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

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

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

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

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

3 Types of Certifications for Food & Beverage Brands

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

1) Ingredient-related

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

2) Values-related

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

3) Business ownership-related

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

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

Certifications and Brand Positioning

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

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

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

The Trouble with Certifications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Fryc

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

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

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

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

Download this white paper to learn how to:

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

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

David Lemley

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

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When Blue Ocean, the Joy of Food and Food Waste Collide featuring Perteet Spencer, AYO Foods

Gooder Podcast Featuring Perteet Spencer

This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Perteet Spencer, the co-founder of AYO Foods. Using her spidy SPINS senses and her desire to create a brand that celebrates the ingredients, flavors, and culture of the West African diaspora, Perteet takes us on her journey of transition and joy. Along the way we learn how her Liberian upbringing and heritage inspires her new venture and how this cultural view naturally embraces a more inclusive food production system.

In this episode we learn:

  • A little background about her brand AYO Foods.
  • Why Perteet thinks North American consumers are ready for African flavors, textures, and ingredients.
  • What food trends shape AYO Foods innovation.
  • Why she thinks Chicago has become THE place to watch for food innovation.
  • How to use data as an indicator, and not simply validation, to uncover new innovation platforms and opportunities.
  • Pereet’s thoughts on how to shrink pre-production food waste through product and manufacturing innovation.
Gooder Podcast

When Blue Ocean, the Joy of Food and Food Waste Collide featuring Perteet Spencer, AYO Foods

About Pereet Spencer:

Perteet is thrilled to be able to bring all of her passions into her role as co-founder of AYO Foods. Seeking to build a more inclusive food system that reflected her experience growing up in a Liberian family, Perteet launched AYO with her husband Fred last summer with the vision of creating a platform brand that celebrated the ingredients, flavors, and culture of the West African diaspora.  

Prior launching AYO, Perteet held brand, sales, and consulting leadership roles at LEGO, General Mills, and SPINS.   

When she’s not actively working on AYO, you can usually find Perteet spending time in the kitchen with her two girls or advancing the issues of food equity through her involvement in the Food Recovery Network, a non-profit focused on eliminating food insecurity through food waste recovery.

Guests Social Media Links:






Show Resources:

Moonboi Project – In Kpelle, “Moonboi” means prosperity. At AYO Foods, we believe that we have a personal responsibility to enrich the communities that inspired our products. 

General Mills, Inc. – is an American multinational manufacturer and marketer of branded consumer foods sold through retail stores. It is headquartered in Golden Valley, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.

SPINS – transforms trillions of retailer data into performance solutions to accelerate growth, and deepen loyalty with shoppers.

Food Recovery Network – a nonprofit focused on eliminating food insecurity through food waste recovery.

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

Girl Power Africa – an organization that was founded a few years back, really in service of women who were victims of civil war and are trying to get back on their feet in Liberia. 

Imperfect Foods – Shop affordable groceries and exclusive items that went from unwanted to wish for. Reducing food and retail product waste, one household at a time.

PepsiCo – is an American multinational food, snack, and beverage corporation headquartered in Harrison, New York, in the hamlet of Purchase. PepsiCo has interests in the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of grain-based snack foods, beverages, and other products.

Betty Crocker – is a brand and fictional character used in advertising campaigns for food and recipes. The character was originally created by the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1921 following a contest in the Saturday Evening Post.

Lego – is a Danish toy production company based in Billund. It is best known for the manufacture of Lego-brand toys, consisting mostly of interlocking plastic bricks. The Lego Group has also built several amusement parks around the world, each known as Legoland, and operates numerous retail stores.

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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Better-for-you Brands are Missing Their Biggest Market Opportunity

If you’re working inside a natural food or beverage brand, chances are you’re a natural products fan, yourself. So you assume that the marketplace embraces natural, too.

But not everyone does. Not by a long shot.

That disconnect hit me during a recent business trip through the Midwest: Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. As I usually do when I’m traveling, I popped into a grocery store to experience different retail environments and find different products from what I see here in Seattle. (Yes, I’m a retail nerd.)

Browsing the naturals section at a HyVee in Omaha, I spotted Ensure, the nutrition drink, shelved among the organic products. And I had an epiphany: There are people who think Ensure is a better-for-you product. OK, technically Ensure is better for you compared to Doritos. But Ensure would never be admitted to a natural products expo.

The experience sparked three major insights for me:

  1. Natural products play differently to different demographics in different parts of the country.
  2. Owners and marketing executives at natural brands, who tend to be West or East Coasters (either geographically or philosophically), communicate as if their entire audience is composed of similarly coastal-minded people.
  3. There is a huge market opportunity for natural brands in the country’s midsection.

