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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.

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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
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How to Focus Your Innovation Process for Truly Breakthrough Products

Innovation is the lifeblood of any food or beverage brand. A steady stream of new products keeps the brand relevant, dynamic, and profitable.

But great ideas aren’t enough. So how can your brand team transform possibilities into breakthrough, viable products that will drive preference, create significant barriers to entry to competitors, and hockey-stick your revenue?

You need a framework to set the stage for innovation in your organization, and the right people at the right time doing the right tasks. Here’s a better, smarter way to launch breakout new products.

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 Food & Beverage Brands Can Create a Focused Product Innovation Process

 “What else should we make?”

This may be the most frequently asked question we get from the better-for-you food and beverage brands we collaborate with. 

This question stems from a robust innovation pipeline that’s churning out lots of interesting options. (Less so from a lack of product ideas; more on that in a moment.)

Product development is one of two key ingredients in the recipe for growth for food and beverage brands:

  • Making more stuff
  • Selling it to more of the right people

And expanding your offering is especially important now, when consumers are open to trying new things, especially after more than a year of living with a stifling pandemic.

Given a robust R&D machine at your company, how do you prioritize all the new product ideas your team has? And how can you capitalize on those ideas to power growth for the brand? 

Our Product Innovation Filter, which you can download here for free, can help narrow your team’s list of big ideas to a tight selection of smart, actionable, and profitable new products. 

The Challenge of Innovation

Innovation is essential for new brands that need to develop a long-tail offering, and also for global companies with legacy brands. Because consumers and retailers are demanding better-for-you products made sustainably, multinationals are charged with creating brands and business units that will respond to these consumer preferences and grow as their legacy brands fall out of favor and lose traction.

In short, innovation is the lifeblood of an organization. Innovation increases share, helps you stay ahead of the competition, and keeps your business living and breathing.

While this brainstorming  work is fun and exciting, be careful not to  get swept up in the mad rush to market. Some brands come to us with a robust product lineup that they want to commercialize and launch right away. And we say, “Whoa, there!”

Focusing Your Innovation on Winners

Exciting though your products may be, you can’t — shouldn’t — make all of them, at least not all at once. Choosing which new offerings to advance is a strategic decision based on your brand — your promise and the way you deliver it. Innovation is not a blunt force; there should be a thin edge to the wedge.

Believe it or not, just five to seven new SKUs in a year is ideal. 

You may ask, why not dump everything on the market when you’re on an innovation roll? Well, if you come out with 478 new products at once, you’ll leave it to retailers to pick and choose what they want. It’s also frustrating for the sales team, because they can’t get enough traction with their retail partners if they offer too many options. Unless you own the category, retailers don’t have time for that. You also risk creating conflict internally among different teams that favor particular ideas. 

Too much of a good thing hampers your ability to gain the consumer’s attention because they’ll be confused about why they can’t get the same selection everywhere. And if your launch en masse includes products that aren’t quite on brand, consumers will begin to question what you stand for.

Two Keys for New Product Launches

We offer two primary suggestions to brands as they prioritize new products for launch: 

  1. Batch your innovations

 We recommend that brands batch five to seven products in a 12-month cycle over three to five years. It is a truly entrepreneurial approach, because it enables you to learn as you go. Maybe four of the five get great traction, the fifth thing transforms into something else, and one of the breakouts spins off additional new products. This test-and-learn mentality with a smaller group of new products manages risk, focuses your investment, and maximizes ROI. This strategy also fuels trust in your retail partners that you know your audience. They have an appetite for you to innovate, so by prioritizing new products you’ll have something to share with them at every category review. 

  1. Understand when the category is ripe for innovation 

Be able to distinguish when a category is ready for improvement and innovation and when it’s just not.  Here’s a great example: 25 years ago when I was working to define the Starbucks brand, I tasted mushroom coffee. Nobody was ready for mushroom coffee then. Today, the category is exploding with alternatives: reduced caffeine drinks, “stacked” coffee, and, yes, adaptogenic mushroom “coffee.” If you’d tried to innovate coffee like that 10 years ago, it would have flopped.

Again, look to the thin edge of the wedge. Search for opportunities to launch something new, at precisely the right moment, when consumers don’t yet know they need it (but you do). 

