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Recession Coming? Now’s the Time to Be Bold & Smart

It seems like every news outlet is full of doom and gloom: inflation, rising interest rates, a likely impending recession, global food scarcity, war. Media outlets are feeding our sense of despair — their business model is built on keeping us distressed so we tune in — and so society’s malaise is self-reinforcing.

Here’s the thing: We’ve lived through similarly tough times. Like, two years ago. Remember, in June of 2020, people were dying, businesses shut down, the whole world stayed home. But by 2021 the economy and the job market went into hyperdrive.

While corporate CEOs are bracing for recession, plenty of us in the food and beverage industry know, based on recent experience, that the next slowdown won’t last forever. We know that ultimately we will be OK. The normal ebbs and flows of our markets are just ebbing and flowing more abruptly and frequently these days.

Your leadership team may be tempted to lay low and wait this out — to “hunker down” (to borrow a phrase from 2020). But, as we recommended two years ago, now is not the time to sit idle. It’s the time to thrive.

Our advice to brands and businesses: Instead of panicing, use this time to discover, rekindle, or invent radical strategies that put daylight between you and your field of competitors. Get ready to capitalize on the opportunities that your insight and marketplace circumstances will create.

Fortune favors the bold (and well prepared). A solid brand foundation will serve you now more than ever.

This All Feels Really Familiar

The pandemic, you may recall, caused a brief recession in the first half of 2020. And, you may also recall, consumers exhibited confusing behaviors not unlike what they’re showing now. They didn’t stop spending, but shifted dollars. Experts are predicting a similarly short and shallow recession in the coming months; the key difference now is rising interest rates.

What did we learn from 2020’s mini recession? That the brands that won took their bravery pills and got to work.

Mega brands like Frito-Lay and PepsiCo exploded in every way, doubling down on product innovation and channel strategy. They got nimble in ways they hadn’t before and adopted entrepreneurial thinking — because they had to. Huge segments of their business, like restaurant and commissary sales, shut down literally overnight.

Mid-cap brands did the same. Some adjusted pack sizes, tweaked product formulations, or invested in online selling in response to shifting consumer buying habits and supply chain challenges. Massive disruption meant that anything was possible. It created the conditions for radical experimentation and breaking the old ways of doing things.

The brands that grew in sales and relevance over the last two years are the ones that took a long view of the game and started to ask, “What’s stopping us from doing X?” and “What would happen if we did Y?” They got serious about innovation and omnichannel sales, and then did the creative work to back that up. The winners had new plans, new products, and new outlets in just 3 or 4 months.

Remember? You and your team lived through this just two years ago.

So lean into the coming recession with the same mentality you adopted at the front end of the pandemic.

Take Advantage of the Uncertain Economic Picture

Whether you’re an early-career marketer or tenured enough to have led and survived at the helm of a brand in 2008 and 2020, you need to understand that this is the best time to be planning for competitive advantage (other than lower prices). It is the time to connect the dots, so your go-to-market strategy truly is omnichannel and oriented toward growth.

Brand relevancy is recession-proof.

So what are the four things food and beverage brand marketers must do now to ensure success as we move into 2023?

Understand current consumer behavior.

In our society, people want what they want when they want it — and they have enough self-confidence to figure out how to make it happen. If they want it they’ll buy it. Belt-tightening is hitting big-ticket items where rising interest rates are creating pain — major purchases like homes and cars and vacations — not so much what consumers put in their shopping carts once a week. In this time of uncertainty, consumers are using food, beverage, and wellness products to feel connected and relevant. And they’re sticking with their preferred brands. (Just look at Q3 2022 earnings in the category.)

Our recommendation is to lean into this consumer behavior. If you panic, you’ll lose the opportunity. Smart brands have learned that they can take advantage of the marketplace when it gets soft. When consumers are abstaining from larger purchases, leverage that.

Shift your messaging to meet consumers where they are today. Help them imagine how good they’ll feel when they spend time with your brand. Build a marketing plan that doesn’t go cheap or play on their pain, but that points to the hope and self-reliance and self-worth they’ll gain when they’re with you. And recognize that in this climate, shoppers are open to trial. Use packaging and point of sale to catch their attention.

Be proactive about innovation.

If the supply chain outages in 2020 prompted massive changes to your product lineup, borrow that same “what can we make now?” mindset and apply a proactive, not reactive, lens. Let your brand strategy guide your product innovation process. Look at 18-month, 36-month, and 5-year

horizons and use scenario planning to predict what your brand will be and who you’ll be for — and what you’ll need to be making for those people. Move fast and be brave.

Build a smart retail strategy.

Again, consumers are buying products that make them feel good and exploring new options. So we’re advising the brands we work with to invest strategically in placement in retailers where you know your current and prospective audiences shop. People are going back to brick-and-mortar stores and their impulse-buying habits; you have an opportunity to hold onto your current audience and gain new converts — or to lose them because you’re not paying attention and responding to their needs. Make good friends with your retail partners so you can work with them on placement and marketing; they can be your brand’s biggest advocates.

If fear and desperation drove brands to act nimbly and strategically in 2020, let bravery and intention guide you now. We tell clients all the time: When you’re making bold, visionary progress, that scale of change can feel scary to your team. So make sure your internal people fall in love with your plans — so in love that they’ll push through any obstacles they face in bringing them to fruition.

Our superpower is giving brand leaders the confidence they need to make seemingly risky moves because they’re deeply rooted in the brand’s mission and vision. If you’re looking for the right path during a time of uncertainty, we’re happy to be your team’s guide. Let’s talk about what this means for your brand.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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What Looks Risky Might Actually Be Really Smart

On Black Friday of 2011, Patagonia famously placed a full-page ad in The New York Times with the headline, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Below the fold, copy explained the company’s Common Threads Initiative, which emphasizes reduction, repair, reuse, and recycling of materials in its supply chain and manufacturing.

In one of my MBA classes recently, we discussed a case study of this campaign. And most of my classmates, all business leaders, agreed that the ad was really risky. Why would a company urge customers NOT to buy its products?

My perspective, though, was that it wasn’t risky at all. The anti-consumption message was totally on brand for Patagonia. And it would immediately resonate with their target audience — like-minded outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for saving the planet. Even more, it was a manifestation of the brand’s commitment that its products would be durable.

Patagonia’s customers would certainly not buy THAT jacket … but down the road, when they really, truly did need a jacket, they’d buy it from Patagonia.

Managing ‘Risky’ Marketing Based on Strategy

When it’s pinned to strategy, what looks risky isn’t risky at all. It might be ballsy or provocative or against the grain. But if a position or campaign fully supports the brand’s foundation — the promises it makes and the way it keeps them — it’s virtually assured to resonate with its fan base. And, in the swirl of attention that comes with something unexpected or controversial, it’ll likely pick up a new cohort of fans, too.

