all Insights

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.

AUDIENCE

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.

RETAIL ENVIRONMENT

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.

INNOVATION

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.

MISSION

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.

Connect with David
all Insights

How To Use Strategy as a Benchmark for Evaluating Creative

I’m just not feeling it.

I’d like to see a different shade of blue.

I love it!

In food and beverage marketing (in any field, really), the output of the creative process is highly subjective. We look at design assets — logo, packaging, social advertising — from the perspective of our own likes and dislikes. It’s human nature.

But creative decisions are not about us. They are always about the brand and its audience.

I don’t mean to be critical here. Nobody in your conference room has the tools to evaluate creative output in a way that guarantees it will resonate with your consumers. Not business leaders, who frame decisions rationally. Not design leaders, who frame decisions emotionally. None of us are taught how to think and talk objectively about creative.

So my team and I work hard to educate the marketing and brand leaders we work with, to focus discussions about design on brand objectives, and remove personal biases from the room.

It isn’t easy, but it’s essential to the success of your brand.

Brand Strategy Focuses Creative Exploration

Your capital-B Brand — which we define as the promise you make and the ways in which you keep it — underpins every decision your organization makes. Not just design. A brand strategy intentionally limits your choices. It places guardrails around product innovation: “We don’t make pumpkin spice-flavored products.” It focuses your retail channels: “We aren’t a big-box brand.” It defines your pricing model: “We are a premium product.”

Because we tend to think the creative process is playful, we assume it should happen without boundaries. In fact, brand strategy gives it the right kind of parameters. (Imagine that I set a piece of paper in front of you and said, “You can write or draw anything you want, and in an hour I’m going to come back and tell you whether it works for me.”)

I like to think of brand strategy as a three-lane superhighway surrounding a city. The three lanes are your what (your competitive advantage and your audience), your how (your culture and onlyness), and your why (your mission and promise). The highway keeps all creative exploration and output within the city limits.

Brand strategy produces confidence and clarity in all decision making. Design is the physical manifestation that your strategy is right.

Reframing the Conversation About Creative Output

With strategy as the anchor point, the conversation about design options — regardless of the deliverable — changes. And designers need to shift their frame of reference for spearheading these discussions. (Leading creative evaluations is something Retail Voodoo excels at, and a key reason why so many of our design alumni have gone on to become rockstars in other organizations.)

When designers talk about their work in business terms instead of attributes like color and type, business managers are familiar with the language. The people who have to live with the decisions designers are making respond to their work differently. It steers the dialog out of emotional territory and prevents comments like “I feel it” or “it’s a vibe.”

Even if you have the smartest, bravest, most experienced execs in the room, if you don’t have the strategic framework, you’ll get input like, “I read on Bevnet that ombre is a trend in packaging,” or “I walked into Whole Foods yesterday and saw …”

By focusing the discussion not on preference but on how well the solution supports the brand strategy, creative directors typically gain approval in one or two rounds, even on big, transformative stuff.

When you’re preparing to lead a creative evaluation, here are some questions to consider:

  • Will this resonate with the people we want to attract? (NOT: Will it make us in the room feel good?)
  • Will this stand out on the shelf in a way that can’t be unseen? (NOT: Does this fit within the conventions of our category?)
  • Does this communicate our story in a way that engages new customers and appeals to people who already love our brand? (NOT: Is this on-trend in color and typography?)

Signs That You’re Off Strategy

It’s easy to be seduced by a big idea. And in my experience, creative directors and agencies are really good at rewriting strategy to map to a killer design concept. So beware of falling in love with a solution that’s off strategy. How do you know if this is happening?

The most common sign is that the creative and marketing leads are willing to change the strategy vocabulary to fit the design. Or the creative team has to figure out how to accommodate someone’s personal preferences in the solution (“The brand manager wants blue, so how can we work blue into this design to make them happy?”)

Occasionally when working with food or beverage brands, we run into a senior person’s bias that we can’t overcome. So we treat it like the TV show Chopped: “OK, we have to use lamb brains and lemon meringue pie and pumpkin seeds.” And to the extent we can, we’ll connect those weird ingredients back to the strategy, so the solution makes sense.

