photo:Stephanie Dlugopolski
Stephanie Dlugopolski
PR & Social Media Manager
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Sheboygan Falls, Wis.,

Johnsonville Owner Reacts to Company’s New Advertising Campaign

"Creating great experiences for these members are dreams come true."
Ralph C. Stayer, Owner & Chairman

When Johnsonville’s marketing team presented the rough cuts of its new advertising campaign to the Stayer family earlier this year, Owner and Chairman Ralph Stayer shed a few tears.

The ads weren’t emotional or laugh-out-loud humorous.

Instead, the new campaign, at its core, demonstrated how Johnsonville members (employees) were now taking responsibility for telling the brand story. It may have been a new advertising move for Johnsonville, but it was not a new concept. The culture that Ralph established nearly 30 years ago – where members were empowered to make decisions such as hiring, stopping a production line, or recommending a new process to improve something – allowed this to happen. That’s the entire foundation of the company’s culture, referred to as The Johnsonville Way.

“I was thrilled to see the strategy and the story of how this campaign would unfold. Just thrilled,” recalls Ralph. “I – and our entire coaching (management) team – really trust our people. And this new campaign proves it.”


The ad campaign began with an open call to Johnsonville members. If they could make their own Johnsonville commercial, what would it be? More than 100 members were interviewed and three member commercial ideas were chosen to be made into the company’s new TV spots.

The first commercial, “Responsibilities,” introduces Johnsonville members and their role in making the dozens of Johnsonville sausage varieties. Longtime Johnsonville member Mike – who leads the shipping department – explains how members are responsible for everything. That’s what gets Ralph excited, seeing members take accountability and pride for their role in the company.

“I always said I want to use our business to build our people. Not use the people to build the business,” said Ralph. “Yes, we make high-quality and great tasting sausage products. But we really want to create great experiences for our people.”

When the marketing team showed Ralph the next three commercials – featuring the Johnsonville member who came up with the creative idea and who appears in each spot – he felt a sense of pride. These are commercials “Made the Johnsonville Way.” All three members were invited to California with the Marketing team and advertising agency to watch their commercial come to life.

Brett, who works in Johnsonville’s facility that makes smoked and cooked sausages, loves cars. So his “Regular Speed Chase” commercial for Johnsonville Brats and Grillers begins with a school bus, ice cream truck, sports cars, grandmas on scooters and performance motorcycles, all chasing the company’s famous Big Taste Grill. “This has been among the best experiences of my life,” he said after that 14-hour day.

Jeff’s commercial takes place in the woods – where he loves to spend his free time – talking to unexpected animal visitors who ask about the new fully cooked breakfast sausages he’s enjoying. Jeff spent his production day outside talking to animal puppets, an interesting change from the 18 years he’s spent making sausage at Johnsonville. His friends, family and colleagues now have some fun calling him “Hollywood.”

Melissa, a production coordinator in one of the plants, always felt Johnsonville products can bring family and friends – even scary neighbors – together over a good meal. Melissa has always been interested in marketing, so she was excited to be alongside the ad agency and production crew in L.A. to see the many moving pieces come together to craft her commercial idea for Italian sausage.

“Creating great experiences for these members are dreams come true,” said Ralph. “Jeff, Melissa and Brett work in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, making our products and coaching their team members along the way. Now, they just went to L.A. and helped make their commercial ideas come to life. There’s no better way to show The Johnsonville Way story,” said Ralph.

Building The Johnsonville Way

In the 1980s, Ralph took a hiatus from the helm of the company his parents started. He wanted to study how to create a new culture that would shift decision-making and accountability from him to the workers. He recalls that as CEO, everyone did what he instructed them to do. “That was the problem. I was the problem. No one thought for themselves. People were complacent. Most workers didn’t understand how their decision could affect everything else. It’s their workplace and I wanted them to own everything – the problems, the successes, everything.”

He took his learnings and returned to lead the company a few years later. He informed his leadership team how things were going to be done differently and what their new roles were to be.

Employees soon were called “members” rather than employees. He remembers asking the 150 members at that time to write down what they did each day to make and keep customers. “We wanted this to be a place where members can create their own destiny, be engaged. When we see that happen, that’s what’s most fun to see.”

Managers and directors were now coaches. “We should all see ourselves as a coach, and how we can develop one another to be the best we can be,” recalled Ralph.

As Ralph learned how to lead differently, he saw the Johnsonville culture change and business improve. He wanted to share those learnings with other business leaders. He penned an essay in 1990 in the Harvard Business Review called “How I Learned to Let My People Lead,” which has been one of the publication’s most downloaded articles. A few years later he co-authored a best seller, “Flight of the Buffalo.”

Now, 30+ years later and reflecting on his vision of “The Johnsonville Way,” Ralph said he had no clue to what extent this philosophy would take hold when he started making changes. “It was one step at a time. I did envision our members owning ‘the Johnsonville Way.’ And the more we grow, the harder it is, but I think being a privately owned company makes it easier to build a strong culture as we have here. Seeing our members take pride in the work they do and the product they make, and now have a voice in our advertising, tells me they know they’re making a difference. I’m so proud of them."