Lessons on Spotlighting Joy from a Former Theater Kid, Erin Levzow, CMO of the Museum of Ice Cream

December 27, 2023

Marketers these days are constantly spinning their wheels with ad platforms and algorithms that seem impossible to tame. But what if I told you true marketing magic stems from understanding human emotions?

In this special Q+A issue of “How The F**k Did You Get That Job”, we sat down with Erin Levzow, CMO of the dazzling Museum of Ice Cream and 25 year veteran driving digital marketing strategy for iconic brands. When she says she markets joy, she isn't kidding. But as Erin's journey from community theater kid to heading up teams at the likes of Wingstop and Del Taco shows, keeping your pulse on customer cravings takes some grit too.

From leveraging in-real-life moments to hype social chatter, to choosing optimism and imagination in the face of trauma, Erin gives us the inside scoop on infusing marketing with more heart and memory-making. Our inner child felt seen.

Read on for her take on navigating career pivots, unlocking flow states, and how we just might find her retired on a yacht in 10 years...

But first, check out the full episode here:

Q: So, Erin, how the f**k did you get that job?

Erin: Well, in college, I thought I'd be a famous actor. But then reality set in around the cost of acting schools. Illinois State just felt comfortable - they have an incredible theater program too. I ended up falling into marketing after moving to Vegas. I started at the very bottom as an hourly worker in internet marketing at Caesars. I volunteered for every task and learned by absorbing as much as I could. When MGM called, I wasn't even looking to leave but they offered me a chance to get hands-on with digital marketing. From there, roles just kept progressing as I proved I could use marketing to impact brands.

Q: Let's go back to the beginning - why did you originally choose to study theater and what appealed to you about acting as a career?

Erin: I've loved musical theater since I was young. In 8th grade, when I auditioned for a community theater production of Annie, they told me I had to audition for adult roles because I was too big to play a kid! Being grouped with the adults felt so cool. My mom also took me to see shows in Chicago like Cabaret and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which made me want to perform myself. I idolized actresses like Bernadette Peters. The energy of live performances and the standing ovations still bring me to tears because I love that atmosphere and art form so much.

Q: At what point did you pivot to marketing? Was there a lightbulb moment when you realized you enjoyed it?

Erin: Honestly, it was total happenstance. After college, I drove out to Vegas with everything I could fit in my Toyota Camry to try to break into theater there. I ended up getting a job in the box office for the stage production of The Producers at the Paris Hotel & Casino. When the recession hit in 2008 and they had layoffs, a recruiter asked what else I knew how to do. I told her I had a Facebook account, so she put me into an open role in internet marketing! I found I loved the constant learning and puzzle-solving marketing provides. When MGM Resorts offered me a chance to get hands-on with digital ads, I took it. I could see it becoming a valued skillset.

Q: As a CMO, what do you say when people dismiss marketing as something anyone can do?

Erin: So many people think they could be marketers or refer to easy parts like running basic social posts. But real marketing takes skill and ongoing learning. At the end of the day, if companies aren't investing properly in marketing labor and strategy, they won't see results. Then they wonder why sales fall short but don't make the connection. There are so many channels, metrics, and methodologies you have to constantly educate yourself on to be an effective marketer. It's not as simple as just clicking buttons.

Q: Your Mango Habanero campaign for Wingstop sounded awesome! Walk us through that story and why you were so proud of it.

Erin: In the restaurant industry, limited-time offerings are really common as a promotion tactic. We launched a mango habanero sauce flavor at Wingstop and it sold really well, so we decided to make it permanent. But then we cycled it off the menu anyway to bring it back later. Customers freaked out! This younger demographic especially didn't understand why we'd take away something good.

We decided to have fun with the re-launch by making it seem like an underground uprising was bringing the flavor back against corporate's will. We created this mysterious mango mascot and sent flavor samples and merch to fans who had demanded the return of the sauce. We revealed the launch video only after social chatter and excitement hit a fever pitch.

It worked because we built intrigue and gave customers control. The whole stunt ended up generating a 1000% increase in social engagement. And it only required a small budget compared to the brand impact. To this day, Mango Habanero remains on the menu. I'm so proud of how our team listened to exactly what customers wanted and served it up creatively!

Q: Speaking of creativity...an ice cream museum! What went into that pivot and what convinced you it was the right move?

Erin: After horrible family trauma last year, I realized I wanted to focus my efforts on spreading joy. When Museum of Ice Cream approached me, it was an immediate fit because our purpose is bringing people together through imagination and play. Everything we do centers around human connection.

I'll be honest - I don't actually sell or even make ice cream! We serve ice cream, but it's more about crafting a transportive, almost childlike experience around it. My role is making sure people know we exist and get them in the door to play. Our locations see so much repeat business for family parties, date nights, bachelorettes. When people book weddings with us too, that's how I know our team has created something magical!

Q: You mentioned competitive ballroom dancing being another passion. Tell us how you got into that and what you enjoy about it.

Erin: I actually stumbled into dance on a whim too and ended up loving it! I'm a horrible follower as my teacher is always quick to point out, because I keep trying to lead. But focusing so intently on the smallest details - the precise placement of your shoulders or head and how they connect to the leg motions - it forces you into this flow state.

Coming off the dance floor is such a release, almost like a kid giggling uncontrollably. I think it's so important as driven professionals to make time for those childlike moments of pure joy. Especially after the traumatic year my family went through, being on the dance floor centers me. I'm proud to show my kids that example too - how dance helps me be more present at home and at work.

Q: You also mentioned how dance connects to leadership abilities. Can you expand on that?

Erin: Dance requires this duality of vulnerability and strength. You have to put extreme trust in your partner to guide you, which parallels trusting your team. As a leader, you also have to project confidence and stamina even when you might feel nervous or uncertain inside. Mastering dance skills takes incredible patience too - I'm still learning every day. But growth happens outside your comfort zone. Now I can apply that to management.

And as far as being vulnerable, I'll speak on managing mom guilt! I travel a lot for work and dance. Finding balance is so tough. I'm lucky my husband stays home with our kids. I always tell them I'm doing my best, and that showing up fully present for them matters more than minutes on a clock. Still, mom guilt hits hard. I think being open about that resonates with a lot of working parents.

Q: Let's jump into some rapid fire questions! The first person you'd want to have dinner with?

Erin: Robert Downey Jr.

Q: Favorite city?

Erin: New York City.

Q: Is it ok to sleep with socks on?

Erin: Absolutely not!

Q: Favorite romantic comedy?

Erin: Dirty Dancing.

Q: Favorite restaurant in Milwaukee?

Erin: Saint Kate Arts Hotel downtown has a speakeasy-vibe restaurant called The Dark Room hidden behind a bookshelf. Love the ambiance and craft cocktails.

Q: Favorite Illinois State University graduate besides yourself?

Erin: It's a toss up between Gary Sinise, Sean Hayes and Jane Lynch!

Q: In 40 years, what will people be nostalgic for?

Erin: Probably the new Barbie movie!

Q: One thing people don't understand about working in the ice cream business?

Erin: How much effort actually goes into crafting a meaningful human experience, not just serving up ice cream!

Q: Worst career advice you've ever received?

Erin: To wait patiently for opportunities instead of going out and creating my own luck.

Q: Sum up the internet in one sentence.

Erin: An unpredictable mix of good, bad and ugly that we should aim to use for good.

Q: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?

Erin: Cookies & cream! I just like digging out the big cookie dough chunks.

Q: Looking 10 years down the road, where can we find you?

Erin: Retired on a yacht or maybe running a company! We'll see where life takes me.

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