Authenticity Always Wins with Grace Jeon

March 30, 2023

(highlights from Episode #21 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Check out the latest lessons from our Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’s CEO, Rob Wengel, sits down with Grace Jeon, a woman who wears many hats. They talk about how to stretch yourself and be scrappy, the importance of working on fundamental principles when it comes to marketing your product, as well as the challenge of getting on the shelf but also tackling the harder challenge of getting off the shelf (i.e. getting consumers to buy your product) by creating experiences.

Grace started her career as a sales intern at an industrial company. “And it wasn’t until I started working, where all of a sudden all the lights went off and I felt this incredible responsibility – they are paying me to do a job, which seems unbelievable coming out of college, because you don’t really know much. At least that’s how I felt.” Since then, Grace has continued to give her all to every company and brand she’s worked for. She walks us through her journey of taking amazing ideas and bringing them to life during her experience navigating the waters of two major ventures: FIJI Water and JUST Water. She proves that success doesn’t just come from a unique product idea, it takes hard work and scrappiness for it to reach its full potential.

Through all her amazing work, here’s some of what Grace has learned… 

Takeaway #1 Work as a Hobby

Grace has had a long and varied career, all aimed at helping to build brands. She says her success comes from her simple love of work. “I think I marry the two, the personal and the professional side. Work has been my life, but at the same time, I really enjoy work.” Grace admits, “I wasn’t necessarily a great student. In fact, I was a very average student. And so it wasn’t like the companies were coming to me and offering me jobs. I can’t even tell you how many resumes and applications I sent out. And finally, one was kind enough to see my desperation and gave me an opportunity.” That’s when the lights went on. “I felt this incredible responsibility to just do the best that I can do, and then some. That kind of set the tone. And so, in every position thereafter, it was my hobby, it was my livelihood, it was everything rolled into one. I’ve not met a position or a company that I’ve not loved.” Find that passion so work becomes a hobby for you. 

Takeaway #2 Roll Up Your Sleeves and Dive In

In Grace’s early product development role, she was tasked with developing “a new platform of functional foods and beverages at a time when the language didn’t even exist.” Figuring out functional foods and drinks in the nineties was not an easy task. “I basically had to go find capabilities outside of the company because our company didn’t possess the operational manufacturing or even the marketing capabilities.” Coming from an industrial company to a CPG company, Grace had no experience and had to jump in blind. “All of a sudden, I’m having to develop and go through this whole process, understand CPG, understand commercialization, route to market.” Instead of letting her lack of knowledge and experience overcome her, Grace rose to the occasion. It was a crash course, but it forced me to just really just dive in, figure things out, roll up my sleeves, and I was able to commercialize our first functional foods platform. That kind of can-do attitude has been a key in helping Grace launch and build successful brands throughout her career. 

Takeaway #3 Bring Discipline to Brand Identity

In the early days, when Grace was with FIJI Water, she struggled a bit. “I was heading up international marketing,” she recalls, “but that was a very brief stint because when I assumed that position and started to look at ‘How do I roll this out into other markets? What markets do I prioritize? How do I talk about this? How do I position this? I realized the discipline behind who the brand is or what the brand ishow we speak about it—that had not been cemented.” Grace knew she couldn’t take the brand rogue in another market if it wouldn’t match the brand persona and marketing elsewhere. “So shortly thereafter, I realized with the president that I needed to assume the global brand director responsibility.” In anticipation of a full scaleup, she had to figure out how do I put some discipline into this organization? At least starting with marketing. And how do we identify who we are, how we speak about ourselves what is this consistent messaging, and what’s the hook? So I created the brand management team.” Grace worked with the team closely to identify what set their brand apart, their distinctive voice, why the product is unique, and how they would articulate that. All these decisions were fundamental and essential to spread across global branding. 

Takeaway #4 – Create an Experience

Marketing FIJI Water as a premium brand was no small feat. When approaching the buyer for Target, they had to convince them to carry the product. “We had to go to work and find all the nuggets, and ultimately worked on a segmentation strategy of good, better, best. In order to have a premium segment, you had to have fellow premium brands. So I shared with [the Target buyer] all the brands she should be carrying on the premium side.” Then, they got creative. “Ultimately, we came up with what was termed the Global Water Set. The idea was that when a guest walks down that aisle, and they see the section of the Global Water Set, they’re immediately taken around the world for that half a second.” Every time thereafter when a consumer sees a Fiji Water, they will be taken back to that moment, and remember their first experience with the brand. That’s the power of creating experiences in marketing. 

Takeaway #5 – There’s Always Room for Growth

Grace instinctively knew that JUST Water could truly be a success. “The purpose of it all was really interesting. And I felt like the bottled water category needed a purpose. Grace also knew that the bottled water category had exhibited continued growth. I remember in my Fiji Water days, the industry or people would always think, Oh, it can’t grow any further than this. And sure enough, every year, it just surpasses that. The category’s not going to go away.” But it wasn’t just the category that would make JUST Water a success. “The category didn’t have good alternatives. As consumers are changing their dietary habits and moving away from sodas and drinking more water, especially on the go, they’d have to pick up a bottle of water. But you started to have a growing contingency that felt guilty about each of the waters they would consume and discard. Certainly, there were no other solutions other than bringing your own bottle around.” Grace knew that both individuals and families wanted to choose a better option, and JUST Water could be that solution. “With all those things together, I felt like this has the makings to be really successful. And that’s when I said I’ve got to go for it. 

Takeaway #6 – Stretch Yourself

Grace has led a truly varied career, each position taking her higher than the next and into new territory. “I told my husband, don’t let me ever take another CEO job again. And then I did something harder. I feel like every position I assumed, I always assumed a position that really was a stretch.” But Grace was worried that “people are going to see through it. They’re going to find me out, they’re going to find out that I can’t do these things.” Despite her imposter syndrome, Grace set herself up for success with her attitude. “Because of that, I just have to work that much harder. I just always had that [outlook].Without stretching and challenging herself instead of walking away from opportunities that seemed too daunting, Grace wouldn’t have reached the heights she has in her career.  

Grace‘s Best Advice?

Her first advice is simple: “If I can do it, so can you.” Then, of course, there’s “the authenticity as well as just your will and might and hard work. And the passionthat is a thousand times more than whatever you have in [your brain]. If you can combine all those things and work with passion, work with authenticity, then success will come. It may not come in that immediate gig, but it’s a journey life’s a journey. It will come eventually. 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Rob and Grace’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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