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Above the Fold Podcast: How to be a ‘Gooder’ Brand featuring Diana Fryc

Above the Fold Podcast with Diana Fryc

Do-gooder Diana Fryc sees brands as a force for good, but a lot goes into walking that walk. Fortunately, she knows all the steps. The co-founder of Voodoo Retail, and host of The “Gooder” Podcast, with two lovely hosts Jeff Baker and Francis Ma, discuss food equity, conscious capitalism, women in leadership roles, sustainability, and more on what is possibly the most important episode of Above the Fold to date.

Other key issues we cover:

  • Racial and ethnic representation at grocery stores.
  • Operationalizing your “brand values.”
  • The role leadership plays in branding.

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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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Focus Your Food & Beverage Innovation on Your Brand’s Promise

In a recent client meeting where we were discussing potential new product opportunities, the CFO threw out a quote from Confucius: “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.”

His words prompted me to think deeply about the intersection between brand strategy and innovation.

Some food and beverage brands manage to out-innovate their strategy, to launch products that deviate so far from the brand’s mission and promise that they a) don’t make any sense and b) confuse the consumer. (Think, for example, of a beloved luxury ice cream brand extending into probiotic dairy-free plant-based frozen treats. Two different rabbits.)

Others risk overlooking meaningful opportunities to develop a new product offering because it falls outside the known audience and their understood needs.

So what’s the right balance? It’s a timely question because we’ve predicted that the coming 12 months post-pandemic will be a boom time for innovation in natural food and beverage brands.

With this article and the next, we’ll try to answer the question, sharing our insights on when it’s best to chase just one rabbit and when it’s smart to pursue both.

Innovation Yields Opportunity

When we talk about innovation, we mean real research and development to yield new products, not just line extension with a new chocolate peanut butter flavor. True innovation requires that brand leaders are disciplined in two areas. First, they deeply understand their audience, both current and future, and how the brand meets needs that these consumers don’t yet know they have.

Second, they are committed to anchoring R&D in brand strategy, which means that they grasp what we call the “range of acceptable stretch.” (That means how far you can push your product line in a way that makes sense to your audience.)

Businesses are pressed for growth like never before. The chief growth officer (CGO) has surpassed the CMO on the corporate food chain and in this new organizational hierarchy, the CGO (not the CMO or COO) is responsible for marketing and innovation. Companies are bringing in a bunch of really smart people and task them with finding opportunities (we’re big fans of using Blue Ocean Strategy as a catalyst for new product development). If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

Sometimes they stumble on an idea that’s so outside their existing audience and promise that it would be problematic to implement under the current brand umbrella. (If this is you, stay tuned for our forthcoming article.)

Go Narrow, Go Deep, Be Relevant

Given all this activity, chances are good you’ll unearth a few ideas that do fit with your brand’s ethos and fall within that range of acceptable stretch. And those offer strong potential for ROI.

Generally, we guide our clients to focus their innovation around brand strategy and scenario planning that addresses their current and future buyers’ need states. Becoming a Beloved & Dominant Brand requires focus and an ownable point of view that resonates with critical audiences.

Throwing a bunch of quasi- (or not at all) related SKUs on the shelf dilutes the brand’s position, confuses your consumers, and opens you up the risk of losing fans, market share, and velocity. You’ll become more susceptible to competition and over-rely on your leading SKU to offset weaker products.

Instead, go narrow, go deep, and be relevant—for the win!

Being too narrow or niche-y is scary for most CMOs. Best practices tell us that broader is safer. With performance pressure from above, marketers tend to hedge their bets by offering a bunch of stuff instead of honing in on a lineup that’s strongly relevant to their audience. Call it FOMO — fear of missing opportunity: What if there’s an ingredient we didn’t think about or a technology we didn’t know about or an adjacent product we didn’t add?

Marketers assume that the goal is to be in the consumer’s consideration set; you have a 1 in 10 chance of being purchased, which is better than not being purchased at all. Even sophisticated marketers buy that theory, but we think it’s a fallacy. If you’re always the preference and never an alternative — the position of a Beloved & Dominant Brand — you’ll be purchased every time. Brands that build stark-raving fandoms do not pursue general audiences. They have earned their loyalists through the discipline of going narrow, becoming preferred, and evangelized by their tribe.

