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Meet the Innovators: Heather Vossler

July 10, 2023

People | The Originate Initiative

Heather Vossler, assistant vice president of insights, innovation and brand analytics, talks about insights-led innovation and how it serves the company and its customers.

Heather Vossler has been at Hormel Foods for 16 years, and is responsible for consumer insights, brand analytics and corporate innovation at the company. During her tenure at Hormel Foods, she has fostered a culture of data-driven decision making, fueled by precision analytics. This approach has resulted in innovative thinking and effective solutions across the enterprise.

Prior to coming to Hormel Foods, Vossler had a successful career at Motorola as a global product manager. She grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, and graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management. She is a passionate volunteer and coach with the community and youth sports, and a board member for the Austin Country Club.

Q&A Heather Vossler

Your role at Hormel Foods is to oversee insights, innovation and analytics. Tell us a little about how insights shape the innovation that happens at the company.

Innovation can’t come from just a cool idea that somebody had. It has to start with an insight, which is where we came up with the mantra of insights-led innovation. We talk a lot about making sure that our innovation is solving a problem for consumers. So that is at the forefront of everything that we do. If there’s one thing that Hormel Foods knows how to do it is how to make a quality product. Our ability to pair up that quality with the new insights and the new way that people are consuming food in their homes or out of their homes makes for a really exciting time to work in innovation.

What would you tell consumers about new Hormel Foods products coming soon to their grocery shelves?

Oh, boy. If I was going to talk to the consumer for a second, I would say hold on to your hats. We’re coming out of this unique period in history of consumers eating and consuming differently. And we have some great products. We’ve really leaned in to where those consumers are looking for gaps of understanding, where they need convenience, where they like comfort food, where they want more of an experience at home, where they’re looking for food to help bring people together. People want to be excited by what they’re eating. They want to experience new cultures. We are taking all of the things that we hear from consumers and we are bringing those to the forefront.

Does the way consumers respond to the work you do affect team members’ satisfaction with their efforts?

We’re really proud of what we’ve created. I think it’s true that within our organization, people really are rooted in the fact that we’re providing people with food, which has not only a very functional importance in life, but is a big part of their emotional importance and what food does for them. And that gives people a really big sense of meaning. Any time we can put out something new that helps with that and puts a smile on a consumer’s face, who doesn’t want to do that?

What are you learning from consumer insights that’s shaping how the company innovates?

We’re trying to really understand what the new baseline is and how our consumers are starting to engage with food following the effects of the pandemic, where it’s similar and where it’s different from pre-pandemic. And then how do we adjust to what that new normal is. That’s really a category-by-category, brand-by-brand or occasion-by-occasion situation. How have things changed? What’s working in breakfast is different than what’s working in dinner versus snacking. What’s working in chili is different than what’s working in pepperoni or snack nuts and so forth. It is never going to be one size fits all. And that’s probably the thing that I can’t stress enough: you’ve got to look at it from all angles.

What partnerships or strategies have proven successful in creating new products or entering new markets?

Our cross-functional partnerships have been a really strong component to innovation, leading the way to new ideas. An example would be our open innovation process. We partner heavily with R&D on this process and we bring in outside suppliers. We work with suppliers across the industry and a lot of them are very, very homed in on what’s going on with the marketplace, what the trends are. So we can actually develop a brief, we can provide that to select suppliers, and then we can go through an open innovation process to help feed the wealth of ideas on how we might get to a product concept to solve a consumer need. We also do that in partnership with consumers.

Can you talk about innovation at the brand level and how that impacts other brands at Hormel Foods?

Innovation always has to start with how it serves the brand strategy. By starting with that, you’re always going to be looking at what the root of the brand strategy is and then how we serve it. This way, we have innovation that can rise from any area of the company.

We have an annual innovation summit with members from all verticals and all segments across the organization. We think about how to innovate once and execute multiple times. Let’s say we start with a consumer problem that we identified on Herdez® salsa and MegaMex, but we might also see a similar type of need on a Columbus® item or in a category for snack nuts. If they’re trying to solve an issue around entertaining or an occasion, that consumer need might have a need in multiple categories. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re collaborating on insights. And then when we get to product ideas again, we ask ourselves, is there a different way to do this on both Applegate® and Black Label® bacon? It has a place in both of those brands and with those different consumer sets because the Applegate® brand and the Black Label® brand are typically serving slightly different consumer segments.

We want to make sure that innovation is always driving the overall brand strategy and strengthening the equity of the brand and its placement in the marketplace and in the hearts and minds of consumers.