Patagonia’s environmental stance was nothing new in 2011. In the company’s early days, it felt more like outdoor enthusiasm with a sprinkling of environmental on top. But saving the planet became the brand’s North Star, and founder Yvon Chouinard built the business around it. Once they committed to being environmental stewards, it informed everything: what products they’d make, how they’d be made, out of what materials, and by whom. Patagonia built a “religion of dirtbags” — not just people who like to hike, but who are outdoors because of their deep commitment to the natural world.

It’s easy to love Patagonia these days because of their recent announcement that it would transfer 100% of voting stock to the Patagonia Purpose Trust and 100% of the nonvoting stock would go to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature. The news made headlines and generated a certain amount of “what do they think they’re doing” head-scratching among diehard capitalists. They’re giving away a $3 billion business?!?

But again: Totally on brand. Chouinard’s letter about the ownership transfer said, “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’” Not at all a risk for a company built on Chouinard’s passion to develop mountain-climbing equipment that didn’t damage the rock he was climbing on.

If it feels like Patagonia has a history of going against the grain, it’s because bold positioning can capture the public’s attention repeatedly, over the long term. As a tiny regional startup in the ’70s, Ben & Jerry’s anchored their brand on a commitment to social and earth justice, using flavor innovation and product naming as opportunities to educate and inspire change. I love that the brand is playful and serious at the same time; the consumer gets to participate in the messaging and the mission. You can buy something like a classically fun Cherry Garcia along with something more overtly activist like Change is Brewing — a tasty coffee and marshmallow ice cream wrapped up in a message about voting rights, advocacy, and education. These days, especially, pegging a product to a political hot button would make any marketer squirm. For Ben & Jerry’s it makes sense because it’s so consistent with their values.

Strategy-based risk taking isn’t just for brands that have always zigged instead of zagging. Look at Danone, the multinational food behemoth. The company has pledged to secure B-Corp status across all their business units worldwide by 2025. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “B-Corp is ‘just’ a marketing strategy” or that it’s only for small- and mid-sized brands. This position would be risky — it’s a massive investment in dollars and resources — were it not for Danone’s vision of “One Planet One Health.”

Danone’s move flips the narrative that multinationals are destroying the planet, that it’s impossible to be profitable and do good. They get to be the leaders here and now all the other mega-companies have to play catchup. They’re the new case study for how an organization of that size can change the world for the better.

Working Without a Net is Risky

Every bloody marketer wants a buzzworthy/memorable/viral campaign. They want to direct a marketing effort that explodes sales and builds a radical reputation for the brand. These are career-making projects.

Strategy — not a visionary marketer or killer creative — drives success. Strategy as a discipline frees the marketing team up to be brilliant and ballsy because when you can see the strategy behind a wild idea, the wild idea isn’t scary. It’s easy to imagine that everyone inside Patagonia (except perhaps the finance people) looked at the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” headline and said, “heck-to-the-yes!” And consumers were more than happy to give their money and loyalty to the brand because they believed in what it stood for.

Throwing spaghetti against the wall is risky. Challenging the status quo when you haven’t done your homework is risky. Bold moves grounded in strategy are not.

When you’re doing something outlandish, you won’t know how brilliant it was for another two years; you might experience the initial cultural or media hype, but there’s a long tail to sales results. So as you’re evaluating a direction that pushes boundaries, ask your team: “What do we need to do so that when we’re sitting here two years from now, we’ll agree that this was a brilliant move?”

Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia show that a strategic commitment to being what looks like an outlier can lead to longevity. Danone demonstrates that risk can show up differently in different organizations. They look risky because it’s not status quo or just a different shade of mauve. Either way lays an easy path for the brand and consumer to travel together.

Brands that disrupt and get the lion’s share of the market set themselves up with a long runway to achieve a goal that scares the crap out of them, and then figure out ways to make it happen. The strategy should be big and gnarly enough that it takes time to execute — that’s the runway. Without a longer view of the initiative’s performance, you’ll sit around reading web analytics and other short-term data.

We’re especially good at helping brands find ways to go big with confidence because they’re so secure in the promises they make. The beauty of brand strategy is that it gives you a sandbox you can play in. As we say all the time to our clients: Stake a claim, be brave, and wait for the world to catch on to the big idea. Let’s do this.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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The Formula for Taking DTC Brands to Brick-and-Mortar Retail

You’ve got a killer product, a packaging system that looks fantastic on social media, a cohort of fans who flock to your site and gobble up every new flavor you drop, and a pile of data on those customers. You’ve got a thriving direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand. Good on you!

DTC is a great proving ground for start-up brands. But the costs associated with delivering a top-shelf consumer experience are skyrocketing: shipping costs, marketing expenses (social media, influencers, retargeting), and raw materials. And while we don’t think the channel’s going away in the near term, we believe it’s time for brands to shift their focus from being a darling to a few (we call this Dominant by Default in the life cycle of a brand) and move to the bigger, real-er world of in-store retail where billion dollar brands are made, and the fakers die.

We are advising the DTC brands we work with, “Get thee to retail.”

How Does DTC Success Translate to IRL Retail?

The short answer is, what you think you know about your customers is not gonna get you there.

Not all DTC 1-to-1 marketing data translates into bankable audience insights. We have seen it lead smart teams into complicated channel transitions because they’ve been deceived by past success —

1) They thought they had a brand, when in reality they had a product lineup.

2) They thought they knew their audience, but really they projected their own wants and desires into an audience profile.

Products don’t matter as much as promises. And groupthink and cognitive bias are brand killers.

Reaching consumers is so much easier via DTC and ecommerce channels than through brick-and-mortar because you’re fully in control. You tell your story through artfully curated social media photos, you pay to attract visitors to your site, you entice them with long-form content about how great your products are. Then, when they buy, you overspend on a sexy unboxing experience and free shipping, hoping that the lifetime value of this handful of die-hard fans will become your ticket to the promised land of preference.

But (or and) even though this channel has boasted 10 years of strong growth, at the peak of the pandemic DTC was still 84% below total retail sales. And it’s been steadily declining since we have been allowed to go out again.

If you want to go big, it’ll take more than your customer data to get you there. Every leader and marketer working on DTC brands has access to their own loyal fan base’s input, preferences, and shopping behavior. But just like all syndicated and primary research, this data can only look backward.

Plus, your current fan base is too insular. Consumers think they have an outsize influence on other people’s buying habits because they’re living in an echo chamber – and the brands that listen to them are living in the same echo chamber. You’re missing millions of people who could love you in the future because you’re focused on the thousands of people who love you now.

So how do you translate this tiny little star into a galaxy of customers?

The Formula for Taking a DTC Brand to Retail

There’s a formula for turning DTC traction and insights into a strategy to reach velocity on shelf:

Audience + channel strategy + positioning, with packaging as the icing on the cake.