Plenty of brands do narrow and deep exceptionally well, like these:

Highkey understands the principle of solving the same problem in so many delicious ways for the same narrow group. The team came to us for help rationalizing a massive list of potential products into a logical, manageable range upon which to grow the brand. Together, we repositioned Highkey from keto dudes to on-the-go moms looking for great-tasting snacks that wouldn’t wreck their diets. It’s a focused audience, a tight use case, and yet a wide range of products.

Anser is a still-new brand of supplements and wellness products aimed at women of color, who’ve historically been overlooked by the industry. We helped them launch with an aim to make a self-care routine for multiethnic women, and now they’re line extending like crazy with a whole bunch of new products for the same focused need state.

Reser’s Fine Foods is a family-owned Pacific Northwest brand that creates prepared foods for the grocery deli case. They’re super focused on a consumer segment with a common need: people attending a potluck or barbecue who want something reliably delicious to share, and families who need something good and easy for dinner. Within that focus, they have wide latitude to innovate; their product offering ranges from salads and dips to heat-and-eat side dishes.

Given the fire hose of innovation at many companies, you’ll likely pump out lots of great options, and you may want to pursue multiple opportunities at the same time. The problem is that instead of doing one thing well and staking out mindshare with key groups of humans, you risk spreading thinly across multiple categories, solving groups of unrelated problems for different audiences.

Brand strategy is the discipline of narrowly defining who you are, what your contribution will be, and then making a series of decisions to keep your promises in a way that other brands can’t or won’t. And that strategy should underpin the choices you make about what to add to your portfolio.

In other words, chase one rabbit and you’ll catch him.

But … what if that second rabbit is simply too appealing to ignore? What if your thorough innovation process spots an opportunity — a new product aligned with an unmet need among a different audience — that has enormous bottom-line potential?

We’ll dive into that in our next article.

In the meantime, we’re always happy to talk innovation, so give us a ring.

David Lemley

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

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What’s in a Name? Your Brand’s Mission and Meaning

A brand name, in and of itself, is meaningless. Think of it as a vessel into which you pour meaning—your capital-B Brand: The promises you make to the world and the ways in which you keep them.

A powerful brand name carries all kinds of weight. It becomes shorthand for everything you stand for. It creates a halo over your product line, even as it expands. It’s a marker that allows people who are in the fan club to identify one another. It’s the single word jotted on a shopping list.

But names have to earn that cred over time. It’s not like Oreo instantly connoted childhood and treats and dunking in milk the moment the brand was launched in 1912. Those associations affixed to the name over many years.

Too, there may come a point in a brand’s life cycle where the name and the mission no longer synchronize. And a change may be needed.

These days, the barriers to entry in the food and beverage space are low, and brands are emerging from the depths of Amazon. If you’re launching or renaming, we’ll share some guidance.

Great (and Not So Great) Brand Names

Let’s explore some examples to demonstrate our thinking here:

What Does This Even Mean?

Some brand names truly are empty vessels: devoid of meaning until marketers—or, more accurately, consumers—give it one.

Apple
Oreo
Chobani

Name = Product Attributes

When brands launch with a singular product, they often adopt the product as the imprimatur for the larger company. (Watch out: As market opportunities arise, the product-as-brand naming convention becomes self-limiting.)

Brad’s Kale Chips
Keto Naturals
Hippeas
IQBAR

Brand as Biography

Other brands associate with a charismatic founder, whose personality represents the mission in the marketplace. These face-of-the-brand names can be successful as long as the person remains in good public standing and as long as the founder doesn’t become an obstacle to the brand’s success.

Newman’s Own
Annie’s
Bob’s Red Mill

Brand Names We Love

The strongest brand names are those that consumers can “get” in a second, yet broad enough that the company can grow logically into new categories.

One of our favorite brand names is Califia. You only need to hear the story of the mythical goddess of California and protector of the environment for whom the brand is named once—and it’s easy to extrapolate from that all of the brand’s values around wellness, quality, and sustainability. Califia started as a juice company; now it’s known as a plant-based dairy alternative company.

Likewise, the inspiration behind the name Nike—the Greek goddess of victory—perfectly encapsulates the brand’s mission to support athletes of all types in pursuit of their highest potential. That mission is laser-focused, yet roomy enough to allow for a huge assortment of products.