Filtering Creative Conversations

Those personal preferences for visual expression — someone loves blue or hates serif type — will always be there. Mission-driven brands also have other cognitive biases that are important to recognize: They think their audience is just like them. And they think that a track record of success proves that their instincts are right.

When you and your colleagues evaluate any creative output, counteract those biases by applying a filter: It’s about our audience, not about us.

The goal is to get everyone to rally around a design translation not because it’s their favorite, but because it will whisper in the ear of your target audience in a way that competitors cannot. You won’t hope the solution works — you’ll know it will.You may be struggling to evaluate creative output with your team. It’s a common challenge — one that we’re really good at solving — so let’s talk.

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
all Insights

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.

Connect with David
all Insights

Food & Beverage Brands: Stop Chasing Your Competitors

Imagine walking through a fully stocked grocery store where your food or beverage brand’s products are neatly and abundantly shelved among your category. You scan your competitors’ products, also neatly and abundantly displayed. Do you:

  1. Pull out your smartphone and make a voice memo listing all the ingredients and flavor profiles you need to get your product innovation team working on — stat!
  2. Move along with a certain swagger in your step, confident that your brand’s favored status among your customer base is enough to keep your sales velocity at a robust pace. 

(If you’ve been reading our stuff for a while, you know which answer is the correct one, right?)

The Perils of Brand Parity

So many brand leaders are just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time with clients who are checking their neighbor’s paper and navel gazing, relying on what everyone else is doing and their own internal biases to make decisions. And all of those moves result in parity.

Brands that endlessly focus on their category peers are relegated to competing on price or on differences that either cannot be seen by consumers or don’t really matter because they don’t build velocity. It’s hard to stand out in a world of features and benefits. Faced with a shelf full of comparable chocolate-flavored energy bars, the consumer will choose on any number of easily copied features: flavor or package or price. Play the features and benefits game, and your products are destined to become commodities — if they aren’t already.

What’s more, this focus on competitors creates an internal feedback loop that reinforces your team’s safe decision-making. “Brand X is making this new organic adaptogenic product, and consumers seem to be buying it, so maybe we should make one, too.” Competing on benefits is a race to the bottom, a race that only deep-pocketed multinationals and store brands that can leverage favorable placement and discounting can win.

It’s a vicious cycle: 

Don’t Stand Among; Stand Out

Let’s go back to the pop quiz at the start of this article. What if you could get some of that swagger? What if you could all but ignore what everyone else is doing, in full confidence that what YOU are doing is right? What if your brand wasn’t a copycat but a disruptor?

Category disruption takes a programmatic discipline focused on seeking out the emotional territory of who your consumers get to be when they are with your brand. It means planting your flag on a distinguishing point of view, one that your consumers embrace, join in, and talk about with their friends.

This might be a shocking position in the CPG world, but I’ll throw it out here anyway: Purchase is not the endgame. Repeat purchase is only marginally better (because your brand might still be winning on price). The real endgame is to create stark-raving fandom among consumers of your products. And the pathway to that is belonging. It takes more than attributes to create belonging. It takes a well-defined and articulated Capital-B Brand: The promise you make and the ways that you keep it.

It’s Not About Competition, It’s About Education

And it also takes education. As I wrote in my book on branding, Beloved & Dominant Brands you need to understand that the purpose of customer education is not to sell them stuff; it’s to create evangelists.

Yes, you need to educate consumers about your features and attributes in order to convince them to buy. And yes, you need to innovate because consumers have become wired to expect a constant stream of new and different choices. The challenge is to integrate product benefits into a story that emphasizes belonging and community.

Consumers need to understand your brand in the context of the real world. They want to know what problems your brand will solve, why you make your products, and where you stand on issues they care about. When people do buy into your mission and your vision of how you’re going to improve the world, they’ll buy your products — loyally, repeatedly, with open wallets.