(How do we know this works? We guided HighKey from a DTC startup with tons of potential to explosive retail sales in just 6 months.)

So let’s break this formula down.


When you start in the DTC channel, you’ll know deeply who your audience is. In fact, it’s a valid reason to launch a brand this way: not to make money, but to gather consumer intel.

But — and this is a big but — online consumer data gives brand leaders false confidence. Why? Because you’re paying money to get people to your site, narrowing your audience by persona, and communicating highly specifically to them. Many leadership teams and marketers think that the online buying audience will scale. Just because a hard-core workout type buys protein powder on Amazon, that business isn’t scalable beyond that microgroup.

Three things will help you get beyond your current fan base:

1) additional data (SPINS, IRI, Numerator) that will help you understand who to target in the retail environment

2) an experienced navigator who can interpret that data to help you find net new consumers (that’d be us)

3) a solid brand strategy that will align your mission, audience, and product lineup.

Channel Strategy

It’s not just a matter of where you sell; it’s about the order in which you proceed into different outlets. Ultimately, universal acceptance requires that your brand be available in all kinds of channels, but the order in which you move is important. Success in DTC will have left clues about which sequence of retailer growth makes the most sense for your brand.

Audiences expect certain types of brands in certain stores. If you start out in dollar stores, you can’t then go sell at boutique or specialty retail. Your reputation as a low-cost offering will precede you, and you can’t then up your price and target audience. If you get discovered at Costco, it’s hard to swim the other way.

You may not be a mass-market brand, and that’s OK. An essential part of brand strategy is defining who you are not for. But if you aim to reach a bigger and bigger audience, best to start at the small end of the funnel. When we built a channel strategy for our client Essentia, we led them carefully from specialty food retail into big-box chains. Consumers are delighted to find Essentia at Walmart because they’ve already bought it at Whole Foods.


Positioning is an extension of your strategic foundation. It’s the act of saying, “Here’s our value proposition, our reason for being, and what we make.” Let’s agree that your success in DTC means that you have considered and are using brand positioning.

Once you define and deeply understand your audience, you build different personas. For Essentia, we broadly defined the brand’s audience as “Overachievers” and then created personas around different types of overachievers: athletes, people who do physical work, musicians, etc.

Positioning involves making tough decisions that go beyond conventional messaging. Who do you want to reach, and how do you want to reach them? The transition from DTC to retail is an ideal time to re-energize brand positioning as part of a deeper strategy to reach a wider audience in pursuit of growth.


How you look on shelf is the icing on the cake, the inevitable visual outcome of the world you’ve built around the brand. If there’s any hesitation or conflict about the package design, you’ve missed something.

What Do Retailers Need from You?

No doubt, success in DTC will open some doors for your brand. Retail category managers probably know who you are. But they need more than a few months of Amazon or proprietary sales data.

They want to know that you have real audience insight — not just for your own products, but for how their shoppers will adopt your brand. And not just for your niche online buyers but for a larger universe of brick-and-mortar shoppers.

They’re also looking to see that you have a long term game. And you’ll need to convince them that you know the category well and that you’ll invest in their channel – their job is at stake here, too.

Taking an online darling into retail stores requires a hell of a lot more than a cool design, a few diehard buyers, and some swagger. We’ve done this before, with great success. So, if you’re ready to make a power move, let’s talk about how we can help you.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Time to Break the Cycle of Bland Branding

Eighteen months or so ago, I wrote a piece that advocated for the “bland brand” trend to end. And here we are, still mired in the look, and I’m saying: Enough already.  

Enough of the clean Helvetica type and the quirky scripts. The sea of beiges, plums, and mauves. The social media feeds popping with cute yet mysterious brand-based utopias. 

The better-for-you food (BFY), beverage, and wellness marketplace is saturated with lookalike brands. It’s harder than ever to stand out. 

Or is it?

Why Bland Branding Has Stuck Around

Blanding has been around for a while now. We’re not talking about black-and-white generic packaging, but a sameness among brands with a specific look and feel tied to a demographic group. You’ll recognize the style: ample whitespace, an approachable typeface, soft pastel colors, no logo. It appeals to BFY personal care and food/beverage brands because it’s soothing and implies wellness. 

As the millennial generation grew into adulthood and gained influence and buying power, brands locked onto a design style purpose-built for this audience. This cohort likes to curate their lives to sync with what they see on social media and favor brands that echo their preferences. Millennials, especially women, latched onto a visual aesthetic that infused everything from fashion to home décor to product packaging. In 2016, writer Véronique Hyland dubbed Pantone’s Color of the Year hue Millennial Pink — and the dusky rose color and its companions (see the Lululemon colorway for inspiration) — were soon everywhere. 

And they’ve stayed. 

As a creative, I’ll concede that the bland brand look isn’t bad. Nobody will find it offensive. It’s pretty. A bland brand is one that no one will hate — as opposed to a brand that insists on a category leadership position, demands attention, implores you to join in and follow along.

My objection is the sheer volume of brands coming into the marketplace that are just using a standardized kit of parts. It’s the most reductive and least inspired approach to design: “copy-and-paste what’s popular, follow the leader, and let’s go.”

I’m not picking on design here. I’m picking on the mindlessness approach to creating a brand that is not sharp, provocative, distinguished, and willing to take a punch. The problem is that when your look and your tone are just like everyone else’s, you wind up competing on features and benefits; you become a commodity. That’s not a big idea, and it’s not sustainable.

Time for the Bland Aesthetic to Change

Aside from the look-alikeness of store shelves (browse Target’s beauty section and you’ll see what I mean), there’s an even better reason to drop the bland aesthetic. Because millennials’ dominance in the brand landscape is waning. 

Generational influence is shifting. For starters, there are enough people in the Gen Z cohort (born from 1997 to 2015) to have real cultural and buying sway. They’re rejecting everything they see that their older siblings like, including those pretty pink package designs. In their minds, it’s not cool to be millennial. They’re not into perfection or simplicity; they favor maximalism and uniqueness in everything from music to food to fashion.  

At the same time, Gen X (born from 1965 to 1980) is reclaiming its place as a group that wields cultural power. Gen Xers look askance at millennials, whom they see as disaffected and disillusioned. Xers want to work hard, play hard, be loyal, be kind, show up, and stand for something. They’re tired of their pantry and bathroom counter looking like an Instagram post.

So … Time to Update Your Packaging?

The post-Covid retail landscape is ripe for change. Blanding is the antithesis of branding as we define it: determining the promise you are going to make to the world, the way in which you will keep it, and how you want people to feel about it. Your brand should be expressive, personal, honest – and of course, different. But how?

