Brand Strategy

A conversation with Truff’s director of marketing

Michelle Gabe has helped the five year-old hot sauce brand grow through brand collaborations and an “agency mentality.”
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Michelle Gabe

· 5 min read

If you haven’t encountered the Truff hot sauce brand on its own, you’ve probably seen it with another brand—like Bagel Bites, Taco Bell, or Hidden Valley Ranch.

Those collaborations have Michelle Gabe to thank. The truffle-infused hot sauce brand’s director of marketing, who took on the role in 2020, has overseen partnerships with all of the above and, most recently, The Super Mario Bros. Movie with limited-edition sauces. In the last three years, she’s also overseen the brand’s first national TV commercial and its first OOH campaign, and plotted to get bottles in the hands of celebrities like Lizzo and Machine Gun Kelly—all to boost Truff’s retail sales and heat up the conversation.

“We have a good gauge on what people want to hear and what makes people talk,” Gabe said.

Prior to leading Truff’s marketing team of five, Gabe built her career in the PR world, working with brands ranging from Tao Group Hospitality to Health-Ade kombucha. Now, she’s taking her industry experience and making it her mission to douse brands of all kinds with hot sauce.

Fired up

Truff started doing brand partnerships in order to generate “mass awareness quickly” and “encourage conversation,” Gabe told us. So far, that’s worked: The Taco Bell partnership, which started as a one-store test in 2021 before expanding nationwide in 2022, gave 4 million people the chance to sample Truff, Gabe said. Partnerships can also help with regional growth efforts, like last year’s Hidden Valley collab, which was designed to establish a customer base in the Midwest, where the brand had initially struggled compared to the coasts. It was a hit.

“It literally sold out in less than one minute, which was mind-blowing,” Gabe said, adding that the team “expected it to at least be a day or two or maybe even a week” before they sold all 5,000 bottles of the truffle ranch sauce.

A partnership this year with the Universal film The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which hit theaters in April and has since become the second-highest-grossing animated film ever, was intended to tap into nostalgia marketing and reach a multigenerational audience, according to Gabe. “We knew not only was there a fit with the mushrooms and the truffles, but we were reaching really anyone who had a childhood and played these games,” she said.

At the beginning of each year, Gabe said her team meets and writes down a wish list of brands that “are not only iconic and not only have mass appeal, but also offer that hype moment where people are overly passionate about the brand.” Then they set out to try and make those deals happen.

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When pitching brands on a potential collab, Gabe said she emphasizes how Truff began as an Instagram account dedicated to food content before evolving into “a full CPG brand that’s available in 20,000 stores and has all these celebrity nods.” Some of those nods include Lizzo, who once shared a video of herself dabbing a burrito with Truff sauce; Machine Gun Kelly, who gave the brand an expletive-laden endorsement; and even Oprah, who listed it as one of her favorite things of 2022.

According to Gabe, many celeb acknowledgements have happened organically, or through carefully sent samples. For instance, Gabe said Truff sent products to Lizzo’s hairdresser and to people who spent time with Machine Gun Kelly in an effort to get them to try the sauce.

“We show [potential partners] all that stuff and try to showcase what type of momentum Truff can actually bring and how we do everything in-house at a pretty scrappy scale with very little lift,” she said.

Agency mentality

Before becoming Truff’s first executive marketer, Gabe said she started working with the brand and its co-founders, Nick Guillen and Nick Ajluni, via the PR agency Shadow, where she had spent the majority of her career.

"[The founders] knew that at the end of the day, I didn’t have much experience in regards to traditional marketing, but they knew my work ethic and they knew how in tune I was with pop culture, given all my past experiences,” she said.

According to Gabe, three of the five people that make up her “in-house agency” team at Truff previously worked at a traditional agency. The mentality that comes from that experience, she said, has been key to working hard and achieving big goals despite the team’s small size.

Another way to achieve big things, according to Gabe’s philosophy, is to embrace marketing opportunities at every level.“Every single thing that we do is a stepping stone to get to the next place,” she said. “I always like to just reinforce that everything we’re doing is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.” She compared the small digital moment of Truff’s first partnership with Bagel Bites to its larger deal with Taco Bell, saying the latter wouldn’t have been possible three years ago.

As for what’s next? She already has a dream brand collaboration in mind. “I would say bringing the Hidden Valley Ranch collaboration to Domino’s Pizza,” she said. “They can reach out to me. That’s all I’m saying.”

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