, the early part of my career, on the supplier side and then in 2011, I went to work for a major food manufacturer, and then in 2018, I joined Johnsonville.

Clay: Very nice, very good, well again I appreciate you being here ,and you know, we’re going to be talking about business and the impact of COVID-19 on your industry and so forth. To begin with, just tell me―how are you doing personally? How are you and your family doing during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Karen: Well, thanks for asking. We’re doing great. I’m working from home, and my husband’s home all day too. Luckily, I have my own office, so I can act like I’m going to work, and we can stay out of each other’s hair, and not be on top of each other.

Clay: As we start talking about this COVID-19 and the impact that it has on business, some changes that businesses and industries are going to have to make are going to be temporary, and some are going to be more permanent. We’d like to know how you feel your industry or organization has adopted to, or is adopting to these changes? How do you think your industry has been perceived during the crisis?

Karen: Well recently a lot of meat companies have been in the news, there’s been a lot of plant closures, and those are mostly in plants where there is harvesting going on because that has to be done. Usually it’s hard to do social distancing. So, they’re really suffering and those plants are having to be closed for days and weeks at a time. On the flip side, we are mostly a back-end production plant. Most of our plants are just production. So, we’re just bringing in already processed raw materials to make great tasting sausage. So, for the most part, we were able to enforce social distancing and put in safe processes fairly early on, and we haven’t had any problems. But, I think as an industry, the meat industry, is going to have to address this long term because it’s just scary what’s going on in some of those big manufacturing plants right now.

Clay: As you think about organizations and industries, new product development is a key part of a successful business. Some aspects of new product development are going to be invigorated by the changes made due to COVID-19 and the resulting perceptions that consumers have, their behavior, changes, and so forth. What are your thoughts about kind of new product development and the impact it’s going to have on your industry?

Karen: I think new product development for the food industry right now, especially the meat industry, is actually kind of hard, because consumers need to evaluate food with all five senses, and if we want people to see early stage prototypes, especially in the meat industry, we can’t just ship consumers products to try or have them come pick product up and take it home to use. And that’s mostly because meat products need to be fairly fully developed, so that they can get USDA approval before they can be released to a consumer to try at home. So, normally we would invite someone, and prepare something at a central location where we could serve it to them and talk to them in-person. Well, without being able to do that our hands are kind of tied. So, we’re really struggling to figure out how to get consumers to help us evaluate early-stage prototypes so that we don’t go too far down the wrong path and do product development of a new food product before we’ve actually had them taste it.

Clay: Another area that seems to be impacted―we’re constantly hearing of the unemployment numbers that are coming out week by week and the labor force issues that are happening. We know that the COVID-19 is impacting that labor force. Can you share your biggest challenges and concerns at this point, as far as the labor force goes in your industry?

Karen: Well, I think as an industry the biggest challenges are again employee safety in the harvesting plants, but in general this is a great time to be in the food industry because everybody needs to eat. Food industry companies are not furloughing people as far as the grocery industry. If anything, everyone is still has a job. You may not be working in the office, like I am working at home, but people need to eat. We still need to get products out the door, and it’s creating incredible job security. So, I think long term it’s really going to help us with recruitment and retention because we are a both recession-proof and virus-proof.

Clay: Some people are saying our overall values as a society may change you know postcovid-19 that literally things are going to be a lot different. What’s your sense of the types of changes we may see in society in terms of how we behave, how we relate to, interact with others, and how that might impact your industry?

Karen: Well, I think the biggest change is that people are really rediscovering cooking and baking during this time in quarantine. And I don’t think that’s going to go away quickly, because not only are people finding new ways to cook and exploring recipes, the economy isn’t going to be great, and people aren’t going to be able to afford to eat out as much. Additionally, I think having everyone around the table and enjoying a meal as a family is another thing that people are rediscovering, and I would not be surprised after this, if families tend to be programming themselves 24 hours a day a little bit less. So they have a little more family time, and can enjoy those moments together that they rediscovered during this time.

Clay: One of the things that we want to do is kind of maybe give some help, or insights, or guidance, or advice, if you will, to other companies, other industries, and organizations. Now, what ideas could you share that would help consumer insights, strategy, and business planning leaders take the next step in leading their organizations and departments through this crisis and really kind of be prepared for the next phases as we move forward?

Karen: Well, I think the biggest thing people can do is realize that life isn’t going to go back to normal (it is in the new normal) in a―in the flip of a switch, and any research being done now, is really going to be good for 18 to 24 months in terms of how consumers are thinking and how they’re feeling, but then after that is when we’ll slowly be going back to a new normal. So, if you’re trying to understand what are consumers needing now, now is a great time to be doing research, and even though we may not be fully in quarantine, we’re still going to be in that a little bit more social distance mindset. But if we’re trying to do things that are foundational, like a big A and U study, we need to probably think about: “Are we going to have to redo this in 18 to 24 months?” “Is it going to have the shelf life that we would normally have for these big projects?” And really reevaluate it. “Is this now the time or do we need to postpone it?” For example, if i were going to be doing a big project on snacking, I’d be thinking twice because right now if you ask people about ‘on-the- go snacking,’ ‘on-the-go’ doesn’t exist, everyone’s sitting at home. So you might get a false positive that most snacking occurs in the household, and that’s probably not true. Once we get back to the new, new normal.

Clay: Very good, great, great advice, great advice. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your industry, your organization, or team? In the anticipated post-COVID world that we’re going to be coming into?

Karen: Well, I just have to say that this is a time when I’m really proud to be a member at Johnsonville. We call our employees “members,” not employees, and it’s because we really do work as a team, and those of us that are not manufacturing are doing everything we can to keep the manufacturing employees safe and keep the lines running. And if that means working from home for two months, we’re doing that. As well as, marketers, like myself, have even gone into the manufacturing plants to do simple jobs that require “no skills,” so that the employee, the members in the plants, can actually go and do the skilled labor that needs to be done to keep the sausage being made.

Clay: That’s a great approach. I really like that, that’s neat.

Karen: And overall, I’m just really proud to say that I work for Johnsonville right now, because we say we live the Johnsonville way, and right now it’s very apparent and it’s a great place to work.

Clay: Excellent, excellent. Well, Karen, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you, thank you very much for talking with me and sharing your thoughts about what’s going on in this world today and what may be moving forward in the world to come. So, thank you very much.

Karen: Thanks Clay, nice talking to you too.

Contact Decision Analyst

If you have a question please contact Clay Dethloff, Senior Vice President of Qualitative Reserach, he can be emailed at cdethlo@decisionanalyst.com. He may also be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.