A (Re)Focused Innovation Process is Worth the Work

No matter your organization, brand innovation requires an entrepreneurial mindset. Would you rather sell a lot of small things to many people and be quickly forgotten? Or focus a few new products and sell the heck out of them and be knitted into your customers’ lives? 

A disciplined innovation process yields explosive business results. It guarantees you’re constantly introducing products that consumers want and need, which makes marketing easier and cheaper. It disrupts your category. You’re introducing something that’s truly new rather than iterating on products already in the market. It makes forecasting easier and more accurate, since new products are highly likely to win in the market. It allocates internal resources smartly. More to the point, it generates faster financial returns — because you will know who you are making products for and why.

If your brand’s challenge is not having too many product ideas but too few, we can help with that, as well. Let’s connect to discuss greasing your innovation machine.  And if your team is overwhelmed by all the possibilities and is struggling to prioritize them, download our Product Innovation Filter here. Then 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
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Identifying Your Real Audience Yields Big Dividends

You think you know who your audience (or your potential audience) is. But do you?

For our client HighKey, that was a multi-million question.

Brand leadership came to us when HighKey was a startup and early entrant into the Keto market. In six months they’d dominated the category on Amazon and aimed to explode the business in brick-and-mortar channels.

In our assessment, HighKey was a product line, not a brand. And Keto was a limiting factor, not a defining one.

Identifying an Overlooked Audience

During our 360° Brand Development engagement, the most pivotal stage was target audience identification.

HighKey’s Amazon data indicated their purchasers were hard-core gym rats who followed a Keto diet to build muscle. And maybe their girlfriends.

Our research showed a whole new type of consumer who would be likely to buy tasty low-sugar/low-carb snacks: A woman striving to maintain a healthy weight who wants treats that can make her feel good about herself. And there are millions of her out there.

We looked at who nobody was paying attention to. Keto was gaining some popularity with dieters but still dominated by extreme fitness people. Health-conscious women were seeking products like HighKey’s, but brands were ignoring them because they didn’t fit the category.

To convince a skeptical leadership team, we created a mood board that represented this consumer: A busy millennial woman, driving a minivan on her way to yet another obligation, running late; taking a corner too quickly, her purse spills onto the passenger’s seat. And a package of HighKey cookies tumbles out.

They immediately got it. And this audience insight changed everything.

“Retail Voodoo helped us align over 100 product ideas into seven categories we’re using to grow our brand. What a tremendous partner!”
– John Gibb, CEO, Summit Naturals + HighKey

Audience Drives the Bus

From there, the rest of our brand development work flowed.

Brand mission: Focused on HighKey Gal and her health aspiration, we built a new brand mission around reinventing the American diet by removing added sugar from packaged food.

Brand promise: We developed a new tagline — FOMO NOMO — that promises that she’ll never again have to miss out on her favorite snacks because they don’t fit her eating goals.

Brand voice: The brand communicates in a way that’s real and honest, and a little self-deprecatingly eye-rolling.

Design language: The new packaging system is perfectly imperfect. Typography doesn’t align; the food styling is appetizing but scattered like HighKey Gal’s life. We opted for grab-and-go packs for most products so she can stash them in her bag.

Innovation: We pared a list of 100+ potential products into seven logical but flexible categories. From a launch lineup of mini cookies, HighKey now offers crackers, cereals, baking mixes, and more. The audience profile drives their innovation strategy.

Go to market strategy: Our mantra became “get thee to Target.” It was their ideal outlet because that’s where she shops to get what she needs and also to have a little fun.

In the two years following our engagement, HighKey went from a $2 million Amazon business to a $68+ million multichannel category killer.

Magic? Nope.

We create market opportunity. Our secret weapon is finding people that nobody’s talking to and inviting net new consumers into the category. It’s not just stealing customers from brands already in the market — but collecting new people and building a community with them.

Do you know who your real audience is? It’s a multimillion-dollar question. We can help you answer it. Let’s get in touch!

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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Sustainability is Good for the Bottom Line featuring Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, ECOS

Gooder Podcast featuring Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks

“Everyone has the right to a healthy home.” – Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks 

This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, the President and CEO at ECOS. We discuss all things ECOS: innovation, leadership, sustainability, and life. We also learn about the trends that have come up in the natural cleaning industry, accelerated due to the pandemic. Along the way, we learn the story of the transformation of a family legacy into a category champion and hear about an innovative leader who advocates for corporate social responsibility and sustainable manufacturing.