KINDa client of ours, is another superior brand name. The healthy snack brand advocates kindness to body and planet—and to your tastebuds. The name is a no-brainer, and it naturally attracts an audience of fans who identify with the brand’s mission.

Naming/Renaming? Do Strategy First

Notice anything about the three examples above? The brands’ names and value systems perfectly align.

Before you concoct or change a name, you’d better have your mission in place. And if you’re struggling with mission, here’s how to get started on a real, actionable mission (as opposed to a cut-copy-paste mission statement).

There are plenty of business name generators online, and those are fine for jump-starting your research and brainstorming process—but you’ll still have to do the hard work to define a meaningful moniker. If you’re launching a new brand and developing a name from scratch, think big and long-term, as if you’re carving it in stone rather than applying it to a package.

Come up with a word or phrase that’s broad enough to accommodate future stretches to your lineup, channel, or category. If you’re going for a totally made-up word, it has to “read” quickly; you don’t want to look at it a week after you launch and think, “what were we thinking?” From a business standpoint, the name must be defensible and ownable; from a linguistics standpoint, it should be satisfying to pronounce and easy to spell.

In the naturals space, where food and beverage products lean on functional nutrition and specialized, niche-y ingredients, it’s easy for leaders to think a little too “inside the ropes” when developing a name for a new brand. We look at the name Soylent as one that’s too clever for its own good: Those in the know get the reference to the dystopian novel and film, but the ick factor is too much to overcome for consumers just discovering the brand for the first time.

Fixing an unworkable name is far harder than naming a new brand. If consumers just don’t understand it, or it’s holding the business back from larger opportunity, or if there’s some kind of cultural baggage around the name, the problem will eventually show up on the bottom line—loss of traction, retailer discontinuation, increased competition. Marketers think they can spend their way out of the jam—throwing dollars at advertising or repackaging to overcome consumer misperceptions—then come to us for help.

For example, the founding team behind the clean popcorn maker Buddha Bowl tapped into their fondness for yoga when they developed the brand. While the signature buddha character on the bag resonated with Whole Foods shoppers, other retailers shied away because of an implied religious affiliation. We helped them pivot away from the name—and brought forward the parent company name, Lesser Evil. We reimagined the character on the pack and evolved the Lesser Evil brand signature. As a result, the company launched four new product lines and generated 50% topline growth in the first year.

Names keyed to the product category are also problematic, as our client Living Intentions discovered. The maker of raw, living foods rocked it in the raw food section at Whole Foods—but when the retailer decategorized raw foods and shelved products alongside conventional brands, Living Intentions’ velocity suffered. They came to us asking for a packaging upgrade; we realized that only a small segment of shoppers would understand what raw food means. We consolidated their raw and sprouted products under a new nameplate, Activated, which clarified the products’ purpose and benefits. It’s now the dominant brand of activated superfoods at Whole Foods.

If your brand is struggling to find an audience or facing stiff competition, the name may be to blame. How do you know? And what do you do about it? We can help you answer those questions.

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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Pioneering the New Tea Culture in America featuring Sashee Chandran, Tea Drops

Gooder Podcast featuring Sashee Chandran

“Luck is hard work and opportunity meeting.” – Sashee Chandran 

This week on the Gooder Podcast, I had the pleasure of talking with Sashee Chandran, the founder, and CEO of Tea Drops. We discuss the historical colonial influence in American tea culture and how her diverse background has encouraged her to create something new: Tea Drops. We also learn about the tea category shaking innovation of Tea Drops’ products and some of the trends her brand is leveraging. Along the way, we get to hear the inspirational story of a diligent and humble entrepreneur who transforms the traditional way of enjoying tea. 