As a marketer, you may think that consumers will naturally gravitate toward your brand. They won’t. At every touchpoint, you need to teach the consumer why your brand matters, what wrong it exists to remedy, how it will help enhance their life, how they’ll feel when they stands with you.

Of course, this assumes you and your leadership team have done the hard work of articulating your brand’s WHY. (If you haven’t done that yet, start learning here.)

A powerful WHY is future-proof. It’s the secret sauce that everyone else will try to figure out how to copy — and fail because they don’t have the ingredients. If your competitors could get inside your boardroom and see all the positioning work you’ve done on the brand, they’d be terrified.

What you’re going to make, what you stand for, how you talk to people, where you sell, what you believe – if any of it feels ho-hum or sounds just like everyone else in your space, you have an opportunity to level up, think bigger, and disrupt.

We’re here for the disruptors. If that’s your aspiration, 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.

Connect with David
all Insights

How to Make Retailers Love Your Food or Beverage Brand

I talk with food and beverage marketing leaders a lot about what it takes for consumers to fall in love with their brands. I write about the topic a lot, too.

But there’s another audience you need to woo … and they’re essentially the gatekeepers who grant access to your ultimate fan base. I’m talking about your brand’s retail partners. Specifically, category managers or buyers who choose which brands and products appear on their shelves. These relationships are essential to your business, present and future. And woe be unto the CMO or CGO who undervalues or overlooks these keepers of the shelf.

Perhaps your company has emphasized direct-to-consumer channels and wants to expand into brick-and-mortar. Or your sales team is getting some pushback in annual reviews with retail buyers who question the strength and performance of your brand. Or, worse, slowing velocity has put your products at risk of being discontinued by one of your outlets.

If you’re running into any of these challenges, it’s time to build or shore up relationships with your channel partners.

When Brands Overlook Retail Partners

The lousy retail partnerships we’ve helped our clients resolve typically occur under two scenarios.

First, the small passion brand that is still in First and Only mode. It has come out of the gate hot, with a unique product that’s attracted a legion of fans. Led by a charismatic founder, the darling brand is killing it at Whole Foods, and when it debuts at a trade show it stops traffic. It’s getting tons of likes and shares on social.

But this brand lives in a bubble, surrounded by a cohort of fans that don’t represent a broader consumer base. The founder-CEO is convinced that her product is the bomb and that if she loves it, everyone else will, too. She doesn’t value retail partners—and their input or feedback—because they just don’t get the brand. She’s happy to sell DTC, so she doesn’t have to deal with grocery category buyers. She doesn’t recognize that the cost of customer acquisition through DTC is significantly higher than at retail, where people are literally walking past the product every freaking day.

Second, the brand is mature and not a darling anymore. It’s reached 100M in sales but still struggles to be profitable. It’s gotten onto the shelf at Target—yay!—but then faded, gone on discount, and been discontinued. The brand has lost relevance. The CGO senses that retail relationships may be the issue, but isn’t sure why.

It’s Not a Sales Issue

Food or beverage brands that face challenges at retail often turn to their sales team to build better relationships with buyers. But this is not a sales problem. It’s a brand problem.

Understanding how to expand your audience without abandoning your die-hard fans is key to changing the conversation with category buyers who may be losing patience with your brand. These buyers are under enormous pressure to constantly elevate the performance of their departments or categories. They’re looking for winners, period.

Convince them that your offering isn’t just a set of features and benefits (which are easily copied—by the retailer’s own label—and ripe for discounting), but a purposeful brand that resonates powerfully with a rabid and growing audience. Deep relevance means you attract a loyal buyer who seeks out your products no matter what and is willing to pay a premium. Those are the kinds of shoppers the retailer hungers for.

Remember, too, that the category manager is armed to the teeth with data—probably more than your marketing team has. When you can demonstrate that your consumer syncs with theirs, you reframe the conversation.

While it’s tempting to deploy your most charismatic salesperson to woo the retail buyer, that may get the product on the shelf, but it won’t make up for poor performance. The retailer will gain the power to dictate terms and placement.