In this episode we learn: 

  • About the family history and legacy of ECOS.  
  • How far green science has evolved and its impact on product efficacy in home cleaning and personal care. 
  • Reasons why consumers resist switching from traditional industrial cleaners to more people/planet/pet-friendly cleaning products.
  • About product innovation and trends in the natural cleaning industry. 
  • The behind-the-scenes efforts of developing one of the most disruptive environmentally friendly supply chains and its net-positive impact for consumers pocketbooks. 
  • How Kelly’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and love inspires a brand that continues to break all the rules on its way to saving the planet. 
Gooder Podcast

Sustainability is Good for the Bottom Line featuring Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, ECOS

About Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: 

As President and CEO, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, leads the strategy and production environmentally friendly cleaning products at ECOS. She oversees four geographically diverse facilities across the U.S. as well as a European Manufacturing platform. She has been widely recognized for her highly effective movement, corporate social responsibility, and sustainable manufacturing. 

Vlahakis-Hanks has led ECOS to become a Climate Positive company and the first company in the world to achieve the sustainability trifecta of carbon neutrality, water neutrality, and TRUE Platinum Zero Waste certification. Her sustainable business   practice has made ECOS a model for green business in the U.S. ECOS is a primary manufacture that has received many awards for its innovations in safer green chemistry, including the U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice Partner of the Year four times. 

As an African American woman and the daughter of a Greek immigrant, Vlahakis-Hanks has made environmental and social justice a cornerstone of ECOS’s mission. She actively promotes a corporate culture of diversity and empowerment, ensuring that over 50% of her C-Suite and top executives are women. She supports a green economy by creating sustainable manufacturing jobs across the U.S. and offering strong employee benefits and a living minimum wage of $17 per hour, one of the highest in the industry.  She also offers financial incentives to employees who make sustainable living choices such as purchasing a low-emissions vehicle or solar panels. 

Vlahakis-Hanks received her undergraduate degree at UCLA and an MBA at Chapman University Argyros School of Business and Economics. She has been featured on CNN, CBS News, FOX News, NBC News, Bloomberg and Marketwatch and in publications such as Fortune, Entrepreneur and the Los Angeles Times. She has received many awards for her sustainable leadership, including Entrepreneur Magazine’s 100 Powerful Women in 2020 and Conscious Company’s World-Changing Women in Conscious Business Award. 

She is an active member of several boards, including the Environmental Media Association and the Chapman University Board of Governors, where she serves on the Diversity Task Force. She is active in industry councils and public policy advocacy, including the American Sustainable Business Council and the Companies for Safer Chemicals coalition, working to promote higher standards for consumer products to protect human health and the environment.  She is also a member of YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) and Abundance 360, Peter Diamandis’ select community of executives and entrepreneurs using exponential technologies to transform their businesses. 

Vlahakis-Hanks resides in southern California with her husband, teenage daughter, and rescue dog Mina. 

Guests Social Media Links: 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kellyvlahakishanks/   

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kvlahakis?lang=en 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kellyfromecos/?hl=en 

Website: https://www.ecos.com   

Show Resources: 

ECOS’ One-Step Disinfectant – Fragrance Free. 

ECOSNEXT™ Liquidless Laundry Detergent – Free & Clear. 

The University of California, Los Angeles is a public land-grant research university in Los Angeles, California. UCLA traces its early origins back to 1882 as the southern branch of the California State Normal School. 

Brown + Dutch was founded in 1996 when Alyson Dutch and her chocolate Labrador Rocky Brown found themselves starting a PR agency, quite by accident.  

Walmart Inc. is an American multinational retail corporation that operates a chain of hypermarkets, discount department stores, and grocery stores from the United States, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. The company was founded by Sam Walton in 1962 and incorporated on October 31, 1969.    

Sam’s West, Inc. is an American chain of membership-only retail warehouse clubs owned and operated by Walmart Inc., founded in 1983 and named after Walmart founder Sam Walton.  

Costco Wholesale Corporation is an American multinational corporation which operates a chain of membership-only big-box retail stores. As of 2020, Costco was the fifth largest retailer in the world, and the world’s largest retailer of choice and prime beef, organic foods, rotisserie chicken, and wine as of 2016.  