In this episode we learn: 

  • About the history and inspiration of Tea Drops. 
  • The surprising A-ha moment of her product idea. 
  • About her go-to-market alternate channel strategy, and why it worked.
  • Where Sashee’s passion and drive for risk-taking come from.
  • What Tea Drop’s give-back program has been doing to tackle the global water crisis.
  • Diana and Sashee’s personal stories about their love for tea and how tea has helped them connect to their loved ones. 
Gooder Podcast

Pioneering the New Tea Culture in America featuring Sashee Chandran, Tea Drops

About Sashee Chandran: 

Sashee Chandran is the founder and CEO of Tea Drops, which creates bagless whole leaf teas using a patented process — shedding about 15% less waste than traditional teabag packaging. Tea Drops has become a favorite among new and experienced tea drinkers alike, launching innovative tea experiences that merge flavorful blends, food art, and edgy design. Tea Drops an omnichannel brand, selling D2C and also available in 1,500 retailers — loved by Oprah Magazine, Chrissy Teigen, and former first lady Michelle Obama. Sashee is a 1st Place $20K Women Founders Network pitch winner, 1st Place $100K Tory Burch Fellow Grant winner, and the 1st place $50K PepsiCo WomanMade Challenge winner. She has also raised over $3.5M in VC funding for Tea Drops. 

Guests Social Media Links: 

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

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Sasheec 

Email: sashee@myteadrop.com 

Website: https://www.myteadrop.com/ 

Show Resources: 

Loose leaf tea is tea that does not come pre-packaged in tea bags. Because the leaves are not crammed into a tea bag, the tea maintains a higher quality and aroma while offering the best possible health benefits. 

eBay Inc. is an American multinational e-commerce corporation based in San Jose, California, that facilitates consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer sales through its website. eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar in 1995, and became a notable success story of the dot-com bubble.  

Bubble tea is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. It most commonly consists of tea accompanied by chewy tapioca balls, but it can be made with other toppings as well. 

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is an agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce that issues patents to inventors and businesses for their inventions, and trademark registration for product and intellectual property identification. 

Tory Burch Foundation competition Designed to provide women entrepreneurs with the tools and platform necessary to grow their business. 

8Greens is an effervescent dietary supplement tablet, packed with enough superfoods to give your healthy diet a green boost.  

United Natural Foods, Inc. is a Providence, R.I.-based natural and organic food company. It is the largest publicly traded wholesale distributor of health and specialty food in the United States and Canada. UNFI is Whole Foods Market’s main supplier, with their traffic making up over a third of its revenue in 2018. 

Nordstrom, Inc. is an American luxury department store chain. Founded in 1901 by John W. Nordstrom and Carl F. Wallin, it originated as a shoe store and evolved into a full-line retailer with departments for clothing, footwear, handbags, jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, and fragrances.  

Neiman Marcus Group, Inc., originally Neiman-Marcus, is an American chain of luxury department stores owned by the Neiman Marcus Group, headquartered in Dallas, Texas. 

The Thirst Project is a non-profit organization whose aim is to bring safe drinking water to communities around the world where it is not immediately available. The Thirst Project collects money and builds wells all across the continent of Africa where villages do not have immediate drinking water.

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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The Movement of Natural’s and Better-For-You Products and Brands featuring Jessica Lyons, PCC Community Markets

Gooder Podcast featuring Jessica Lyons

“It’s important to be able to leave a footprint and get to know an impact.” – Jessica Lyons

This week on the Gooder Podcast, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica Lyons, the Director of Promotions and E-Commerce of PCC Community Markets. We discuss the history of PCC Community Markets – the nation’s largest community-owned food market. We also learn more about PCC’s initiatives in building relationships with potential brands and what they do to drive organic as a standard. Along the way, we get to hear the amazing story of an inquisitive and resourceful relationship builder who continuously creates a thriving community around her.

In this episode we learn: 

  • About PCC Community Market and their involvement in the monumental changes within the food industry at a national level. 
  • About the vendor partner program that Jess is managing and some common misconceptions about this program. 
  • Customers’ high demand for product’s transparency in the food and naturals industry.
  • How the vendor partner program has helped underserved and underrepresented communities in the food/naturals industry.
  • About Jessica’s emphasis on creating a community, and following passions.
  • Diana and Jessica’s personal stories about imposter syndrome and how to transform that into positive energy which creates growth and self-awareness. 
Gooder Podcast

The Movement of Natural’s and Better-For-You Products and Brands featuring Jessica Lyons, PCC Community Markets

 About Jessica Lyons: 

Jessica (Jess) Lyons has built her career following her passions. She’s been successful in a wide range of experiences throughout her nearly two-decade-long career, making her a valuable Swiss army knife in any workplace. Jess currently serves as Director of Promotions and E-Commerce for PCC Community Markets, the nation’s largest community-owned food market. In this role, she lives out her foodie fantasies with a company centered around community and scratch-made organic food with a sustainable twist. Her greatest achievements at PCC include project managing an overnight co-op-wide rebrand, overhauling the in-store sign program, and developing a strategic, revenue-generating vendor partnership program. 

