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CEO Ari Weinzweig on the power of beliefs and Zingerman's content marketing

Ari Weinzweig started writing about the food Zingerman's sells—including fun-to-read catalogs that customers look forward to getting in the mail—long before content marketing had a name.  Today, Zingerman's, a community of ten businesses with over $60 million in annual sales, produces content both for traditional and new media, and has its own press, which has just released Weinzweig's latest book, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business.  In a Q&A he shares his approach to content marketing, the importance of connecting with people, and the power of "low-level beliefs" to change our daily lives. 

Ari Weinzweig is the is CEO and co-founding partner of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, which includes Zingerman's Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Creamery, Catering, Mail Order, ZingTrain, Coffee Company, Roadhouse, Candy Manufactory and the newest business—Cornman Farms. 

Ari Weinzweig is the is CEO and co-founding partner of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, which includes Zingerman's Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Creamery, Catering, Mail Order, ZingTrain, Coffee Company, Roadhouse, Candy Manufactory and the newest business—Cornman Farms. 

Q: Zingerman's content marketing program is pretty robust—and it was that way long before content marketing became a thing. I could say the same about Zingerman’s for other marketing trends, too. You’ve been doing thought leadership and event marketing for a long time, in many different ways. What initially led you to market the Zingerman’s businesses this way? 

A: I guess I just figured that if we wanted people to buy our products that we needed to give them good reasons to do so.  And we’ve always believed people were willing to learn and to take the time to taste the difference. To me, if marketing is only about image, it’s not sustainable.  Our commitment has always been to go after great flavor and study the food, its history, its background, its cultural context, to know how to cook with it. And then share all that with our customers!  It’s more work in the moment but we really believe in what we’re doing! 

Q: Zingerman’s marketing ranges from the traditional — writing and illustrations — to all the major social media platforms and media formats, including 13 different email newsletters. What’s your take on what people connect with? What would you tell a new company about making connections with people? 

A: I think different people, clearly, connect in different ways.  By doing so much writing and hand illustration we set ourselves apart in a world that’s increasingly confined to 140 character tweets and two-paragraph blogs.  Not that there’s anything wrong with those.  But putting out longer, thought-provoking, in depth work that’s based on serious study gives us a special place in the market.

That said, clearly there are millions of people connecting now over social media, and we use those, too.  Why not? They work!

To my view, there’s always been social media—it’s called “word of mouth.”  It just goes a lot faster today!

One thing to share?  I guess that although it’s easy to get stuck on statistics and analytics, it’s good to remember that marketing is really about individuals.  I believe that every person is a unique creative individual.  And when we honor them as such, it makes a big difference.  I still send thank you notes to customers sometimes when I see a nice order come through.  The little things matter!  

In terms of making that happen, I don’t have an office. I just work out at the tables in our businesses mostly.  So I’m interacting with customers and staff that way all day.  Most every night I’m in town I pour water at the Roadhouse to help in the dining room.  I wrote an essay on it—Managing by Pouring Water—that’s in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader.  It keeps me grounded and connected, talking to people face to face, watching what they eat and how they interact.  I learn a lot every day!

Q: Zingerman's is well known for being a great place to work. Aside from having a marketing team, how important are employees in marketing Zingerman's, and how are they involved? 

A: Well, to the point of treating everyone like the creative intelligent individual I believe they are, that starts with how we treat the staff.  They’re THE most important marketing work we can do.  If companies run big fancy catchy ads but then customers get lousy service from disengaged apathetic staff, the incongruity will kill you.  It devalues everything the marketing works to create.  I just had a customer stop me at the coffee company to tell me about the great, well informed service and intelligent conversation he had with Becca who works the counter at the Bakehouse!  He happens to be a business coach and teacher from out of town— I’ll bet he’ll be telling her story for years. 

I believe our work is to honor everyone’s uniqueness and create an organization in which their creativity can come to the fore makes a big difference.  Where people feel respected and encouraged to be themselves when they come to work.  And I hope that we’re doing the same for our customers. 