TerraCycle is a private U.S. recycling business headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey. It primarily runs a volunteer-based recycling platform to collect non-recyclable pre-consumer and post-consumer waste on behalf of corporate donors or municipalities to turn it into raw material to be used in new products.  

Whole Foods Market, Inc. is an American multinational supermarket chain headquartered in Austin, Texas, which sells products free from hydrogenated fats and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. A USDA Certified Organic grocer in the United States, the chain is popularly known for its organic selections. 

The Environmental Protection Agency is an independent executive agency of the United States federal government tasked with environmental protection matters. President Richard Nixon proposed the establishment of EPA on July 9, 1970; it began operation on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order. 

Safer Choice helps consumers, businesses, and purchasers find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment. 

Green For All is an organization whose stated goal is to build a green economy while simultaneously lifting citizens out of poverty. It is a DC-based group that brings unions and environmentalists together to push for anti-poverty measures and a clean-energy economy. 

The Environmental Media Awards have been awarded by the Environmental Media Association since 1991 to the best television episode or film with an environmental message. 

YPO is a global leadership community of chief executives with approximately 29,000 members in more than 130 countries, according to the organization’s 2019 YPO international fact sheet. 

Women’s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. 

Daniel Pink’s Master Class: Teaches Sales and Persuasion. 

Kellogg Garden has operated as a family-owned and operated company. Established in 1925, they have remained a stable, steadfast family business guided by the core values of their founder, H. Clay Kellogg: integrity, innovation, loyalty, experience, commitment, and generosity. 

Beyond Green is a Certified B Corp making positive change easier by inspiring everyone to create a sustainable world. 

Rivian is an American automaker and automotive technology company founded in 2009. The company develops vehicles, products and services related to sustainable transportation. 

Publix was founded in 1930 in Winter Haven, Florida, by George W. Jenkins. Their mission is to be the premier quality food retailer in the world.

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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Food & Beverage Companies: Time to Go from Bland to Brand

If you’ve walked the health and beauty aisle at Target in the past few years (back when leisurely strolling a retail store was an everyday occurrence), you’ve seen the rise of a particular brand aesthetic.

Lots of whitespace, sans serif type, an absent logo, soft modern colors. Designers and marketers have dubbed this aesthetic “blanding” — a sort of no-brand branding. Lots of successful brands have adapted this style: Brandless (the exemplar), NativeHey Humans and others. Target’s newly launched Favorite Day brand of 700 (!) indulgent food and beverage products is another example.

The personal care and natural food/beverage categories are ripe for the blanding approach: The aesthetic is right for wellness or better-for-you brands because the whitespace and cleanness echo an old-school pharmaceutical look that implies health and purity.

Why Brands Embrace Blanding

Brands favor this blanding style because it plays well on social media, it’s scalable for different digital channels and screens, and it’s easy to systematize. Blanding is essentially a kit of parts: Pick a sans serif typeface — or, if you want to parrot Goop, a quirky, cute serif — add Pantone’s color of the year, no need to design a logo, and you’re cooking.

Online, this less-is-more bland style pairs with perfectly imperfect lifestyle photos — all midcentury modern and luxury décor and rose gold and other visual cues that appeal to Millennial shoppers. Millennial consumers especially like to curate their lives, with products that have a complementary look that they can display on a bathroom vanity or kitchen counter. For that reason, blanding is purpose-built for Instagram, which is highly visual and focused on beauty. Consumers get to associate with that vibe and imagine themselves immersed in the images they see in their IG feeds.

Too, there’s a sort of faux consumer confidence that emerges among lookalike blands. “If my snack bar looks like my deodorant looks like my vitamins, then it must be good.”

Because it’s a) super popular right now, so a proven creative concept, and b) really easy to pull off without hiring a high-fee design agency, many startup and direct-to-consumer brands have adopted the blanding approach right out of the gate.

But there’s a real challenge for these companies. As a FastCompany article puts it, “Blands are like teenagers. They dress the same, talk the same, act the same. They don’t have a defined sense of self or, if they do, they lack the confidence to be it. It’s a school-of-fish mentality where the comfort and safety of the familiar outweigh the risk of attracting too much attention.”