Prior to PCC, Jess’s enthusiasm for running was the starting line for 15 years in the outdoor industry. She gained retail and sales expertise during her 10 years with Finish Line and Fleet Feet Sports before joining Brooks Running Company to lead the retail marketing team. Her time with Brooks Running also included sales and customer acquisition, event marketing, and community partnerships. 

A native Texan, she proudly builds upon her hands-on experiences and is a self-starter by nature. When she’s not working or running, she can be found leading community fitness, hanging out with her husband and son, or cooking up something plant-based in the kitchen.

Guests Social Media Links: 

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

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lyonsqueen117/?hl=en 

Email: jesslyons117@gmail.com 

Website: https://www.pccmarkets.com/ 

Show Resources: 

Brooks Sports, Inc., also known as Brooks Running, is an American sports Equipment Company that designs and markets high-performance men’s and women’s sneakers, clothing, and accessories. Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, Brooks’ products are available in 60 countries worldwide. 

Ventures: they’re a nonprofit group in Seattle and they work with entrepreneurs. A lot of them are low income or people of color or immigrants or women that are basically incubated to launch their products. 

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) are items used daily by average consumers that require routine replacement or replenishment, such as food, beverages, clothes, tobacco, makeup, and household products. 

UDaB‘s mission as an alternative breaks program is to create a variety of issue-based, service-learning experiences. Our programs are available to undergraduate students of all backgrounds and incomes during spring and winter breaks. 

Hint Water is 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. 

The November Project is a free, open-to-the-public exercise group founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2011. The name “November Project” comes from the Google Doc that the founders shared to track their progress in November 2011. While sessions occur year-round, the name stuck.  

Recovery Café Network (RCN) is comprised of Member organizations committed to serving people suffering from homelessness, addiction and other mental health challenges using the Recovery Café Model. 

Lily’s Sweets is a line of delicious chocolate bars, baking bits and baking bars that have less than 1 gram of sugar per serving.

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 Brand Leaders: It’s Not All About You

“I’m not feeling it.” “This doesn’t do it for me.” “I want to be wowed.”

Are your emotions, opinions, and whims getting in the way of advancing the brand you’ve built? If you’re like many food and beverage entrepreneurs, you might be.

Entrepreneurship is cool. You started this business because you saw a need and determined to meet it. You’ve secured placement with bigger retailers and attracted investors’ attention. The success of the company so far is proof that your hunches and insights are correct.

Yet your company may now be at an inflection point where your instincts are less relevant. It’s hard to hear and harder to fathom. But bear with me — because when you take YOU out of the organization’s decision-making equation, magic can happen.

The Brand’s Evolution Means Leadership Changes, Too

In our experience, a founder/CEO goes from huge assets to potential hurdles at a specific point in the lifecycle of a brand. As a refresher, that lifecycle looks like this:

First & Only — an innovative, world-changing newcomer powered by a passionate founder

Beloved by Default — a niche brand attracting a growing audience of fans

One of Many — a once-darling brand copied by cheaper competitors

Beloved & Dominant — a category-crushing superstar so favored by consumers that it’s competition-proof

One of Many is the point where passion-driven food and beverage brands have to mature and evolve in order to grow. That involves a hundred little decisions about channels and flavors and social media tactics — all of which add up to answer one question: What is next for the brand?

The stakes are high, because your competitors are underpricing, out-innovating, and out-communicating you. Now is the critical time to examine your foundational strategy, audience, and Brand Ecosystem. The biggest obstacle here is a lack of objectivity and insight from you and your leadership team. You think you know best because what you know has proven true so many times.

The most important insight I can share with you is this: You are not your audience.

Assuming that your customer base shares your likes, needs, and lifestyle leads to limited thinking and marketing (even subconsciously). This often results in limited growth potential and a duct-tape-and-glue approach to product development, brand architecture, and audience analysis.