If your products have been sporting that soft pink since 2016, it may be time to refresh your packaging. But you probably need to do some deeper work first. Because if you jumped on that trend when it emerged, you certainly don’t want to fall for whatever color and typeface happens to be hot right now. Redesigning every three to five years just to keep up with the Joneses is a silly way to spend money. 

Before you even touch design, you need to do the strategic work to nail the essentials:

· Your WHY: What does the brand stand for? What is our contribution? How do we make a difference? What is our promise?

· Your AUDIENCE: Who are we making our promise to? Who receives the bat signal that we send up into the night sky? What does our brand (not just our product lineup) mean in their lives?

· Your PRODUCTS: Do we make the right products for the people we want to reach? If not, what should we make? And what should we stop making? 

When you’ve built a strategic foundation for the brand, your packaging becomes an almost inevitable expression of your uniqueness. You won’t copy competitors’ look and feel, because that direction is not even on the table.

If, in fact, you have your brand’s mission and vision dialed in but still find your team chasing creative trends, I’d suspect that you don’t have a packaging problem but an audience problem. You may be targeting the wrong group of consumers, or misunderstanding the one you’re aiming for. 

Shelf space, mind space, and ad space are all at a premium. Nobody is sitting around waiting for you to stand out or matter. Time to declare who you are, really understand your fan base, and adopt a look that only your brand can own. 

Identifying audiences — including consumers you’re overlooking who are just waiting to fall in love with you — is our superpower. Let’s have a conversation about who you’re reaching, who you’re missing, and how to attract your people with knockout packaging.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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How to Shape a Food or Beverage Brand’s Tone & Voice

If you’ve been reading our stuff lately, you know we’ve been on a mission to convince food and beverage marketers that creative expression must flow from brand strategy. Every. Single. Time.

For the most part, we’ve been talking about visual interpretation—design. Now I’d like to cover something adjacent but different: the brand’s verbal expression, language, and behavior, or what we call tone and voice.

Strategy, tone, and design are definitely in a relationship but … it’s complicated.

In the hierarchy of marketing, tone and voice flows directly from brand strategy, and it supersedes design.

Brand Strategy => Tone & Voice => Visual Expression

Let’s break this down:

Brand strategy is a mix of internal guideposts, mission, vision, and values. The language you use within your walls to discuss strategy can become consumer-facing, but more often it influences what you say and how you say it to consumers.

Tone and voice translates strategy into words, behaviors, vibes, and relationships you build with your audience. That audience may be consumers who buy your products, retail partners your sales team interacts with, or your suppliers. Tone and voice defines how you’re going to fulfill the promise your brand makes to the world. And it ensures consistency so that everyone speaks from the same phrase book.

Design, or creative, renders the tone and voice of the brand in a visual way that delivers on the brand promise and meets business objectives. Design is font choice, color palette, visual library of illustrations or photos, and so on. Design reflects tone, which reflects strategy. If your brand voice is soft, and comforting and casual, then your font choice shouldn’t be aggressive and angular.

How to Build a Food or Beverage Brand’s Tone & Voice

How to Build a Brand’s Tone and Voice

When we advise food and beverage companies on building a brand strategy playbook, we don’t go from the strategy work straight to the design execution. There’s a step in between: defining the brand’s tone and voice. So what does that look like?

Most brands have a design standards guide that governs things like logo usage and photographic style. We take it a step further and develop a brand bible—a rich, comprehensive document that incorporates everything from how the brand delivers on its mission, to how it talks with customers, to how it responds in a crisis. All that, plus typefaces and color palettes and other visual elements. The brand bible is literally that: A reference that defines every bit of visual and verbal communication.

In creating the brand’s tone and voice, we use the 12 classic brand archetypes. It’s a tool that marketers are familiar with, and a great way to use analogy to home in on the brand’s persona. Brand archetypes include the Hero, the Explorer, the Caregiver, and the Sage. By defining the archetype—either one of the traditional archetypes, a riff, or a combination—we can start to get a handle on the language, emotional tone, and communication style.

We also develop phrasing for the brand’s mission and vision. This might take the form of a manifesto (which could be used internally only or externally as well). It includes short, medium, and long versions of the mission for use in different ways. Some of this language should be consistently used verbatim, like gospel, but we also give people other language and tools so they can scat. These foundational words and phrases, married with the emotional tone and communication style, informs how we write every single bit of copy, from sales decks to social media posts.

From Verbal to Visual Expression

From there, we create a mood board, sort of a scrapbook that captures inspiration for how the brand looks in the wild. It incorporates imagery showing the consumer and their world, and how the brand fits into their lives. Out of that research emerges a visual system of type, color, and imagery.

In the olden days, design would pull the tone and voice forward, because design was stronger than writing. (Unless you were in the advertising business, where hotshot copywriters led the charge.) Today, the brand’s persona defines visual expression.

One watch-out though: Tone and voice, like design, must be anchored in the brand’s strategic foundation. I have seen it hundreds of times, when the copywriting is so creative and “cool” that the agency or internal team reverse-engineers the brand strategy to map to it. This is not brand strategy. A disconnect between mission, tone, and design is a recipe for confusing, alienating, and infuriating your audience. More to the point: When creative misses the mark, you risk failure in terms of meaningful performance (growing audiences, adding reach, getting velocity, and making a profit).

Successful brands understand who their potential customers are, how they think, what they need, and where they spend their time. Great brands that achieve long-term relevance arrive at these insights through a brand strategy framework that makes writing for said consumers intuitive rather than forced. Defining the elements below will help tone and voice deliver against strategy instead of redirect it:

• Purpose (why you exist)

• Promise (what will you do and how will you do it)

• Values (what will you stand behind even if it’s painful)

• Emotion (what’s in it for your employees, trade partners, consumers)

• Context (when, where, and how will someone know that they belong to your brand)

• Audience insight (what do they need to hear from you to opt-in)

• Competitive and category research

Case Study: A Brand with a Distinctive Voice

At an industry event in Chicago recently, reps from Hershey, Pringles, H-P, and Liquid Death shared the stage for a panel discussion. And those three mega-brands were agog at Liquid Death. Liquid Death’s countercultural tone and voice are so inclusive to a net new audience—they’re not about selling water; they’re an environmental company disguised as a water brand.

But the skateboard dude and tattooed mom don’t care about the brand’s mission to kill plastic packaging—they just care that the product is cool. They want the tall can with the logo that looks like it’s for a heavy metal band with rad type and skull graphics. The brand’s persona drives creative execution, all in service of the mission.

For more insight into how Liquid Death’s brand voice came to be, check out Diana’s Gooder podcast interview with Liquid Death’s CBO, Amy Friedlander Hoffman. Unsurprisingly, her personality was totally on brand.Need some guidance on shaping your brand’s tone and voice? That’s our thing. Let’s get in touch.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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What’s the Problem: Your Brand Strategy or Your Marketing Tactics?

