Maria Hokanson has been with Dairy Queen for 13 years. Starting as a mall marketing manager, she’s now reached the C-Suite and just started her role as executive vice president of marketing. Hokanson shared with QSR the proudest accomplishments of her career, and what she has planned for the future of the historic brand.

What was appealing to you about Dairy Queen when you first joined and how have you worked your way up the ranks?

I’m coming up on my 13th anniversary and it’s been such a wonderful experience. I came into the organization as a mall marketing manager and really focused on Orange Julius and Dairy Queen, and what’s been so fun has been working on all of the different areas and need states and categories that we offer within the organization. I’ve been a part of the food business and the treat business and beverages. I’ve been able to work through all of the different categories and what’s been fun is you get to learn a completely different consumer target audience. Right before this role, I was vice president of U.S. Product and Brand and I was responsible for product innovation, consumer insights, the menu strategy, and the marketing calendar, so I was able to oversee the entire menu and how products were coming to life in DQ restaurants.

What initiatives have been the most exciting and which have you been the most proud of?

I was part of the team that brought to life Five Buck Lunch. That was a wonderful product launch to be a part of because it was so evolutionary to building our food business. A lot of quick-service value menus at the time were smaller things for $1 or around there, and we were proud to offer our premium products within a whole meal for $5. This helped spur tremendous growth for our food side business. In 2015, we launched our best blizzard menu ever, and brought back fan favorites, created some new flavors, and had a partnership with Jurassic World. It was exciting to keep the blizzard as relevant as possible.

How do you balance innovation with keeping the tradition of a brand that is more than 70 years old?

Because of our history, we’re such a loved iconic brand and it’s really an honor to continue that tradition. There’s two key ways we need to do that. One is continuing to focus on differentiation. We may not be the easiest restaurant to get to. You might have to drive an extra mile or make a left turn as opposed to a right, so what we need to do is really create breakthrough innovative treats, breakthrough innovative food items, things that are worth that extra mile or left turn.

Right now we have our molten lava cake and our best chocolate cake blizzard, those are things we’ve been working on for quite some time to get them just right and have this amazing taste experience. We have our signature chicken strip basket, as well. How do you take those and continue to make those different and compelling from a consumer standpoint? As far as staying relevant, we’re a brand nearing 80 years old, and we look to stay forever young. So part of that is, with our actual locations, we continue to build and remodel Grill and Chill locations here in the U.S.. From a menu perspective, as consumer taste changes, how do we change our menu to best meet their needs? We’ve worked to launch items built for snacking, not just junior versions of items already on the menu. And it’s fun to be in the restaurant business because we’re in such a foodie culture that consumers are really looking for those kind of taste and flavor and texture experiences. We are all about flavor and innovation. If we continue to stay relevant, if we continue to differentiate and build on that brand love, that’s kind of the vision for how we stay relevant and how we can be forever young.

What are some aspects of consumer taste that may become more popular going forward and play into Dairy Queen’s strategies?

As I look at what we have to work on and what we need to continue to work on, for us, it’s consumers are looking for a big flavor experience. Different textures, unique flavor combinations, so look for us to continue to build new types of treats, new types of eating experiences that really play up that consumer need for having those new bold taste, flavor, and texture experiences.

From a media mix perspective, it’s such a great time to lean into the digital space and build those partnerships with fans and have more of a dialogue and that will be more of an evolution you’ll see from us. As we continue to invest in digital and online media, we will build on connections we have in the brand and maximize it because I think that really sets us apart within the industry.

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