Blanding is simply a visual style. It’s not branding. And without a capital-B Brand, your product risks becoming a commodity. By Brand, I mean a mission or purpose: a wrong that your company and its community strive to remedy, a higher calling, a better way of life for your customers.

Blands recede into the swirl of other similar products on the shelf; brands — especially Beloved & Dominant brands — stand up, stand out, and stand for something. And to do that, you have to use your own voice.

Graduating from Bland to Brand

I get the appeal of blanding. When done well, it can be quite attractive. It’s why so many charismatic entrepreneurs in food and beverage start-ups leverage the style: Their product looks great, their packaging looks great, and by association they look great.

My sense is that this design trend would have passed already were it not for the pandemic, which forced emerging DTC and ecommerce brands to rapidly ramp up their consumer presence in the first six to eight months of the quarantine.

You can get away with a bland for a while, but as the brand matures and starts to stand for something, this one-of-many design style becomes useless. The challenge is that just like emerging artists who haven’t yet gelled their own style, these young brands emulate their peers.

When the quarantine is over, people will go out to shop more frequently and more leisurely than they do today. And the blands will quickly start to feel like private label.

Bespoke brands understand how to stand out enough to become Beloved & Dominant category leaders. The first step is to look critically at the ecosystem of your consumers and then work to becoming a one-of-a-kind standout in their world. If Instagram frames your worldview, then you’ll land on the same visual construct that other players in your category are using.

Blanding is normcore — it’s riskless, you don’t have to stake a claim to meaning, it’s the easy path. Branding is unique — it’s risky, pegged to an idea, and demands a deep understanding of your consumer and their world.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with blanding as the tool kit that your startup incubator gives you; a beautiful package might get you into a conversation with retailers or investors, especially if you’re riding the passion of a charismatic founder.

I think of blanding as a “fake it ‘til you make it” business strategy.

But once you’ve lost velocity or aren’t selling through or can’t get meetings with new channel partners, then you’ve outgrown it. If Target wants you on the shelf but your products don’t move and then they make a private label version of your offering, then it’s time to hit “eject” and move on.

The good news is that you’ve already begun to build a following. Now it’s time to do the work to establish a strategic foundation before you get to the cool stuff like making a logo and choosing a color palette. That includes:

— Defining the brand’s mission and values

— Articulating a brand story that’s bigger than your product

— Identifying places where you want to play, outside of Instagram but in the real world of sales

In order to become a category leader you have to exit the superhighway of blanding and go offroad to seek your tribe who will love you forever and will pay what you ask in order to deliver on your mission.

Elevating from one-of-many bland to Beloved & Dominant Brand takes guts, vision, and leadership. It’s a massive, exciting opportunity because it means you’re ready to grow up and out. We can help you take those steps, so let’s connect.

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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Massive Innovation is Coming to Food and Beverage. Is Your Brand Ready?

2021 will launch more innovation at one time than we’ve seen in a while. Here’s how to prepare your brand for the competition.

By switching to a brand-driven innovation strategy, better-for-you brand owners are future-proofing their business and retooling for growth.

Download this white paper to learn how to:

  • Understand where you are in the Brand Life Cycle.
  • Capitalize on the innovation boom in food and beverage.
  • Prioritize consumer-facing communication to increase brand relevance for your best-performing products.
  • Identify two types of innovation and decide what makes sense for your brand.

Get this exclusive report brought to you by Retail Voodoo, the branding firm who has helped Essentia, KIND, Russell Stover, Sahale Snacks, HighKey, and Starbucks build brand-driven strategies that create meaningful, sustained growth.

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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When Comfort and Innovation Collide featuring Tanu Grewal, ALEN Group

Gooder Podcast featuring Tanu Grewal

“You have to be so progressive to be able to go against the norm.” – Tanu Grewal

This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Tanu Grewal, the Vice President of Marketing, Innovation, and E-commerce for AIEn, USA. We discuss how and why a company that has traditionally targeted a conventional consumer decided to tackle green cleaning by developing the new Art of Green brand. We also learn how the brand’s innovation and marketing will target some trial and conversion issues of many of the most hesitant conventional consumers. Along the way, we learn the story of a feisty and inquisitive leader who brings a contrarian view of leadership, innovation, and life to every opportunity and conversation.