Your latest campaign isn’t driving the velocity you expected. Instead of growing your sales, the new flavor you’ve introduced is cannibalizing your legacy product. Your leading retail outlet is preparing to launch a private label version of your offering.

If your food or beverage brand is facing headwinds, do you know if the problem is your marketing tactics? Or your brand strategy?

To find a fix, you need to understand the cause.

Identifying Tactical Problems & Fixes

If your sales and marketing teams are throwing a bunch of “stuff” against the wall to see what sticks, it can be difficult to isolate what’s working and what’s not.

Let’s look at some common problems that arise from sales and marketing tactical misfires:

  • Lack of awareness — you struggle to reach beyond your core audience of longtime fans; while they’re loyal buyers, they aren’t going to grow your bottom line.
  • Emphasis on product attributes — your messaging leads with features and benefits, not who, what, and why you exist. You’re on your way to becoming a commodity if you don’t retool your consumer communication.
  • Product cannibalization — your new flavors, sizes, or packs are eating away at your strongest offerings. When you emphasize attributes, not mission, you’re likely to grab consumers’ attention only with something shiny and new.
  • Placement and pricing friction — your products only move when on deal. Again, if your marketing doesn’t shout your brand’s mission from the rooftops, the consumer thinks, “well, this is a cheap option this week” instead of, “I need this brand in my life.”

To address a lack of consumer awareness, you might start with research (a competitive audit, category audit, and audience analysis) and then evaluate and refine your messaging based upon those insights.

If a marketing review reveals that your messaging is overly focused on your products’ attributes (Low carb! Now in vanilla!), then you need to retool your communication to explain your features and benefits through the lens of the brand. Let the brand’s WHY lead the dialog.

When you have a product cannibalization problem, the tactical fix is pretty straightforward: Develop the discipline to say no. Don’t make more varieties just because you can. Use consumer research, flavor trends, and retailer insights to anticipate consumer demands beyond just a copycat line extension.

Finally, if you’re facing pressure on pricing and placement, then leverage your consumer insights to help your retail partners understand that your audience is their audience. Knowing who your consumer is and how the brand fits into their lives will change the conversation about placement and channel strategy.

Brand Strategy Problems & Solutions

While product-specific data might reveal issues with your sales and marketing tactics, broader insights related to your consumer base and your performance against your competitive set are flashing red lights that you have a brand strategy problem.

We’ll dig into these warning signs in a couple of different business categories, and look at some potential strategic fixes.


Key indicators:

  • Brand erosion (loss of brand relevance)
  • Loss of key, long-time loyalist consumers
  • Lack of new audience cohorts
  • Misunderstanding among your internal team of what matters to your consumers

Strategic fixes:

In short, there’s a disconnect between your brand and your customers, one that goes both ways. Your team doesn’t understand who they are (or who they could be) or what they need. They, in turn, don’t get (or have forgotten) what you stand for.

Chances are, your company is sleeping on consumer data, ignoring it, discounting it, or thinking the brand is immune to changing consumer preferences. So research is the place to start fixing an audience strategy problem.

First, you need to look backward to understand the audience you have and how you got them, looking at SPINS data, syndicated research, or a Usage and Attitude Study.

Second, you need to look forward to identify an untapped group that doesn’t yet know they need your brand in their world. Decide who you want to reach out to, who you have a right to talk to, who you want to invite into the group — and then find ways to create linkage to them.

Remember: Your brand doesn’t have to be for everyone. If you’re an undifferentiated brand, you need millions of people to care. If you’re a brand with a purpose, you need a focused group of fans, both current and future, to care.

Always, your capital-B Brand — the promise you make and the way you keep it — drives decisions about who you’re inviting into the tribe. Defining a new audience should not change why you exist; why you exist should illuminate the new audience.


Key indicators:

  • You have unhappy retail customers
  • Low velocity means category managers are days away from dropping your brand
  • Your business is not solving your retailer partners’ main problems
  • New competition is taking significant market share
  • You compete on price rather than value
  • You have low profit margins
  • You’re seeing stagnant ACV (Annual Case Volume) in key accounts

Strategic fixes:

Your salespeople are charismatic folks who could sell water to a drowning person. But they need more than personality; they need tools and language to explain why your brand exists and how it fits into the retailer’s universe. Just as you work to win your consumer’s affection, you need to woo your retail partners.

This retail relationship-building effort involves knowing your existing audience and working to expand it. (See above.) Retailers want to see that you’re constantly driving shoppers to their shelves to find your products: More fans for you equals more business for them. Emphasize, too, your brand’s mission and its power to attract devoted fans who’ll seek you out and pay a premium.

Armed with data and brand strategy, your sales team can build partnerships with retailers based on the goal of shared success. When you work as equals, you’ll face less price pressure, threat of discontinuation, or dictation of shelf placement.


Key indicators:

  • Competitors’ products or services are no different from yours
  • Your product offering is outdated and no longer desirable
  • You’re behind in understanding new industry standards, consumer preferences, and competitive moves

Strategic fixes:

Throwing new products on retail shelves simply in response to trends or competitive moves is a recipe for becoming a commodity — because every other brand can make those same products. Pumpkin spice is not a brand strategy, it’s an opportunistic product play that may get you a spike in November but is not sustainable.

When you anchor R&D to your brand strategy, you’ll make things that only you can make. Things that are so attuned to your fan base’s needs that they can’t say no.

Consider the promise your brand makes and and how you keep it: What items in your current lineup deliver on that promise? Are there outages or opportunities that you’re not serving? Where do you have permission from your audience to introduce something new? That’s the target area for innovation.


Key indicators:

  • You’ve lost track of (or never identified) your brand’s mission: why it exists beyond just making a product
  • You have difficulty finding and keeping talent
  • Your product offering doesn’t match its promise

Strategic fixes:

Really, there’s only one thing to do if the brand does not stand on a strong, defensible mission: Go to Chapter 1 of our book Beloved & Dominant Brands and do all the homework.

Without a mission, you shouldn’t be innovating. Without a mission, you’re selling to the masses instead of singing with the choir. Your competitive advantage isn’t your product features and attributes, it’s the flag you’ve planted in the sand.

Without a brand strategy built on a singular mission, the savviest marketing plan and the most persuasive sales team won’t move the needle.If your brand is struggling with strategy, that’s our superpower. Let’s talk about what you need.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Good Creative Lasts a Moment. Great Strategy Lasts for Years.

I get it: You’re in a hurry. There’s a deadline, perhaps a category review with your dominant retail partner. Or maybe someone new in your organization wants to put their stamp on the product. So you want a new packaging design for your food and beverage product, and you want it now.

A new package or identity is exhilarating. It can make a splash in the market. But it’s oh so temporary. If your creative isn’t doing the heavy lifting of translating your brand strategy, you aren’t winning.