Knowing When to Let the Brand Evolve

When you’re an entrepreneur, you started with a killer idea and tons of passion. You’ve built this business with your own blood, sweat, and tears — so it can be hard to separate your idea from yourself and let the brand evolve. Entrepreneurship is like parenting: At some point, the child needs to live her own life, and you hope and trust that what you’ve given and taught her will serve her well as an independent, successful, growing human being.

I’d argue that you owe it not just to the company, but to the audience you serve, to do everything you can to help it thrive. Playing small and safe kneecaps your brand’s potential. That’s not why you built this.

You may be thinking: “This brand is my passion. How can I let others criticize, evolve, or change it?” Or, “If we make it big, will everyone think I’ve sold out?”

In order to grow, you have to let go. Let go of the idea that you’re the sole arbiter of what’s best for the brand, that you need to be totally jacked about every aspect of the strategy or packaging or product offering. You absolutely have a role as the voice of wisdom for the brand. But your role needs to look different.

Adopt the platform of the servant leader. True leadership cares about everyone else first; as Simon Sinek says, “Leaders eat last.” Pursuit of your larger mission to help people, place, or planet takes precedence over your own personal objectives.

This isn’t to say you step aside; rather, you step up. Your team needs your coaching, training, mentoring — and then they need your trust that they’ll make the right decisions to evolve and grow the brand to find its true audience.

For a role model, look to Califia Farms founder Greg Steltenpohl, who passed away in March 2021. Steltenpohl built Califia as a juice company, based on his experience with the Odwalla brand — but look at all the evolutions beyond his original passion to create Juice 2.0. Califia is widely considered the brand that helped normalize plant milk as a concept for American consumers. Furthermore, Steltenpohl was a pioneer in applying environmental sustainability, employee empowerment, creative corporate culture, and community-based marketing as core drivers of business success. Under his servant leadership, the company pivoted away from making better-for-you juice products to correcting American’s poor dietary choices and making the world better. I admired him greatly.

I’ll share another family analogy here: Think of this kind of leadership like being married to the brand, not actually being the brand. Do you have to love your partner’s choice of clothing? Nope. Would you choose a different car to drive? Perhaps. But ultimately, you’re there to journey with the brand and supporting its wholeness, in sickness and in health.

If you’re seeking the right balance between loving the brand and letting go of decision-making, we can help. We’ve had these conversations before.

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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The World Is About to Change (Again); Is Your Brand Ready?

Right now, in the spring of 2021, we’re at an inflection point: One year ago, the world was in full lockdown and consumers were “hunkered ” at home; one year from now, things will be fully back to business as pre-pandemic.

Over the past 12 months, your company has made shifts large and small in response to rapidly changing consumer habits, supply chain disruption, and retail upheaval. Those pivots were reactive; now is the time to be proactive.

As you create a new future for your food or beverage brand, ask yourself: What from our past can—should—we let go of?

Great Brands Are Built for Evolution

Brand strategy is fundamentally a set of choices and decisions—what purpose to serve, who to sell to, who to ignore, what to make, what to add, what to leave out. Over time, those decisions add up to create the foundation for the brand.

If they’re smart, the approach that brand leaders take to making those decisions changes in response to new market or cultural conditions. And, boy, are we experiencing conditions we’ve never seen before.

Every brand owner needs to rethink what they’ve done in the past and are doing with their brand now, so they’re well positioned for the future. Revisiting brand strategy is critical to both survival and/or capitalizing on untapped opportunity. And at this moment, the brand’s legacy can become both its biggest asset and its most obstructive blind spot.

A brand strategy that starts with people, purpose, and planet, when built well, will be adaptable to massive shifts like the ones we’ve seen in the past 12 months. But brands that stand on legacy product offerings, a culture of “this is how we do things,” and a fixed view of their audience will struggle. They’ll have difficulty recognizing when their ingredient profiles or target consumer or channel strategy need to evolve. They’ll miss opportunities for actionable, effective, radical shifts in brand strategy because they simply can’t see those that lie outside their point of view. They’ll be stuck.

