Better-For-You Brands: Good is Not Enough

03.05.19 / David Lemley

If you’re the leader of a better-for-you brand, take a look at the products surrounding yours on the shelf next time you go to your top retail outlet. All those products are making the same “better” claims that you make. Your commitment to environmental sustainability, your community engagement, and your ethical sourcing practices are not differentiators in an era where young consumers expect all these attributes in all the brands they favor.

Just as a sexy ingredient does not constitute a brand, a triple-bottom-line position is not a brand. Being good is no longer good enough.

We recognize that this sounds like a contradictory statement coming from us, given our passion for working with brands that make a difference in the world. So let’s unpack this idea.

Good Is No Longer a Differentiator

A brand that staked its claim on clean/whole/organic ingredients, or the raw or paleo or vegan lifestyle, used to be radically different. But in today’s world, now that multi-nationals are scooping up darling BFY brands, these are all more like product attributes than brand drivers.

Consumers are ever more concerned about the food they eat and knowledgeable about dietary trends and healthy ingredients. And it’s not just sophisticated, well-to-do shoppers on the coasts; consumers of all stripes are paying attention. So while that organic, non-GMO, palm-oil-free loaf of bread may once have enjoyed cult status among BFY devotees, now many mass brands have adopted the same characteristics because consumers are demanding that they do. And today’s product attributes that seem like radical differentiators will be tomorrow’s product attributes-du-jour.

We see plenty of brands that are doubling down on checking the boxes of BFY — quality product, clean manufacturing, environmental stewardship — thinking that’s enough of a brand platform. But there’s too much competition to play that game anymore.

We often engage with brands whose focus on attributes (like ingredients or “free from” claims) have backed them into a corner. They have limited potential for innovation and growth. We coach them to go back to the “why.” Why the brand was founded? What does it stand for? What wrong does it right in the world?

Yes, you have to continue talking to the market about your BFY traits, but you have to represent more than that.

Brands Anchored to a Cause are Self-Limiting

In addition to ingredient and nutritional profiles, we see BFY brands that have aligned themselves with a narrow cause struggle to grow. Why? That good cause may not be for everyone.

A brand’s purpose can also be an attribute. Doing good in the world is a component of a brand, not the entirety of the brand. You have to step back and be able to look at the business from a 30,000 foot level to recognize if the cause you’ve embraced pitches a big enough tent for your brand to grow beyond initial believers. Too, the cause has to make sense with the product. If you’re a cookie brand talking about saving the rhinos, you’re asking shoppers to stretch to make the connection. What does rhino habitat have to do with your ingredients or your sourcing? Are you just donating part of sales? What’s the connection? Folks who don’t care about the rhinos won’t gravitate toward — or pay more for — your cookies.

Consider Toms Shoes: The brand’s “buy one, give one” ethos is a great catalyst for success, generating terrific PR and appealing to young, conscientious consumers. But beyond that, the shoes are attractive and fun, super comfortable, affordably priced, and widely available in lots of retail channels. Accessibility can be a hurdle for BFY niche brands, both figuratively and literally. Toms figured out how to marry its mission with a product and price point that’s accessible to a broad audience.

Don’t Pursue Good at the Expense of Smart

Here’s what Toms has figured out: How to start a conversation with consumers around a cause while selling them well-priced, comfy shoes that come in a bunch of colors. Toms hasn’t sacrificed business strategy — product, price, and placement — for its good cause.

In the early days of marketing as a discipline, practitioners focused on the “4Ps of Marketing” — Product, Price, Place, Promotion. That is: what the item is, how much it costs, where it’s sold, and how it’s advertised.

We have posited a new way of thinking about marketing in the BFY era: Purpose, People, Planet, Passion, Personality, Profit. In other words, the brand’s mission, its dedication to employees and community, its commitment to sustainability, the enthusiasm and energy with which it pursues its mission, the personality of the founder, and, of course, its bottom line.

As we guide brands we work with to find their 6Ps, we remind them not to lose sight of the foundational elements of marketing. Absolutely, embrace a higher calling. But don’t overlook the basics of running the business as you’re chasing the mission. Because in the end, if you’re not in business, you can’t pursue the mission. Ultimately, the consumer, the planet, your employees, and whatever else you advocate, loses.

Need help finding the balance between doing good and achieving success? We’re here to help you.

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