Instead, position yourself as a partner in their business. There’s no retailer on the planet with a block of shelf space just waiting for your product to show up. You have to have a story that convinces them why they should displace something else that’s already there for your new or existing offerings.

Show Retailers You Mean Business

So what does a retail buyer need to understand about your brand?

1) That you understand the consumer. You know who they are and who they aren’t, what they currently buy, how your offering sits adjacent to that, and what else is in their consideration set.

2) That they have your undivided attention. The Target buyer doesn’t want you to talk about your grocery business; the Costco rep doesn’t want you to talk about Target.

3) That you understand their world. They’re responsible for driving velocity and margin, and the extent to which you understand the expectations they’re facing will go a long way in establishing a collaborative relationship.

4) That you’re in it for the long haul. The buyer wants assurances that you’re sustainable enough to last and that their channel won’t become overlooked as your business grows.

5) That you’ve done your homework around supply chain and cost. You understand how the global economy works, and if one of your key ingredients comes from overseas, you have a plan for what to do if it becomes difficult or costly to obtain. If you have a supply chain breakage that forces you to discontinue some or all of your SKUs, a solid retail partnership ensures that you can return to the shelf when it’s resolved.

By leading with your capital-B Brand and a deep understanding of your current and potential audience, you’ll gain influence. You’ll build a partnership with retail decision-makers based on a goal of mutual success between equals. Rather than allowing the buyer to dictate terms and placement, you’ll bring to the table a plan that outlines how the audience shops their channel and how you can make the retailer more money. Your category review conversations will focus on new products, additional opportunities, and favored placement. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Need some guidance on making your retail relationships work better? We should talk about it.

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
all Insights

5 Hard Questions Food & Beverage Brand Leaders Face Now

It’s not breaking news to say that the food and beverage category today barely resembles what it was in February 2020. Everything has been disrupted: Consumer buying habits (what, when, and where they buy); supply chains and operations; even the makeup of your organization.

While these disruptions have raised massive roadblocks for better-for-you food and beverage brands, they’ve revealed opportunities for those brave (or capitalized) enough to seize them. As we wrote in a white paper almost exactly one year ago, this industry was — and remains — poised for a huge boom in innovation. Forced to change their shopping patterns, consumers opened their eyes to different brands, products, and flavors. When brands faced ingredient outages and production slowdowns, leaders explored new formulas and products they may not have considered before.

As I think about our conversations with brand leaders in 2021, I realize how profoundly our industry has changed. And if you’re like the execs we’ve been working with, you and your team are facing strategic decisions unlike any you’ve dealt with before. So let’s address five major questions we’ve been hearing from brands; you’re probably wrestling with them, too.

1. What’s the right channel sequence for our food or beverage brand?

This may be the hairiest question we’ve heard from brands lately, and it comes in a couple of different flavors. Sales and marketing leaders wonder about the best path into the retail landscape, when it’s time to change gears, and why channel sequencing even matters.

Choosing the right channel(s) — direct-to-consumer, big box, specialty grocers, convenience stores, etc. — is not a function of operations or sales. Decisions about where to sell (and not to sell) must be anchored in brand strategy. Your brand strategy guides what you’re going to do, and also what you’re going to stop doing.

Clients with early-stage food or beverage brands come to us all the time and say they want to get on the shelf at Walmart. We have to talk them through the two or three years of positioning and proof of marketability that shows they’ll get traction and velocity before the folks in Bentonville will even take their phone call. Club and big-box retailers are ruthless in dictating terms of pricing and placement, and if you aim for mass distribution too quickly, you risk becoming a low-priced commodity. Relevance at Walmart because you’re selling at a discount will never give you a shot at other distribution channels at a higher price.

Can you shift gears and let go of one channel as you grow into another? Absolutely. When you build relevance in grocery stores, for example, you might consider easing out of convenience retail. Channel strategy is iterative. Launch, establish, and grow before you look to swim in a bigger pond.