Satisfy Consumers’ Craving for an Exciting New Normal

We predict that the next year will be like rebound dating after a bad breakup. Consumers don’t want to get back to normal; they want to let loose, experiment, expand their horizons.

Consumers are open to trying absolutely anything now; Covid created such disruption that people were eating exclusively at home and had to try new things when their favored brands or products were out of stock. That busted ruts and opened minds. Individuals and households have established new habits and preferences during the pandemic year—family hiking, cooking at home, new favorite snack foods—yet they’re also hungry for even more new experiences. Like, mom cannot make another box of the same macaroni and cheese one. more. time.

We can’t overstate this: Consumers are looking for new and different.

So make it easy for them to find you. Talk to them; the probability of trial is greater than it’s ever been. You don’t have to leave your base, but pitch a bigger tent.

Leverage Operational Changes You’ve Already Made

Over the past 12 months, massive disruption in the supply chain has opened companies’ eyes to different ingredients or production methods or distribution. Can’t get organic dried blueberries? How about organic dried papaya? What about a new tropical flavor profile?

Companies that would have never before thought about operating a certain way or using a different ingredient profile—and are now open to those different options because they’ve had to adapt—are going to be well-positioned.

It’s like sailing to a new beach—you’re still out there on the same body of water and navigating toward dry land; you’re just steering down the coast to a different landing point. Same, but different.

Get Out of Your Own Way

Here’s the biggest challenge, particularly for legacy brands or those that are so organizationally bulky that changing course takes enormous effort: You must find a way to break out of “we’ve always done it this way” and “this who we know our audience is.”

More than ever, making decisions requires keen vision, boldness, and a mindfulness about what must be sacrificed to move into a bigger future. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • If we were to create this brand from scratch today, how would we do it?
  • What are the little things about the business we’ve always sensed were off-kilter that we can easily drop?
  • Now that we’ve shedded the easy stuff, what else needs to go?
  • Can we acknowledge that our audience is not just made up of people like us? So, who are they?
  • Our original mission is still valid, but the world has changed. How do we respond?

What Should Brands Be Doing NOW?

Every aspect of our lives is going to evolve; we’re all at the point where we feel the shell begin to crack, and it’s taking longer than we want, and we have all this pent-up energy and desire. It’s like the last day of school: We’re just waiting for the final bell to ring so we can throw open the doors, chuck our books and papers in the trash bins, and rush out into the promise of summer break.

The brands that are crushing it are those that constantly ask: What does the world outside our four walls look like? As humans seek to breathe more air and see more things and have more experiences, where can we meet them and serve their needs? If you’re not paying attention to the zeitgeist, your brand will get left behind.

Unsurprisingly, alcohol brands are doing this well; with the promise of all the screws loosening and we’ll get to do stuff and be with people again in a celebratory fashion, marketing campaigns look like the world does: bright, sunny, and optimistic.

Don’t let dumb things get in the way of innovation and change in the current environment. Brands should take advantage of the psychology of what is happening and establish themselves as an important component of that environment.

If you’re augured into your history and your ways, you may be doing great right now; you’ve managed supply chain and relied on consumer familiarity—but if you’re not looking at the way consumers are changing, you’re going to miss the opportunity.

So pay attention. Be part of humanity’s escape hatch.

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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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.

Connect with David
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Integrate & Ignite’s Podcast: The Seven Marketing Must-Haves to Creating a Successful Brand Eco-System with David Lemley of Retail Voodoo

“When a brand gets clear on why they exist and what kind of contribution they want to make to society, that automatically puts them into the better-for-you space.”

David Lemley is a brand strategist with a strong history in restoring growth to declining brands, developing new brands, and accelerating growth on established brands. He is the president and head of brand strategy for Retail Voodoo, a firm that helps specialty food and beverage brands address their toughest growth challenges. David focuses on the growing Better-For-You category and has worked with big brands like Starbucks and REI and Kind Bars to name a few. He loves nothing more than to dig in deep to figure out what it takes to build a strong and lasting brand. His expertise in brand strategy, innovation, consumer markets, and consumer behavior builds brand awareness and equity.

Listen & Learn:

  • Defining what makes a Better-For-You brand.
  • His philosophy for making your competitors irrelevant through positioning.
  • The differences between making assumptions versus implementing strategies when marketing better-for-you brands.
  • The importance of figuring out your brand’s mind, body, and spirit.
  • Creating “impressive brand storytelling.”

