Invigorating brands, elevating customer relationships and creating environments ripe for innovation

At this year’s Packaging Experience Summit, she stood out and not because of her bouncy curls or because of her colorful tattoos. No matter what the topic, whether it was product development or digital printing for packaging, she always tied the topic back to storytelling. What I would learn is that her focus wasn’t on the story, but what the story helped connect: the people.

Psychology and storytelling

Maura Hardman is public relations and marketing manager for Seattle Cider Company, Two Beers Brewing Co. and Sound Craft Seltzer Co. Before her current role as PR and marketing maven for the craft brewing industry, Hardman did marketing for Whole Foods Market; rebranded events for Lifelong AIDS Alliance as well as forecasted and oversaw the nonprofit’s marketing budget; and worked as an international youth development advocate for the Peace Corps. Hardman also holds a degree in psychology, which she will tell you is great preparation for a marketing career.

“Figuring out how people’s minds work and what matters to people, which are what the studies of psychology and sociology try to do, are also what we’re trying to do as marketers,” Hardman explains. “Having that kind of background and getting a little bit of insight into how people work has been so helpful because I’m not just trying to talk at them with my storytelling. My storytelling is about finding those stories that appeal to people at their most human level and trying to connect with them.”

Becoming a marketer

She’s put those skills to use both in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. First working in youth development as an international volunteer for the Peace Corps.

“Living in a place that’s somewhat unknown to you requires you to be scrappy and flexible,” Hardman says. “Going to another country, you have to adapt to the culture in a way that’s very similar to how you have to adapt to an existing culture when you join a new organization.”

Joining a new organization, she explains, requires “meeting people where they are at” versus expecting the culture to change to accommodate you. It also requires taking your unique background and skills to elevate that business, whether it’s for-profit or non-profit.

It was during her work in the Ukraine for the Peace Corps that Hardman learned to truly craft messages for distinct and different audiences, work within the constraints of a tight budget, collaborate across an organization and gained expertise in communicating about HIV and AIDS specifically, as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). 

“My background from my Peace Corps work directly led to my work in the Lifelong AIDS Alliance,” Hardman explains. “I hadn’t done a lot of professional event planning at the time. But they liked me, and they liked the experiences in my background and my attitude of ‘get it done.’ So they took a chance on me at the same time when Twitter was just starting and Instagram didn’t even exist.”

Because the Alliance, like many organizations, didn’t yet have a person dedicated to social media marketing, Hardman took her “get it done” attitude and started telling client stories on social media. It was there that Hardman found her love for marketing.

Soon Hardman was taking on more marketing responsibilities, including buying print and radio advertising.

Understanding what’s needed for the win-win

These skills served Hardman well when she jumped from the nonprofit world to for-profit business, specifically in marketing for Whole Foods. In addition to her newly gained marketing skills, Hardman pulled on her collaborative skills gained at the Peace Corps. “I try to be the type of person that I would want to work with,” Hardman says, “which means I try to be a collaborative and good listener. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes makes you think hard about their goals. I ask, ‘What do they want to get out of a collaboration or a partnership?’ and then “How can we make something mutually beneficial.” A lot of that wanting to meet people in the middle or even go a little bit past that on my side comes from nonprofit work.”

Leveraging these skills, Hardman was able to not only help market Whole Foods but also elevate strategic relationships with community partners in a manner that strengthened Whole Foods Market’s missions and impact in the communities it serves.

The experience also helped developed Hardman’s philosophy for career development and team building. “I’m a strong believer in transferable skills,” Hardman says. “A skill set doesn’t have to be exact to know that a person can accomplish a goal within a framework.”

 The organizational power of innovation

Her support of transferrable skills enabled her to bring a varied background to her work at Seattle Cider. “I came into this position with the benefit of knowing what retail looks like at the grocery level,” Hardman expresses with gratitude. “This helps me identify what we want and more importantly how to ask for it. It’s nice to have been on both sides [retail and packaged goods brand] because that experience helps me know how to partner better with our accounts and offer opportunities that are a little bit out of the box, without going so far that’s it’s an automatic no. I’m not going after a ‘no,’ what I want is the ‘maybe.’”

Innovation, she argues, helps energize people and teams. “As a culture, as a company, we’re always looking for new and exciting ways to stay relevant,” Hardman says. “A lot of times, those great ideas are coming from outside of our executive leadership. They’re coming from staff on the packaging line, or they’re coming from our production team as they’re coming up with new cider ideas or new beers.” Encouraging passion projects by seeing where employee ideas can grow invigorates teams and makes vibrant companies and brands.

The right environment for innovation

Hardman is a strong believer in understanding the toolbox available to marketers, including digital printing, which enables Seattle Cider’s sister company Two Beers Brewing, to produce small lots of experimental flavors. Two Beers Brewing has put this ability to be agile to good use with its “Unbrand” project.

“Our branding has typically been pretty cohesive for Two Beers Brewing,” Hardman says. “It’s outdoorsy, and all about ‘pack it in, pack it out and go outside.’ We’ve been exploring the flip side of that strict visual branding and been doing these small releases that are just sort of this quick flash in the pan. I’m talking about as little as 75 cases total that are sold quickly, and then are gone. It’s been a breath of fresh air for our brewers to innovate on a small scale where the stakes aren’t super high. We don’t label 25 pallets worth of cans to have distribution, and these labels don’t necessarily need to ascribe to the Two Beers Brewing aesthetic.

“Doing everything, you’re not supposed to do as a brand is preventing our brand from getting stale,” she adds. “People are excited about our beer, and it’s making them revisit our flagship beers. In the over-saturated market of craft beer, Unbrand has given our brand relevancy. The team can also be fun and playful and put out these amazing beers.”

Common thread throughout her career

In addition to the Unbrand project, Hardman gets to work on the City Fruit partnership that she so admired during her Whole Foods days. “You know my love for City Fruit and our cause-based marketing,” Hardman quips during our interview.

The City Fruit and Seattle Cider partnership directs more city-grown fruit to people versus landfills and compost heaps. Throughout the harvest season, City Fruit’s harvesters set aside apples that are unfit to donate to food banks. For example, these apples may have blemishes or pest damage that render them less than ideal for donation. But these fruits often are ideal for cider making.

“We take these apples, turn them into cider and donate the proceeds back to City Fruit for the harvesting and conservation work,” Hardman says. “It’s this very cool, sustainable loop where we get to partner with a local nonprofit that’s feeding our neighbors. Most of City Fruit’s harvest goes to local food banks. And we get an all-Seattle cider in the sense that all of the apples are from Seattle proper.”

The project ties in important consumer trends around socially responsible brands, such as sustainability, buying local and giving back. It is also proof that Hardman is exactly where she was meant to be: Connecting people and causes, growing collaborations and invigorating teams, creating conditions ripe for innovation, and telling the stories that connect them all. 