Oprah Winfrey has consistently named it on her heralded favorite things list. Jason Derulo, Bobby Flay, and Courteney Cox are some of the influential names behind the product.
TRUFF, a luxury condiment brand, has burst onto the foodie scene over the past five years. And a Virginia Tech graduate is the marketing guru behind the truffle-infused hot sauce.
Michelle Gabe ’13, an alumna of what is now the School of Communication, helped elevate TRUFF from another brand looking for a share in the market to a worldwide sensation.
Under her tutelage as marketing director since 2020, TRUFF launched its first-ever sauce-on-sauce collaboration with Hidden Valley Ranch. The sauce sold out online in less than a minute. Gabe also assisted in forming a partnership with Taco Bell to sell Loaded TRUFF Nacho Fries at the chain’s more than 7,000 locations nationwide.
Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Ad Age recognized Gabe on its annual 40 Under 40 list this past year. We caught up with Gabe to talk about her marketing success and time at Virginia Tech.
How did you become marketing director at TRUFF?
Gabe: I spent the majority of my career at a PR agency called SHADOW. One year into my time at SHADOW, we ended up getting a client called Daily Harvest, and I was assigned to lead that account. This was my first real foray into consumer packaged goods (CPG), and my direct contact happened to be the founder of the company. Getting to know the real people behind the brand and their reason for creating the brand completely changed the way that I approached public relations and storytelling. By having Daily Harvest on the roster, we gained attention from other CPG players, so we ended up working with the likes of WTRMLN WTR and Made In cookware. Because we were getting these notable client names, I pitched my boss the idea of creating a CPG department at SHADOW. Lucky for me, he said yes.
I ended up becoming the first-ever director of consumer packaged goods at SHADOW all before I turned 30. In this department, I had the amazing opportunity to work with some of the biggest disruptors and most innovative brains in the space like Bulletproof, Victorinox Swiss Army, and Health-Ade. Because I admire working with founders so much, my end goal was to go brand side. A few years down the line, I ended up getting a dream client of mine: TRUFF. They invited me to come in-house as their marketing director and it’s been a wonderful experience ever since.
Have you always wanted to be in marketing/communications? What made you interested in this field?
Gabe: As a ’90s kid growing up on TV shows like “The Hills” and “Kell On Earth,” I was always infatuated with the idea of becoming a publicist. In every show, the publicist is portrayed as a badass who is always in the know and has the ambition to make things happen. Who wouldn’t strive for that?
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Gabe: Getting to work with a team of young minds that stay on top of trends and keep up with pop culture. Each and every day they are filling me in on what’s cool, what’s not, and even creating relevant content to go along with that.
What are some of the main strategies and techniques you’ve used to market a brand like TRUFF? Any key successes?
Gabe: While we may be a newish brand (5 years old), we have grown awareness tenfold through brand-altering partnerships at an execution level that is typically expected of Fortune 500 brands. Just in this past year, we activated partnerships with both Taco Bell and Hidden Valley. Moments like this show that there are so many opportunities for creativity, thinking, learning and developing relationships as long as you have faith in your brand and know what assets you have to offer.
What did it mean for you to receive the 40 under 40 recognition from Ad Age?
Gabe: Getting that recognition was an awesome and unexpected moment. It’s an amazing feeling to be listed in the same company as marketing rockstars from Nike, McDonald’s, and other reputable brands that I personally admire. It was definitely a nice nod to let me and the rest of my TRUFF team know that we are moving and grooving in the right direction.
What’s your biggest takeaway from studying at Virginia Tech that helped get you where you are today?
Gabe: At Virginia Tech, I participated in a lot of random extracurriculars that I used with the intent to “resume build.” Coincidentally, these activities helped me understand simple professional tactics in the long run: how to email, persistence, how to speak clearly, etc. Actively getting involved in things outside of VT are important, too (i.e. HerCampus, becoming a brand ambassador for a brand you admire, etc.).
Are there any specific classes or professors who had a major influence on you?
Gabe: I always loved COMM 1016 with Don Wood. The intro class was small and encouraged engagement between class members. If anything, real-world communication skills are more important to your career than learning about it from a book or lecture.
I think Dale Jenkins (advanced instructor in the School of Communication) once said that “you should always speak to your audience as if they were 12 years old.” For some reason, that really stuck with me and is a standard that I set when developing press releases, talking points, campaign concepts and more.
What would you tell students who are interested in a career in your field?
Gabe: Persistence breaks resistance. I applied to every single internship I could find just so I could get to New York City and be a publicist. I probably got three responses out of 100. I also wasn’t hired right out of college. Lots of things don’t go as planned, but if you know what you want and are persistent about it, things will start to line up.
What gets you out of the bed in the morning and keeps you going on this journey?
Gabe: The goal of making TRUFF a legacy brand that will be on shelves in 50 years.
Jenny Kincaid Boone for Virginia Tech
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