LISTEN HERE

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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Food and Beverage Brands: Enlist Your Retail Reps as Powerful Allies

Recently, a client of ours had a category review meeting with a certain retailer to pitch a group of new products. The retail buyers picked the client’s concept apart and demanded a whole bunch of changes. Our client’s team was dejected but persistent. They set a follow-up meeting, and we helped them refine their presentations to just three slides that powerfully and simply explained the new offering and why it would rock. They walked out with a signed purchase order. No packaging or ingredient changes required.

You’ve probably been in these category reviews with your retail partners. And dreaded them.

We hear you. Many brands come to us and say that the feedback they get during category reviews with multiple retailers is overwhelming and contradictory. This retailer input may wield an outsized impact on your brand and packaging design. Your team feels like a ping pong ball getting whacked around by buyers with competing interests and conflicting directives.

Understand Your Retail Buyer’s Business

Why does this happen? To answer that question, let’s step into the retail buyer’s world.

The category manager within the retail company is under immense pressure to get her category to perform well and make as much margin through as much velocity as possible. Her job keys on finding stuff that will move quickly and drive profit. And the people she reports to—the retailer’s chain of command—are merciless and swift in making changes should she be less than successful. In other words, it’s not just your butt on the line in these review meetings; it’s hers.

And while your sales team thinks your brand is the center of the universe, it’s one of many the category manager deals with. (If you dread these review meetings, know that she has them with other brands, nearly every week.) So she’s constantly hearing similar pitches from other brands. And she has to make smart decisions about which products to carry, and where, and how. She’s not looking for another product that will cannibalize existing strong performers. It’s not like there’s an empty slot anywhere; she needs for you to bring something to the retailer that will increase sales or replace a flat/declining brand.

Category managers are busy people. Make it easy for them—period, end of story.

Make the Retail Buyer Your Friend, Not Your Nemesis

Here’s another thing to understand about these retail managers: Most of them are passionate about the category, too. They use products like yours. They want you to succeed—partly because that means they’ll succeed, but also because they’re fans of your brand and others like it.

So your sales and marketing teams’ focus should be on wooing these channel partners. Around here, we talk all the time about showing consumers the love—and yes, that is essential. You must constantly seek to widen the circle of adoring fans that your brand connects with. That’s how growth happens.

But growth can’t happen if you can’t get onto retail shelves. (Also onto Amazon results pages, but that’s a different animal.)

A few points of advice on enlisting retailers in your brand’s success:

1) Your sales team and their pitch have to be underpinned by a real brand story and mission. If there’s no there there, your products will get discontinued. Why? A powerful purpose attracts consumers like moths to the flame, which translates into velocity and margin for the retailer.

2) Bonus points if you can convince the buyer to love you just as much as your fans do. Buyers aren’t lacking data; they lack brands that they can believe in, brands that have done their homework and crafted a meaningful story about their purpose and products and how they fit with the consumer’s life.

3) Without a mission, you open the door to nitpicking. If you don’t have a brand position, all they have to push back on is your packaging or logo or flavor profile. That’s when you get all the conflicting feedback that makes you nuts.

4) Retail buyers can be key collaborators in your brand strategy process. And when you turn their input into products, they’ll be the first to place an order. Don’t just go in and say, here’s our thing, what do you think? Make a short, succinct case for the brand’s impact and the product’s likelihood of success. If they believe that you have something to offer that will displace something else and boost their section, then they’ll want to like you more.

5) Finally, strong retail relationships can boost your business in other ways. Managers are category experts: They see sales figures, they know what’s moving, they have access to their company’s deep consumer insights. And they’re meeting with other brands, so they know what your competitors have in the pipeline. If you want to get inside the ropes and lean on that knowledge, you to have a relationship with them. It’s not in a retail manager’s best interest to share what’s going on in your category or adjacent ones, so you have to have a great connection in order to tap into that insight.

Relationships with these retail managers are essential, and nurturing them requires that your reps are regularly meeting with them in person. Use your brand positioning and supporting data to help them see the opportunity for them. Buyers want to know that it will be “easy” to increase sales and keep their superiors happy. Your job is to help them.

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