The secret to great packaging and identity is strategy, not beautiful design. Strategy and creative execution are inextricably linked.

Great creative without great strategy is wallpaper that will be wildly outdated in 18 months. Great strategy without great creative is a binder that sits on your conference room shelf.

Skip the strategy part and go straight to playing with typography and color, and someone else in your category will make the same moves within about six months. So you’ll have to redesign all over again.

Unless you do the strategy work first.

Why Brand Strategy Should Lead Brand Creative

Brand Strategy as a Foundation for Creative

In the world of consumer goods, great design is table stakes. But what makes creative last is a strategy that looks beyond your management team’s understanding of the universe. A brilliant brand strategy allows you to ignore what your competitors are doing (moves that often inspire a we-gotta-do-this-NOW approach to redesign) and build a deep and powerful relationship between your brand and your audience.

Strategy, of course, isn’t just a marketing activity. All roads lead back to your WHY: your brand’s unique point of view and the promises you make. It’s a risk-management and resource-management philosophy. Strategy drives every decision your organization makes: the products you launch, the channels you sell through, the audience you attract, the opportunities you don’t pursue. And yes, the way you package and present your products.

The output of strategy isn’t killer creative. Rather, it’s a defined framework for making decisions, including creative. Brand strategy is creative’s superhero suit—it repels competitors, fends off trends, flashes a signal that summons fans. It allows you to make the right moves that will disrupt your category and remain a force for 5 years or more.

This is the reason we audit a client’s brand positioning against the category and all adjacencies — before we start any design work.

Sometimes, this takes a bit of convincing. Prospective clients who come to our firm for a packaging design makeover may want to skip the strategy — perhaps because they don’t understand its importance and value, or they have limited time or money (or think they do). We explain that taking 8 to 10 weeks to do it right means they won’t have to redo the design in 12 months.

So if you think you need packaging, how do you know you need strategy?

· If something is broken but you don’t quite know what it is

· If you sense that your brand’s relevance is eroding and your sales are trailing off (this is not something packaging alone can fix)

· If you’re pretty confident that you know your audience well (you may know your current people, but who are you not selling to that wants your product?)

· If your sales trajectory is inconsistent with your competitors’ and you aren’t sure why

· If redesigning is just a thing you do every X years

Design Follows, It Doesn’t Lead

Some marketers believe that doing the design work will answer the bigger questions, that they’ll turn up the strategic stuff as they go through the design process. But letting design lead the initiative is a lousy move because the brand team will get emotionally invested in visuals before they get invested in the strategy.

The discipline of package design will never illuminate a new audience or new product or channel strategy or pricing structure; those are all things that only brand strategy can do.

Repeat after me: Creative is always the output of strategy. They’re always done sequentially, not in tandem.

Which isn’t to say that your design team shouldn’t be involved in the strategic work. Inviting senior creative people to the table is a real time-saver. (And if you’re up against a deadline, a pretty great reason to make time for strategy.) When you bring senior creative people in to ride shotgun on strategy, they can get to the solve in just a round or two of ideation. It brings alignment and prevents burnout … “We’re on Round 37!” You’ve created a North Star that provides guardrails for design exploration, focuses feedback, and drives decision-making.

Early in my career, I was guilty of making really beautiful stuff that was so transformative that it pointed my clients’ business in a new direction … and then I came to understand that beautiful stuff doesn’t really cash the check. So our team’s work always starts with our competitive audit – a benchmarking exercise that informs brand strategy and identifies opportunity. Armed with that insight, leaders can make really bold moves that only your brand can make. Including packaging design that doesn’t copy what’s already on the shelf — but transforms the shelf.Ready for a smarter approach to your brand’s creative expression? Let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Do Third-Party Certifications Matter for Food & Beverage Brands?

I was recently talking shop with a friend who works for a retailer about how they choose new brands to carry. Off the cuff, she mentioned that the organization was questioning the value of certifications in their selection process.

Our conversation mirrored some thinking I’ve been doing about how certification applies to my own business.

So I thought I’d use this piece to process my own perspective and raise questions you might consider for your brand, as well.

Are Food & Beverage Brand Third-Party Certifications Worth It?

3 Types of Certifications for Food & Beverage Brands

First, let’s look at the different types of third-party credentials a food or beverage brand might carry. These endorsements are often represented by a graphic or logo on the product package.

1) Ingredient-related

Some marks represent information critical to a consumer’s choice of product — like gluten free or allergen free. Others indicate how ingredients are grown or made, such as USDA Organic, Certified Grassfed, Certified Biodynamic, or Non GMO.

2) Values-related

These certifications might correlate to sourcing issues like fair trade or animal welfare. Or they might reflect dietary or lifestyle values, like Whole30 Approved or Certified Vegan.

3) Business ownership-related

Increasingly, consumers want to buy from businesses whose founder/owners come from underrepresented communities. Brands can be certified as WOB (women-owned business), MBE (minority business enterprise), VOSB (veteran-owned small business), and the like.

In and of themselves, certifications are not bad. They were initially designed to be a shorthand to help consumers looking for particular need states or values to align with. Consumers will choose brands that align with the types of businesses they want to support, and they’ll find those brands through all the different channels: social media, websites, and product packaging.

Certifications and Brand Positioning

There are a lot of brands out there that start buying all the certifications and wind up with a Girl Scout sash full of badges on their boxes and bottles. These brands let the certifications do the heavy lifting of communication rather than focusing on positioning.

It’s a lazy marketing tactic, frankly, to stamp a Fair Trade logo on your carton if your brand isn’t full-on, end-to-end passionate about ensuring living wages and social justice for everyone involved in the production, transportation, selling, and consumption of your products. If your brand leans too heavily on third-party endorsements for credibility instead of being well-positioned within your category, you have a brand strategy problem. And it won’t be long before consumers sniff out the hypocrisy — and then move on to another brand that carries the same Fair Trade logo.

In other words, a slew of certifications that don’t reflect your brand’s true values puts you at risk of commodity status, easily replaced by another brand in the consumer’s mind.

The Trouble with Certifications

What really chaps my hide about third-party certifications for food and beverage brands is the pay-to-play nature of the whole thing. Securing these badges ain’t cheap. And I’m not just talking about the application fees.

Well-funded brands have all the resources it takes to secure a certification. That means researching and documenting ingredient sources. Aligning manufacturing with certification requirements. Auditing and reporting on practices. Getting legal guidance on corporate structure and governance.

But for small or emerging brands, even those passionate about a cause or aligned with a particular diet or free from allergens, the cost and time involved in getting certified is a major hurdle.

For our business, securing B-corp certification was a 4-year process that consumed a significant amount of staff time. We are now considering certification as a Woman-Owned Business, and we could probably buy a used car for what it will cost us in fees to attorneys who can advise us on the proper ownership structure for Retail Voodoo.