In this episode we learn:

– A little background about the newest green cleaning brand called Art of Green.
– About assumptions and missed opportunities that the green cleaning industry
should be tapping into related to consumer adoption.
– How the years of working in a parallel industry allows her to approach the
category and production innovation in a new way.
– Why aroma is a big driver of category success.
– How to extend the life of your job title beyond the magic 18-month timeframe.

Gooder Podcast

When Comfort and Innovation Collide featuring Tanu Grewal, ALEN Group

About Tanu Grewal:

Tanu is a global brand builder and strategic marketer with over 15 years of experience working in mature and emerging markets like US, EMEA, and India with companies in the CPG, durables, luxury, and hospitality industries. She is passionate about using brand purpose to help drive innovation and marketing that creates real value and emotional engagement with consumers.

Reporting to the CEO, Tanu is currently the Vice President of Marketing & Innovation at AlEn USA, a growth stage division of the global ALEN Group. One of her top achievements in this role has been the launch of a natural, green cleaning brand called ‘Art of Green’ that just won the prestigious Product of the Year award. Prior to this, Tanu has worked on iconic brands like Kohler, Maytag, and Whirlpool where she elevated commodity categories to lifestyle brands through a combination of award-winning
product design, disruptive innovation, and experiential marketing.

Starting her career with Whirlpool North America, Tanu held a variety of marketing and product development positions over 8 years including an ex-pat stint in Italy. Tanu holds an MBA degree from Rice University in Houston.

Outside of work, Tanu is passionate about creating communities that enable people to thrive. Currently, she serves on the International Student Advisory Board at Rice University and as a board member for the South Asian Women’s Professional Network.

As a public speaker, Tanu’s topics include launching and scaling a challenger brand and standing out in a crowded market through creative marketing. As an Indian woman, living in the US and working for a Mexican company (AlEn), she also speaks on navigating multicultural work and market landscapes. Tanu has been interviewed by Forbes and delivered the keynote address for Coke FEMSA’s Annual D&I conference in
Mexico City, Women’s Masters Network’s Annual Meetup 2020 and the Houston AMA’s Quarterly Luncheon.

An avid traveler and consummate foodie, Tanu lives in Houston with her husband and son.

Guests Social Media Links:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tanugrewal/
Website: http://www.alenusa.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Tanu_Grewal
Personal Website: http://tanugrewal.com/

Books Mentioned:

Unfinished: A Memoir by Priyanka Chopra – From her dual-continent twenty-year-long career as an actor and producer to her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, from losing her beloved father to cancer to marrying Nick Jonas, Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s story will inspire a generation around the world to gather their courage, embrace their ambition, and commit to the hard work of following their dreams.

Show Resources:

The Art of Green –  product line offers consumers an affordable and high-performing natural cleaning alternative that is priced for everyday use.

Kohler Co. – founded in 1873 by John Michael Kohler, is an American manufacturing company based in Kohler, Wisconsin. Kohler is best known for its plumbing products, but the company also manufactures furniture, cabinetry, tile, engines, and generators.

The Maytag Corporation –  is an American home and commercial appliance brand owned by Whirlpool Corporation after the April 2006 acquisition of Maytag.

The Whirlpool Corporation–  is a multinational manufacturer and marketer of home appliances, headquartered in Benton Charter Township, Michigan, United States.

South Asian Women’s Professional Network (SAWPN) – SAWPN was created to bring together and engage women across various industries, nationally. Our goal is to build a strong networking base to support, mentor, and celebrate successful, strong, and vibrant women across the country and within our communities.

HINT – an American beverage company based in San Francisco, California, as an alternative to soda and sugar beverages. It was started by former AOL employee Kara Goldin.

Amazon.com, Inc. – an American multinational technology company based in Seattle, Washington, which focuses on e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming, and artificial intelligence.

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 WEInvested Podcast: Food, Beverage, Wellness, and Fitness Brand Development ft Diana Fry‪c‬

A sustainability thought-leader, marketing and networking tour-de-force, Diana is resourceful, insight-driven, and loaded with can-do energy. 15+ Years into her journey, she deeply understands the importance of gaining team alignment, distilling marketing research into actionable insights, and brand-driven copywriting to build and grow brands.

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