It's all about the brand: Casey Shilling cooks up new marketing ideas for restaurant chain

Casey Shilling

It's all about the brand

By Julie Cooper

Casey Shilling cooks up new marketing ideas for restaurant chain

Casey Shilling’s first taste of the food service industry was selling kolaches at the Little Czech Bakery in her hometown of West, Texas. Her initial forays into music were playing clarinet in school and with the West High Polka Dots.

She didn’t expect either to lead to a career.

Shilling (B.A. ’92) says her dream job was to be a television news reporter and anchor when she pursued a degree in mass communication and journalism at Texas State. Reporting, working at the university’s radio station KTSW, interning at several local radio and television stations, and writing — is what she did for four years as a Bobcat.

While working at KTSW, first as program director and then general manager in her senior year, it was Shilling’s team that coined the station’s current motto: "The Other Side of Radio." KTSW went from AM to FM at about the same time.

The former clarinet player says she really got into the alternative music that KTSW is still known for. "It was all about the music," she says. Her favorites include jazz, country music standards, pop, and the occasional hip hop. Recently, she saw Sting in concert and recalls that it was his poster that once decorated her on-campus room. The mother of four teenagers in a "blended family," Shilling says she loves to stay up on what is going on in music.

Shilling’s first television gig out of college was with KTEN, where she covered the news for viewers in Texas and Oklahoma. "It was exactly what I studied to do and what I wanted to do," she notes.

The KTEN job taught her to be resourceful and flexible. "A lot of the time it was me, out in the field covering a double homicide, a prison break, or a tornado. To me it was an adventure and exciting and what I wanted my career to be," says Shilling. She worked for a few years as a reporter in Ada, Oklahoma, before being promoted to weekend anchor in Sherman, Texas. "You shoot, you report, you edit. I learned to be quick on my feet."

News reporting was an extension of Shilling’s education. "I remember covering a shooting at Walmart. My footage got fed to ‘Dateline.’ It was tragic, but I had a duty to report what was real. It laid a foundation for my career: to ask the right questions and be compassionate," she recalls.

A few years into TV reporting, Shilling’s career took a different path. Today, she is the chief marketing officer for Zoë’s Kitchen, a casual Mediterranean restaurant chain based in Plano, with 250 locations nationwide.

A move to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex brought Shilling into marketing. Brand campaigns included Pepsi and Mrs. Baird’s Bakery. "As a Texas girl doing work on a brand so beloved, that makes me feel like I was doing something special," she says.

Her writing skills that were honed at the university came into play whether she was pitching a new client or telling a story in a press release. "Being able to take the feedback was a big part of the lessons I learned," she notes. She credits the constructive criticism of her creative writing professors with driving those lessons home. "It has helped me along the way, and also helps to be able to mentor others."

The Container Store, formerly a client, wanted an in-house public relations department and Shilling became vice president of marketing and public relations. "I came in to start a PR department and then did everything from overseeing training and recruiting, to social media and programs around the corporate culture," Shilling says. "I was part of the team that did the first application when we landed No. 1 on Fortune’s best companies to work for."

Some 20 years later Shilling made the move from containers to food when, in 2016, she started her current job at Zoë’s Kitchen. "I enjoy the brands that make you smile— people are fans of these places." She calls it the "squeal factor," or when a customer exclaims: "I LOVE Zoë’s Kitchen!"

When she joined the company it had an established brand but needed more external marketing. "In the last year and a half we have been investing in digital marketing channels and trying to add value to people’s lives," she says. About 100 employees work at Zoë’s corporate offices, with Shilling overseeing a team of 11. There is now a new blog, mobile app, loyalty program, and company web site, all promoting eating healthy and living life to the fullest. "That is what is interesting in being a marketer — finding ways to make your brand transcend." That is something she has long known how to do.

If Shilling could give advice to students today, she says it would be to follow your passion. "Look for a company or a career that does something you really care about, has a heart and soul and core values driving the business," Shilling advises. "Do your research and do something that really moves you to get out of bed every morning."