I get it: This whole vetting process exists because someone somewhere fudged about their ownership in order to get a chunk of business. But doesn’t it seem ludicrous that I need someone else to rubber-stamp that I’m an owner/operator of our firm? Or that a Black woman is the owner/operator of hers?

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend in retail. Her organization is doubling down on sourcing from women-, minority-, and veteran-owned brands. It’s a commendable effort, for sure. However, their procurement process relies heavily on WOB, MBE, and VOSB certifications. And, she tells me, they’re realizing that those certifications present unintended biases and barriers for small businesses that don’t have the time or funding to jump through the hoops to obtain those acronyms. By filtering out non-certified brands, are they overlooking companies whose products deserve to be on the shelf? If you’re a Black-owned business and you have to pay for certification to verify it, is this yet another way that marginalized people have to prove their value?

Like I said, I agree that third-party certifications have value. They help consumers navigate a whole shelf full of options. They can warn people about ingredients that can impact their health. They help us find brands whose values align with ours. And they can elevate companies owned by historically disadvantaged people.

But I wonder: Have we created unforeseen roadblocks for the very companies we’re trying to lift up?I don’t have the answer. But I’d sure like to hear what you think. Let’s talk

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Becoming a Green Company: 4 Examples to Guide the Way

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a series of articles about sustainability for food and beverage brands … moving from relatively low-stakes/low-impact (packaging) to mid-stakes/mid-impact (brand mission) and now to high-stakes/high-impact (corporate environmental responsibility). Product to brand to company.

4 Sustainable Brands to Inspire Your Company to Become Green

This is part of a series of articles we’ve published on sustainability for food and beverage brands.

The Road to Sustainable Packaging is Long. Start with These 5 Steps.

How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

If you’re just starting as an organization down the path to environmental sustainability, it may seem impossible to consider making every. single. aspect. of your business operate with environmental consequences in mind.

But it is possible. And, I’d argue, imperative.

Taking a corporate-level environmental stance means it’s not just your packaging that is quote-unquote recyclable. It’s not just your brand on the mission. It’s every business unit, every employee, every decision. Until a sustainability mindset is part of your organizational DNA. In fact, it may not even be something you actively market to consumers. It just is.

(If you need to better understand the magnitude and breadth of the materials economy, I recommend watching the short documentary “The Story of Stuff” and the other resources from the Story of Stuff Project.)

What does this kind of commitment look like? Patagonia, the outdoor outfitter that’s “in business to save our home planet” is a common avatar for corporate environmental stewardship. But there are other companies in other categories — outside food and beverage — that CPG brands can look to for inspiration. Here are 4 mini case studies — including one “what not to do” example from our own food & beverage industry.


When you’ve finished reading this, go watch the TED Talk by Interface-FLOR founder/CEO Ray Anderson. Behind the genteel Southern drawl is a steely commitment to zero waste. An industrial designer by training, Anderson founded a company to manufacture commercial carpet tiles in the 1970s. Then, in the 1990s, he happened upon Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” which opened his eyes to the role that business and industry play in wrecking the environment — and the role they must play in healing it.

Anderson recognized the false choice between environment and economics. Then he asked, “Why not us?”

He set out to transform a petroleum-intensive company to take as little from the earth as possible and only what the planet could regenerate—not a single drop of fresh oil—and do no harm to the biosphere.

The “take-make-waste” industrial ecosystem is extractive and linear; Anderson aimed for renewable and circular. From manufacturing and sourcing overhauls to creating a reverse logistics system through which customers could return used carpet tiles for recycling, Interface-FLOR proved the business case for environmental stewardship. Twelve years into the initiative, in 2009, Anderson reported that costs were down, sales were up by two-thirds, profitability had doubled, and cost savings had paid for all the expenses of the transformation. FLOR’s products were better than ever, thanks to a culture of innovation. Employees were galvanized around the shared purpose. And, he noted, no marketing campaign at any price could have yielded the marketplace goodwill that the company’s mission had generated.

Visit the website for FLOR (the company’s consumer division) and you’ll see high-style carpeting made for modern homes. FLOR leads with design; its minimal carbon footprint is a secondary selling point.

2) Alcoa

When Paul O’Neill took over the aluminum manufacturer in 1987, the company was tanking. It had a poor reputation for product quality, underpinned by a litany of serious employee safety problems. O’Neill spent time investigating how the company operated and asked loads of questions. Rather than focusing on products or customers, his turnaround plan focused on safety. The board of directors, shareholders, and fellow C-suiters questioned how safety would translate to sales and improved margin.

O’Neill remained committed. Across the company, new safety policies were put in place. The culture shifted as employees realized that the CEO was invested in them. They started caring about their work and their fellow employees. Productivity went up. When there was an error, O’Neill accepted personal responsibility, took action, and set an example.

By the end of his tenure in 1999, just under a decade later, Alcoa’s market value had increased from $3 billion to more than $27 billion. O’Neill found a value that the greater company could get behind, and he never wavered. Business case studies call this a “keystone habit.”

While Alcoa’s mission was safety-minded rather than planet-centered, the keystone habit offers a powerful model. Find a value that’s tangible and ownable — the more specific you can be, the better. Put your neck on the block, do what you say you’re going to do, and stay the course even when it’s difficult or costly.

3) Alden’s Organic Ice Cream

Alden’s was a client of ours; they came to us as a regional operation in the Northwest with a dream of expanding. Ice cream — organic at that — what’s not to love? But the company struggled with low brand recognition.

Their brand position was earnest and earthy, overly serious in the way that some better-for-you brands can be. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain the value of organic ingredients in a treat like ice cream.

As we dug into the 360° Brand Development process, we discovered a single value woven into the business that virtually nobody inside or outside the company knew about.

Alden’s sources organic milk from a co-op of 40 family farmers. And so, we found the “keystone habit” — to protect the integrity and financial sustainability of those family farmers. Only the people in procurement really knew about this commitment and what it meant to the farmers.

We created a new mission for the company: “supporting family farms.” We broke down internal silos and made sure that everyone in the company, from the workers on the production line to the financial analysts to the marketers, knew about the mission. It wasn’t just about selling ice cream. It was about honoring and preserving the livelihoods of farmers who followed sustainable, organic practices. That became the company’s flag in the ground.

As with FLOR, the corporate commitment to sustaining farmers paid off: In just 24 months, this small NW regional brand became America’s best-selling organic ice cream.

4) Oatly

Here’s our “what not to do” example. Companies that adopt strong pro-environment positions don’t have to tout their green chops in marketing campaigns. FLOR doesn’t lead with it. But woe be to the company that does make sustainability a marketing platform … and then fails to back it up in business practices.