In Part 2 of the book I wrote about my views on what I call “good work”: 

The Start of a New Era

Good work is life altering, fulfilling, and fun. Good work is about learning, laughing, growing, all the while earning enough money to make your dreams come true. It’s about collaborating with people you care about and who share your values, contributing something positive to the people and the community around you. It’s fun, not something you flee from. It’s a place you want to be, even if you rightfully have other places you want to go. Good work is about positive energy—both feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in; work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you. It’s endlessly sustainable, not energy-sapping. While people might certainly, on any given day, go home tired after doing good work, they’re rarely spiritually exhausted. When we’re into what we’re doing, giving it everything we’ve got, learning and laughing even under duress, the experience is likely to be energizing, even if, in the moment, physically tiring.

At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in. If we build our business in sustainable ways; if we treat everyone with respect regardless of title, background, race, religion or resume; if we encourage people to be themselves and help them get there; if we work to bring out the best in everyone; if we convey to people how much difference their work actually makes and then simultaneously teach them how to make a difference in the way that their workplace is run; if we keep everyone learning and laughing; if we work the numbers so that everyone wins from a financial standpoint . . . then we create very good work. When we get good work right, we make a reality of Emma Goldman’s once radical and, at the time, seemingly fantastical belief in “ . . . the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual . . . (which is) only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.”


If we encourage people to be themselves and help them get there; if we work to bring out the best in everyone . . . if we work the numbers so that everyone wins from a financial standpoint . . . then we create very good work.”
— Ari Weinzweig

Q: Where do you see things headed for marketing food businesses (in general, not just Zingerman's) in the future? 

A: I don’t know what others will do.  But here, we’ll just continue to do what we do.  Learn, study, practice, tell our story and the story of the food and the people who make it.  Do a lot of training and focus on delivering great food and service experiences every single day. I’m sure the various tech platforms we use will evolve and develop.  Make great experiences happen for everyone we deal with.  Really, to my view though, the work remains the same. 

Q: You’ve got a new leadership book just out! Tell me about it, why you’re doing it, and what you hope to share and create with it. 

A: Happy to!  Before I forget we also will have a book coming out from Zingerman’s Bakehouse in 2017 written by the managing partners, Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo. 

My new book is the fourth installment in the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series.  It’s Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business

Beliefs—not in the context of religion, but rather what we believe about ourselves, our products, our organization, our co-workers, business, work, etc.—play a HUGE part in everything we do every day.  In fact, although few are aware of it, pretty much every decision we make is based on what we believe.  Most of us aren’t all that aware of what we believe, other than big things like politics, sports, religion, etc.  But the low-level beliefs, like, I believe “the guy we just hired isn’t going to succeed,” or “customers can’t really tell the difference,” etc. are basically driving our daily actions.  I hadn’t really ever paid much attention to any of this up until a few years ago.  It’s been a big eye opener for me.  The key of the whole thing is that there’s a self-fulfilling cycle that starts with what we believe.  What we believe, more often than not, creates a lot of the reality around us.  In marketing . . . it’s everything.  I mean there has to be content behind what we believe to make it really work in the long term, too, of course.  But if we don't believe in what we’re selling, it won’t sell.  If we don’t believe in what we’re making it’s unlikely to be very high quality.  If we don’t believe in our co-workers, we’ll never get good teamwork.  And then secondly is the realization that we have the free choice to choose our beliefs. 

My initial learnings were drafted into a single essay.  But the more I studied the more I realized there was going on with our beliefs and it turned into a 600-page book.  The table of contents is below.  I can say with certainty that I’ve learned so much from the work on it that it’s changed the way I work every day.  And now that we’re starting to teach it internally, it’s changing our organization.  We’ve long had our mission statement, long term vision and guiding principles in writing (see Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business for more on those).  Now we’re starting to draft a belief statement.  And it’s given me a new way to approach what I’m doing, what I’m struggling with, etc.  The work on hope and the spirit of generosity are also hugely important.  Business writer and philosopher Peter Koestenbaum read the manuscript for me to write a blurb and gave me a high compliment that I hope I can live up to.  He said, “the writing will change the reader.” 

Table of Contents
Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, Part 4:
A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business
 
#40 The Power of Beliefs in Business

#41 Leading with Positive Beliefs

#42 It’s All About Alignment

#43 A Recipe for Changing a Belief 

#43.5 What I Believe About Anarchism and Business

#44 Building a Hopeful Business

#45 A Six-Pointed Hope Star

#46 The Spirit of Generosity

#47 Visionary Roots

#48 One + One = A Lot!

#49 Why (Paul or) I Still Teach Orientation for New Staff Members

Epilogue: The Art of Business / Why I Want to be an Artist