2. How do I know that my brand strategy will be actionable?

The first time I encountered this question was a few years ago, I thought it was the smartest thing anyone had ever asked me. Now I hear it all the time.

Often, when CMOs engage outside agencies for brand guidance, they wind up with a giant strategy document that nobody ever opens. There’s no plan for bringing that strategy to life in a way that’s doable or sustainable.

Savvy executives ask, “What should we plan for from a budget perspective in order to implement your recommendations for strategy and go-to-market?” The answer depends on how aggressive the growth goals are, but I generally advise that the budget for execution be at minimum 1X to 5X the strategy fees.

3. What will it take for my brand to be meaningfully different from competitors? 

I’m asked this by pretty much everybody we talk with: CEOs, CMOs, sales leaders, and others. The word ‘differentiation’ sounds like marketing-speak, but it’s a concept we’ve written about a bunch lately.

When we talk about differentiation, we mean defensively different. Defensively different is not a marketing campaign; it’s a way of seeing the business, integrating your values into what you make and why, and creating a community with your fans. Your strongest point of differentiation lies in the intersection between your brand’s mission and your consumer’s needs and desires. Focus on that overlap, and you’ll build an audience of true believers who’ll always prefer your brand and create barriers your competitors can’t possibly hurdle.

4. I have this killer new product idea — does it fit into my current brand or does it become a new brand?

This question is totally a function of our times. We predicted a year ago a vomit of product innovation in our category, and I don’t see that letting up. If you’re seeing a whole crop of new products (flavors, trendy ingredients, nutrition claims) among your competitive set, be disciplined about your offerings. As your R&D team churns out lots of promising ideas, let your brand’s relationship with consumers guide your choices. Anchoring your innovation in brand strategy yields new products that offer potential for strong ROI with little downside.

But if you land on a new idea that reaches for a new audience with different needs that your brand currently isn’t meeting, it’s possible to advance that idea under a secondary brand. But this path requires alignment, resources, and discipline in your organization, so take it with eyes wide open.

5. Our company has seen major employee turnover over the past 12 months. How do we get everyone on board with our brand?

While we’re used to advising clients on high-level org chart issues, this question of company-wide alignment is new. Thanks to the Great Resignation, every company is dealing with it, and the sheer volume of new employees has the power to radically reshape organizations.

I look at this as a significant stress test for brand strategy: Is your brand’s mission and vision strong enough — and woven deeply enough into your culture — to indoctrinate a new generation of employees? Is your story clear and concise enough that all the fresh faces get it and buy in?

A strong capital-B Brand — your promise and the way you keep it — allows you not only to connect with a devoted group of consumers; it also attracts the right kinds of employees who are just as passionate about your cause.

You’ve got questions, these and others. We can help you find the answers. Let’s connect and talk about what you’re wrestling with.

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
all Insights

A Dramatic Sales Turnaround for a Heritage Brand

The State of the Brand

This heritage chocolate brand invented the sugar-free chocolate category during the 1980s with a product that tasted just like regular chocolate. Because it was marketed as a product for consumers with diabetes and other dietary concerns, it sold well but remained a niche product. As Russell Stover leveraged multi-decade distribution channels through mass-market food and drug chains, the brand built and led the sugar-free chocolate category.

That is, until a host of competitors, notably Hershey, started flooding the market and sent Russell Stover Sugar Free into a three-year sales decline. They came to us under threat from competitors and retail partners who were moving to reallocate their shelf space.

How We Helped

When the brand team came to us for help repositioning Russell Stover Sugar Free, our 360° Brand Development process revealed two opportunities: an untapped audience and a packaging positioning reset.

First, there was an emerging class of consumers looking to reduce sugar intake for all kinds of wellness and lifestyle reasons. Russell Stover Sugar Free wasn’t in their consideration set, and no other brands were meeting their needs, either. These consumers were seeking natural products; sugar alcohol substitutes weren’t cutting it.

We advised altering their ingredient deck by swapping natural stevia for sucralose. In research, consumers told us they’d rather reduce their chocolate intake than eat a product with artificial ingredients. An extensive testing and formulation process landed on a product that looked and tasted indulgent.