Oatly has lately landed in hot water, with environmental activists calling for a boycott of the company’s oat beverage products. The Swedish company is built on the promise of radically changing the food system in order to tackle humankind’s greatest challenge: climate change. Oatly’s marketing and product platforms are anchored in making it cool to be vegan — they sell upcycled clothing with the brand logo, and adopt a slang-y millennial brand voice and illustration style.

The company’s financing, though, raises eyebrows. In 2020, it sold a 10 percent stake to Blackstone, a private equity group that has come under fire previously for allegations that it’s involved in businesses that contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s a complex issue (a big chunk of that same financing deal came from “green” bank loans that come with sustainability requirements). Oatly issued a “yeah, but” statement that said, basically, “Yeah we accepted this potentially questionable financing, but at least the money is going to green projects instead of to fossil fuels or something else that’s bad for the planet.”

A company leader was quoted as saying: “We know some people may see this as unexpected, but it was very purposeful. We’re at a stage where we need to scale up. Scale requires investment and big investment. If we’re able to change mainstream capital into greener projects, we will start to see a new level of change.”

The lesson here is that companies need to be steadfast in their commitment to sustainability, always and in every way, not just when it’s convenient.

It Must Be Possible

Your company has a large environmental footprint beyond product packaging. To become a truly green company, it should be ready to review every part of the business. This is not a brand exercise. It’s not a marketing initiative.

When decision making is siloed throughout an organization, all those decisions will focus on the performance of the individual business unit. Manufacturing for speed and efficiency may save costs, but it increases waste. Sourcing cheap paperboard may save budgets, but it increases forest usage. True sustainability requires system thinking.

Those costs eventually get passed along. To the consumer, in higher prices. Or to the environment, in terms of climate change and biosphere degradation. Which do we prioritize?

As Anderson notes in his TED Talk, if something exists, it must be possible. And if it’s possible for one company, than it must be possible for every company.
Where are you on the path to sustainability? Whether you’re looking at packaging, reframing your brand mission, or evaluating every aspect of your corporate operation, we can help you take the right next steps. Let’s start a conversation.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

Connect with Diana
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How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

An article we published recently noted that food and beverage brands often tout their sustainability and package their products in “recyclable” materials. In the real world, though, most food and beverage packaging is not actually recyclable in any practical sense. And even if it were, we’ve put the burden of dealing with all of this plastic and paperboard and film on the consumer.

We’ve made it so easy for people to buy our products. Shouldn’t we also make it easy for them to dispose of the stuff our products are wrapped or boxed or bottled in?

That article shared five practical steps brand leaders can take to reduce their environmental footprint, focusing on their packaging.

But of course, there’s much more to sustainability than packaging.

So how can brands create an authentic sustainability platform without greenwashing or faking it? How can they make meaningful, systemic changes, and how do they present that position to their audience?

Consumers Demand Sustainability

First, understand that consumers are driving corporate interest in sustainable practices. Take a look at the trends:

More than 9 million people globally belong to the Freecycle Network, which aims to trade and reuse goods instead of purchasing.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace allow consumers to buy and sell used items directly from one another.

Sites like Poshmark, Thred Up, and Rent the Runway allow fashionistas to buy or rent pre-worn clothing, some of it from high-end labels.

As a marketer, you also know that consumers are incredibly fickle. And sometimes irrational. They love the idea of buying less and reusing more, but they’re still buying a ton of stuff. They expect environmental responsibility even as they buy single-serve products with excessive packaging just because they’re more convenient. They want brands to be do-gooders, but they balk at paying a premium for that position.

So what is a mission-driven, better-for-you food or beverage brand to do?

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Food & Beverage Brand

Do It Because It’s Right

We advise our food and beverage clients to move in a sustainable direction not because it’s trendy or because it builds their cred on social media — but because it’s the right thing to do. Every brand is different, and that means they have different needs and bring different strengths to a sustainability story.

For every “environmental hero” brand — Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics, and Seventh Generation are brands anchored in environmental activism — there are thousands more that are starting to work sustainability into their platform. This shift in focus risks greenwashing, and unless you do it in a way that’s authentic and logical for your brand, consumers will sniff that out in a hot minute.

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Brand

So how can brands add an environmental position in a legit way?

1) Understand where you are today. Establish an internal working group tasked with defining your brand’s environmental footprint across business units: ingredient sourcing, production, packaging, distribution, retail, end-of-life, all of it. Examine not just environmental issues but also human ones: wages, safety, etc. Then begin to tackle reducing waste and improving practices wherever you can.

2) Anchor environmental commitment in your capital-B Brand. We define Brand as the promises you make and the way you keep them. Your organization must decide on your brand promise and the role that sustainability plays in it. Some brands lead with sustainability and don’t have other values; others focus on other issues like equality or health and then figure out how to bolt sustainability onto that.

To make your environmental position externally legitimate and internally “sticky” it must flow logically from your brand promise. It doesn’t have to be your only mission, but it shouldn’t be one of many missions. Don’t try to be a better-for-you, organic, shade-grown, equality-minded, sugar-free, donate-a-product-for-every-one-purchased, environmental warrior brand; consumers will struggle to understand an overly complex brand position.

We call this concept being a “citizen brand” — if your brand exists as a citizen of the world, then it has to behave admirably in all respects. Your environmentalism doesn’t have to be the lead horse, but it’s part of your value system to do the right thing.

3) Infuse sustainability throughout your operations. When this effort is part of the brand’s core belief system, it informs every aspect of your business. And you recruit, train, promote, and fire employees based on those values. That’s how you make sustainability matter deeply to the entire organization.

Not every brand has the discipline to do what Patagonia did – to review every single business activity in every single unit so that every product has a minimal impact on the environment. But if your brand is committed to sustainability, you should behave accordingly in all aspects of the business, not just when consumers are watching.

One way to do this is to apply for B Corp status. Overseen by the nonprofit B Lab, the B Corp movement aims to change the global economic system to the benefit of people and planet. (We’ve gone through this process ourselves to achieve B Corp certification.) The standards are rigorous, and there are free tools companies can use to assess their impact. This alone is a helpful exercise.

4) Craft your sustainability story internally and externally. When a plan to reduce your environmental footprint is baked into your mission, it should become easy to authentically communicate that to your employees and fans.

Begin with internal messaging: encourage people to measure twice and cut once, to think before they act, to choose suppliers carefully, to decide whether we need an office copier. Training and nurturing the value across the organization will ground every decision in your brand values. That will still have a huge impact even if you can’t radically change your packaging tomorrow.

Then you start the dialog with consumers so they know you have a position, you recognize it’s a challenge, and you’re taking steps to make it better.

At the end of the day, brands have to become more sustainability-minded. Humanity is up against looming deadlines in terms of climate change and natural resource depletion. We can’t afford to delay.

Ready to start on the sustainability path, or move farther along? We’re here to help.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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