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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This All Feels Really Familiar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Advantage of the Uncertain Economic Picture

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

Brand relevancy is recession-proof.

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

Understand current consumer behavior.

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

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

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

Be proactive about innovation.

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

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

Build a smart retail strategy.

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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What Looks Risky Might Actually Be Really Smart

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

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

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

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

Managing ‘Risky’ Marketing Based on Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Without a Net is Risky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Fryc

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

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The Magic Intersection of Strategy and Creative

There’s a tendency among food and beverage brands to leap right into designing whatever is at hand — a new package or a revamped website — without passing Go and collecting $200. In other words, to move straight into execution without consulting strategy first. Or, worse, without any strategy at all.

Design is fun. But design without strategy is the opposite of fun: full of uncertainty, unhelpful personal opinion as feedback, and the real possibility of failure. Skip the strategy and go straight to playing with typography and color, and someone else in your category will make the same moves within about six months.

Our latest eBook outlines the magical intersection between brand strategy and creative execution. You’ll learn why it’s essential that strategy underpins every design project from package to social campaign. You’ll identify whether the business challenges your brand faces stem from strategy problems or poor execution. Finally, you’ll leverage strategy’s secret superpower: to make all creative decisions easier.

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

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

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

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

How Does DTC Success Translate to IRL Retail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Formula for Taking a DTC Brand to Retail

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

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

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

So let’s break this formula down.

Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Channel Strategy

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

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

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

Positioning

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

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

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

Packaging

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

What Do Retailers Need from You?

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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Time to Break the Cycle of Bland Branding

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

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

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

Or is it?

Why Bland Branding Has Stuck Around

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

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

And they’ve stayed. 

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

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

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

Time for the Bland Aesthetic to Change

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

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

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

So … Time to Update Your Packaging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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The Art & Science of Killer Brand Taglines

For a food or beverage brand, a tagline has the power to capture consumers’ attention in a fractured, fast-moving world. A killer tagline is also incredibly difficult to come up with — especially if you’re trying to bolt a magic phrase onto an existing (or nonexistent) brand strategy. 

We think of a great tagline as a Haiku that captures your brand’s essence and calls deeply to your present and future fan base. 

Our latest white paper reveals our process for developing a tagline and guidance on when and how to use it across your brand’s communication platforms. 

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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Authority Magazine: Women In Wellness: The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing with Diana Fryc

Diana Fryc, Partner and Chief Sales & Marketing Officer

Diana Fryc was recently interviewed by Authority Magazine on her thoughts of helping people towards better wellbeing.

Authority Magazine, a Medium publication, is devoted to sharing in-depth, and interesting interviews, featuring people who are authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. They use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

They believe that good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes.

Check out the entire interview on Authority Magazine’s website.

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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Startup to Scale: Build a Brand that Stands for Something with David Lemley

Startup to Scale recently featured David Lemley, Founder & President of Retail Voodoo. Jordan Buckner talks with David on how to build a brand that stands for something, and why that’s central to creating customer loyalty.

Startup to Scale is a podcast by Foodbevy, an online community to connect emerging food, beverage, and CPG founders to great resources and partners to grow their business.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Brand Strategy => Tone & Voice => Visual Expression

Let’s break this down:

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

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

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

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

How to Build a Brand’s Tone and Voice

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

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

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

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

From Verbal to Visual Expression

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

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

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

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

• Purpose (why you exist)

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

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

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

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

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

• Competitive and category research

Case Study: A Brand with a Distinctive Voice

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

Connect with David
all Insights

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

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

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

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

Identifying Tactical Problems & Fixes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand Strategy Problems & Solutions

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

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

AUDIENCE

Key indicators:

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

Strategic fixes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

RETAIL ENVIRONMENT

Key indicators:

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

Strategic fixes:

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

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

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

INNOVATION

Key indicators:

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

Strategic fixes:

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

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

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

MISSION

Key indicators:

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

Strategic fixes:

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

Connect with David