Second, the consumer insights we unearthed during our 360° Brand Development showed that the original packaging and positioning, as a diabetic-friendly product, signaled “diet” and deprivation. When it was launched, the predominantly green packaging played in the same category as other “diet” foods like SnackWell’s and Healthy Choice.

But for the broader market of chocolate lovers (which is pretty much everybody), the old packaging looked more like a lousy alternative than a treat. Our packaging renovation leaned heavily into the nostalgia that comes with the Russell Stover master brand and the company’s legacy of chocolate making. Copy highlighted that the product is made in small batches by chocolate artisans, just as it’s always been. Updated messaging centered around the emotional and celebratory occasions when people gift and enjoy chocolates — not around the sugar-free-ness.

By combining a new ingredient profile that appealed to a natural-oriented consumer with the brand’s emotional legacy, we created an unmatchable position of differentiation.

The Results 

Talk about a turnaround. Per their annual report, Russell Stover Sugar Free reversed its precipitous sales decline in just six months, producing 33% growth over that period. And they were able to stave off Hershey, which threw three brands at their sugar-free initiative. Channel partners, including their biggest outlet, Walmart, were energized by the brand’s evolution; the new products flew off shelves. Russell Stover Sugar Free pirouetted to become the category leader again, ranking #1 in dollar and product volume, #1 in repeat customers, and a host of other metrics.

If this kind of brand acceleration appeals to you, let’s talk about what we can do for your business.

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
all Insights

Consumers Don’t Care About Your Cause. They’ll Flock to Your WHY.

A meaningful, powerful WHY is your brand’s most valuable business asset.

If you aspire to make your better-for-you food or beverage brand brand future-proof, you have to stand for something. A capital-M Mission that connects to the deepest hopes and desires of the people who love you (and the people who don’t yet know they love you) enables your brand to rise above the constant churn of the marketplace and own your category for the foreseeable future.

Our latest white paper reveals how a powerful mission not only competition-proofs your brand, it also makes you future proof. When you set a true North Star, it’ll be gravitational for the entire organization, and it’ll inform every bit of decision making. Download it now and use it in your team’s planning and strategy.

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
all Insights

Not Everyone Is Your Brand’s Audience, And That’s OK

You can spot fans of the Grateful Dead from across the street: by the way they dress, the stuff they ingest, the wheels they drive. They’re devoted followers who travel with the band and share bootleg recordings via online discussion groups. Deadheads can spot fellow Deadheads (even discreet Deadheads) in an instant.

But the Grateful Dead aren’t for everyone. And that’s OK.

As a food or beverage brand, your goal is to cultivate your audience like Deadheads. That means you’re not for everyone. And that’s OK, too.

Why a Base of Core Believers Matters

One of the core principles of using brand strategy for growth is building an inner circle of true believers that see themselves as different from others. Successful brands don’t appeal to everyone; they call to those with shared values.

You’re thinking: But wait. Isn’t the goal to sell lots of stuff to as many people as possible?

It isn’t. The goal of any brand — that isn’t selling commodities on price — should be to attain cult status among a key group of consumers. Here’s what that gets you:

1) When you have stark raving fans they prefer you over competitors. You’re not just in their consideration set; you’re their choice, always

2) Your fans are willing to pay a premium for your product. Not just because they like its taste, but because they like who they are when they engage with your brand. You drive more margin even as you’re selling to fewer people.

3) Your fans are also compelled to brag like maniacs about your brand. They take pride in their fan status and will evangelize on your behalf, and all of those people in their world who opt in will become fans too. They do your marketing for you; it costs less to recruit and maintain these consumers.

If you’re a brand without any differentiation, you need millions of people to care. If you’re a brand with a purpose, you need a focused group of fans to care. Here’s the math: Consumers who believe in what you stand for will buy on the order of 40x more than the average consumer — that’s according to a proprietary report we purchased from Mintel.

