COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Christine Cochran, president and chief executive officer of SNAC International, kicked off the 2023 Executive Leadership Forum (ELF) on a note of optimism about the industry.

“You are an industry that is thriving,” she told the 120 executives attending ELF, which is running Oct. 15-17 in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Yes, competition is fierce. Running your business has never been harder. Consumer habits and tastes are always shifting. But it is your adaptability, durability and innovation that keeps the industry thriving.”

After highlighting the accomplishments of the association, she encouraged members to take SNAC International to the next level.

“We have a lot to be proud of, and this should lead to confidence in our category and confidence in our work together,” she noted. “But what does confidence also require? We need to assess our current focus and execution. Are we confident we are providing value today? My answer is unwaveringly, yes.” 

Last year, Ms. Cochran described this confidence as “moxy.” This year, prior to ELF, she once again shared her insights in an interview with Baking & Snack magazine and reflected on the state of the snack industry and SNAC International’s outlook for the future.

BAKING & SNACK: Previously, you compared joining SNAC to jumping on a treadmill. How fast is that treadmill moving today?

CHRISTINE COCHRAN: I couldn't be happier to be here, and with a year under my belt, I feel confident about the pace at which we are moving. I see a lot of room for growth and evolution, and I'm excited about what this year holds.

What has been the most fun and most challenging part of your position today?

Probably the most fun is also the most challenging, and just getting to know the industry, learning the business of our members, understanding the team and starting to put into focus where I can really have an impact inside the organization.

What have been your top accomplishments during this first full year?

SNAXPO 2023 was my first trade show and an opportunity to be behind the scenes and learn how we run it. It taught me a tremendous amount about the industry's commitment to innovation and its durability in the face of challenges.  I also came to understand some of the more tactical parts of the business and how we can better facilitate a show that helps support the industry in its quest for growth. While SNAXPO was an enormous learning experience for me, we were able to fully rebound from COVID and create buzz. As you may recall, SNAC was able to delicately sandwich SNAXPO in 2021 between waves of COVID, but it was very different. In 2023, the show hit all of our markers or exceeded them in terms of scale. It felt like a return to normal, which we were all looking for during the first quarter of 2023.

What is the state of the industry in 2023 compared to 2022?

What we've seen between 2022 and 2023 is the business's ability to adapt. The consumer situation has changed in the sense that we have dealt with supply chain issues and adjusted to inflation in a way that we haven't seen in over a decade, but at the same time, snack companies have continued to meet consumer expectations by providing new products that expand their portfolios with new flavors, new textures and new packaging. Those are some of the big changes that we've seen during the past year.

How is SNAC strengthening the industry through its networking initiatives?

SNAC is committed to supporting the industry and fostering its growth. We do it through three pillars in networking, education and advocacy. I always like to put an asterisk by networking because at SNAC we take networking very seriously. It's not just your basic cocktail reception. It’s much more about connecting the industry and creating opportunities and forums for businesses to grow and to innovate. Our biggest drivers are the duality between SNAXPO and SNX. We just concluded SNAXPO 2023, and we just launched SNX 2024, which will run April 14-16 in Dallas. In fact, registration is now open for all attendees. 

How is SNAC enhancing its education pillar?

We support the snack industry in providing education to their teams, specifically involving leadership development and marketing. We just concluded our fourth virtual marketing session with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It was sold out in terms of participation, which is really encouraging for us as an organization. We’re going to next hold our Emerging Leaders Program 2.0, which runs Nov. 7-9 in partnership with the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University for the ninth year — and it is sold out as well. These two events are free for our members. By partnering with these top-tier institutions, we're able to have an impact and provide real value to our members year over a year.

What is happening with your advocacy efforts?

Government affairs is one of the most important things that we do on behalf of our members. Our advocacy spans across the regulatory, legislative and political arenas, and we do it across state, federal and international levels. Right now, we’re focusing on our partnership with the Food and Drug Administration in addressing sodium reduction targets. We’re also working with a number of other food groups and hunger groups on SNAP Choice (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in this year’s Farm Bill. Those are two drivers for us right now. Across this entire landscape, we are monitoring and engaging on a number of issues. We have a presence on Capitol Hill and in front of regulators, and we are sharpening our voice and our messages as we step forward in the government affairs space.

What’s the outlook for the snack industry and SNAC International in 2024?

What we’re going to continue to see in ‘24 is the snacking industry creates new products and experiences for the consumer. Driving the industry and the organization is this quest to meet and exceed consumer demands. We’ve seen how the variety of snacks people can sample across the day has expanded exponentially over the decades. And you're going to continue to see that growth. You’re also going to see companies better understand consumer financial limitations as the economy settles into a soft landing.  This could manifest in new or different packaging, sizing or ingredients to meet consumers where they are. While we navigate in uncertain times, one thing that remains true is that Americans like to snack, and we see the number of snacks they eat across the day continue to increase over time. So, we want to be there with them and provide them with the types of snacks that they're seeking at the price points that they need.