Knowing Who Not to Pursue

If your food or beverage brand is cultivating a community of superfans, then, by extension that means you’re keeping some people outside the ropes. And a lot of marketing executives we work with get squeamish about that. When I first started talking about this idea with clients several years ago, they either laughed or shuddered. And it’s still an outlier philosophy.

Today there is a lot of rhetoric aimed at brands, marketers, and business leaders to emphasize inclusion. This is good for people and society, and I’m personally all for brands doing their part to make a better world. But I’ve seen this emphasis on inclusion cause the best marketers in the world to second-guess themselves when it comes to shepherding their brand’s flock.

Being inclusive can mean different things. As you build your brand aimed at a better world, checking the inclusivity box, or the organic box, or the insert cause/certification box is not a differentiator. There’s more. When you get clear on your audience, you’ll also get clear on which audience is not yours.

Here’s the strategic way to think about this: Your goal is to create affinity, not exclusivity.

That means gathering rather than rejecting. Consumers who align with your brand’s mission are like moths to a flame. Mission is the wrong you exist to right in the world, the fight you fight, the good you do. People become superfans not because they like your products, but because your goal is theirs, too.

In other words, they’ve evolved beyond buyers to become believers. Believers don’t care about price, which yields a healthy margin on your products. They’ll remain loyal; you’re not one of 20 different brands they may rotate through their shopping carts.

How to Appeal ONLY to the Right Customers

You cannot have a group that subscribes to a set of behavioral doctrines and sticks together through thick and thin if you don’t excommunicate those who will never belong (because they don’t value what you value). The decision to forego a segment of the population to focus on your core fans requires that you and your leadership team know and agree upon what you believe in and who you are for — and, as important, what you do not believe in and who you are not for.

Again, the goal is to include and not reject. So how do you focus your audience without posting a “you’re not invited” sign in the window? Here are three tactics:

1) Maintain a laser focus on your brand’s mission. It should provide a True North for internal alignment, decision making, team behavior, and interaction with partners and customers. Other brands can copy your packaging and products, but they cannot replicate your mission and your dedication to pursuing it.

2) Steer all product innovation toward your fan base and away from the masses. Your brand’s mission should underpin every new product decision. Think of a Venn diagram with two circles representing the consumer’s need and the brand’s mission: Your opportunity for innovation lies in the overlap.

Venn Diagram - Your opportunity for innovation lies in the overlap.

3) Make it easy for your target audience to find and choose you. Create messaging and storytelling that resonates deeply to people who share your brand’s ethos. When you trumpet your passion far and wide, the folks who don’t get it will simply not opt in. In my book “Beloved & Dominant Brands”, I write about the Bat Signal — a message that only those in the know will see and respond to.

Honing a tightly focused fan base is the difference between lowercase-b branding and capital-B Branding. If you’re a brand, you need millions of people to make your P&L. If you’re a Brand, you make a ton of money off your group of true believers.

If you’re not sure how to sell this strategy to your team or you’re concerned about dismissing a segment of would-be buyers, we should talk. We’ve helped brands like Essentia and HighKey go narrow and go big.

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
all Insights

How Food & Beverage Brands Can Stave Off Private Label Competitors

Those of us of a certain age remember the Cost Cutter brand. 

We’ve come a long way since those “off-brand” or generic products, infamous for cheap prices matched by poor quality.

Private label brands are vastly different today. And they’re aiming to eat your lunch — unless you can beat them on relevance, innovation, and engagement.

Not Your Parents’ Store Brands

Back in the day, generics were all about super-low cost. But over the past decade or two, that marketplace has shifted. Major retailers like Kroger (and the chains it has acquired) began offering store-branded products that improved on the generics. These house brands were all about reasonable facsimiles – incrementally less expensive for the illusion of a parity product. Retailers took a path of least resistance by co-manufacturing decent-enough items, designing decent-enough packaging, and shelving them alongside national brands. And consumers believed they were getting a decent-enough product for less money.

But, wow: Store brands today, which the industry calls “private label,” have upped the ante. Kroger’s Simple Truth lineup became the first billion-dollar store brand in less than two years after its 2012 launch. As of 2019, the portfolio included more than 1,550 organic and natural products. And then there’s Target, which holds nearly 50 “owned brands” ranging from low price to high style. Not to be left out, Amazon is growing its Amazon Basics and Happy Belly brands like bonkers. The category killer may be Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, which in some cases is more expensive than competing national brands. Costco members know that Kirkland Signature products are premium and limited, so the brand creates a sense of FOMO that drives shoppers to buy.

The tough news for food and beverage brand marketers is that you’re competing not just against peer national/global brands, but against some really strong house brands from the very retailers you partner with.

Getting Ahead of Private Label Players

Private label incursion can frustrate the best CMOs in the business. Incremental moves by store brands can erode your market share and flatline your growth. And sometimes this happens imperceptibly, until one day the house brand looks like a legit competitor.

So how can you fend off these retail-owned challengers that seem to have every advantage — including deep consumer data, funding, and guaranteed shelf space?

It’s a question of playing big and pushing far enough ahead of  the category norms that consumers see you as the it brand. So let’s unpack how to do that.

1. Hit ‘em where they ain’t. (h/t to Bull Durham)

Use your super power: your mission, the good that connects your brand to a worthy cause, solves a wicked problem, or rights a known wrong. Private label brands don’t stand for anything; their strategy is just selling stuff.

Consumers align themselves with brands whose mission and values they share, and thus those brands become a form of self-identification or self-expression. When they choose your brand they get to be more healthy or earthy or whatever-y because your products enhance their lives. They’ll wear your merch and post your products on Instagram. They’ll create rituals around your products. But let’s face it: Nobody puts their Simple Truth dinner on Instagram even if it’s delicious. Nobody dunks their store-brand chocolate sandwich cookie like they dunk an Oreo.

Combine that mission with a well-defined audience — one that’s as broad as possible but not universal. Beloved and dominant brands know that they’re not for everyone. Gather a group of like-minded people who are comfortable standing apart from the rest of the world: the early adopters, life hackers, want-a-better-way-ers. The uptick of the bell curve before you hit mass adoption is the group you’re after. These passionate fans will never choose a private label option.

Private label brands are by necessity for everyone. Your brand shouldn’t be.

2. Play bigger and bolder.

How can you outpace private brands’ capacity to make stuff? Be committed to walking on a higher plane. Don’t just talk it, be it. Set the bar for whatever — clean ingredients or traceability or efficacy — and tie that to the mission your audience cares about. Then be the best: the cleanest ingredients, the most sustainably sourced, the most committed to social causes, etc.

And let’s talk about pricing. You and your brand team need to get over your premium phobia. Marketers fear premium pricing because they’re afraid of missing out on customers and of pricing their products out of the market. Retailers scare brands into managing price because they want competitive advantage for their private label items.

If you’re a brand that wants to sell as much as it can, then you have to play the price game. But if you stand for a higher cause, you actually don’t want everyone on the planet to buy your product. You need your fans to carry out your mission. It’s an ecosystem. Premium pricing signals that your brand is better than the rest of the set; it takes you out of product parity and into brand relevance.

3. Make communication and marketing decisions that private label can’t copy. 

House brands can mimic many of your brand’s attributes, including flavor profile, ingredients, even packaging style.

But they can’t replicate your relationship with your audience. So your goal is to get your consumers involved so that they become stark-raving fans of your brand.

To do this well, you need to think long-term about brand promise and how your team will deliver on it. And then you need to speak, write, and design like a brand that has no competition. Use your marketing and communications not just to promote product — but to drive ideas that transcend your offering. On social media, play not as a snack or nutrition brand, but as a lifestyle brand. Your brand has a distinctive voice; house brands can’t communicate like that.

It may be tempting to think of your private label competitors as gnats: annoying little buggers, but ultimately harmless. But you ignore them at your peril.

If you sense that they’re lurking outside your door, let’s connect. We can help leverage your strengths and steer your brand in a direction they can’t possibly follow.

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