Natural Products Means Different Things to Different People

According to Nielsen research, a staggering 20% of Americans are resistant nonbelievers. They refuse to believe that food and diet have an impact on health and wellness. And there’s another huge group of people who are ambivalent about it. Lots of people don’t care about making smart food choices or don’t know how to make them. Part of the disconnect is regional. Better-For-You (BFY) in Nebraska means Ensure next to organic crackers. BFY in New York means fair-trade, single-origin, farm-to-package, organic pumpkin seeds with hand-harvested Mediterranean sea salt. It’s also socioeconomic, psychological, and educational. Natural brands sell at a higher price point. Their packaging and messaging communicate in an arch style that doesn’t build relationships across demographics. And the perception that healthy food tastes like cardboard persists.

Natural Brand Leaders Have Innate Bias

We find that BFY brand owners are unaware of their confirmation bias, that the rest of the world thinks like they do and has the same standards for health and wellness. Yeah, you drive an electric car and meditate and gladly plunk down $5 for that packet of single-origin pumpkin seeds. Maybe your friends and colleagues do, too. So it’s easy to navel-gaze and project your own preferences onto your entire audience. Which means you’re missing a huge potential market — because you just don’t see them. When we started working with Essentia, the performance water, they were great at appealing to elite athletes and medical professionals who shopped for enhanced water at Whole Foods. The marketing team had built a set of assumptions about their niche, and they were only talking to those people — people who were like themselves. But we had ample consumer data that showed that non-white-athleisure-wearers were also likely to buy supercharged water. Our research identified new customer segments, including African-Americans and Hispanic men, who were interested in a hydrating product and would otherwise buy Gatorade. We created a prototypical persona: a Hispanic construction worker in Houston who needed a better option than plain water to keep him going. Based on those insights, we repositioned and repackaged Essentia for a broader market, with expectation-busting results.

There’s Huge Opportunity — But it Takes Work

If you seek to grow your brand beyond your current customer base — and sales will stagnate if you don’t — then you have to recognize that there are people out there who are not like you and your colleagues. And you have to build a relationship with them. How? Look beyond your glass house. Identify the geographic/demographic/
psychographic segments outside your base who are your strongest prospects. Understand their needs that your product meets. (Learn how to use U&A studies to find out what you don’t know.) Don’t assume they’re up to speed. These aren’t regular natural product buyers. You need to educate the consumer about why BFY products matter to them, and bringing these new customers along is a much longer journey. Your look, your package copy, your online presence, and your advertising all has to gently, respectfully educate. Know their biases. Remember those resistant nonbelievers Nielsen uncovered. They don’t see the benefits of BFY products. They have what we call a “sufficient quality” bias — they determine a product’s value by whether it’s just good enough for the money. They think natural food tastes like crap. You have messaging work to do. Preaching to the converted is easy — they’re already in your fold, they’ve bought in. But there’s no path to growth there. The opportunity — and the challenge — lies in evangelizing about your brand in the bigger world, convincing the skeptics, and winning over people who think a bottle of water, sugar, and artificial ingredients qualifies as a natural product.

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 6 Marketing Ingredients of a Naturals Brand

The “4 Ps” model has been a foundation of marketing management since the 1960s:

Product + Price + Place + Promotion = Marketing

If you manufacture a product, price it right, make it accessible to shoppers, and spread the word about it, you make the sale. Easy.

We’re here to declare this 50-year-old formula dead.

Product doesn’t (really) matter anymore. Patagonia a great example: Yvon Chouinard started the company in the ’70s, selling climbing equipment; now they’re in the food business. You can’t win on price, because Walmart has muscled brands into discounting submission. Place is irrelevant: Thanks to Amazon, people can get any product shipped anywhere. And you can’t out-spend the big brands on promotion.

A New Marketing Discipline

Consumers today seek authenticity from the brands they buy; they want to know what’s in their food, and they expect companies to have morals and values. Now more than ever, people use brands as building blocks of personal identity—they don’t just buy your products, they view you as a reflection of themselves.

Consumers’ expectations of brands are even higher in the naturals category because those who are willing to pay more for natural products care not only about what you’re doing for them but about what you’re doing for the planet.

The 6 Ps of Marketing for Natural Brands

We see it: Many brands are struggling to be relevant in the face of changing consumer preferences. They’re increasingly pressured to do more with less and are vulnerable to better-organized, well-funded competitors.

So we guide our clients to focus on a mix of six marketing ingredients:

1. Purpose

This is your mission, your higher calling, your reason for being, beyond making a profit. What’s your contribution to society or the planet? This should be so well defined that you don’t even have to think when you’re asked about it. If it’s not ingrained in your brand’s DNA, you have major work to do.

2. People

Two components here: internal and external. How do you treat employees—not just your office staff but your manufacturing workers? Wages and working conditions are key indicators. Outwardly, what’s your giveback to your community? How are you pouring profits back into supporting your purpose?

Our client Loma Linda is a great example of this internal/external people focus: The world’s oldest vegetarian brand has a manufacturing facility in Rocky Mount, NC, a community of working poor. The founder raised wages, gave every employee food once a week, and taught them how to cook with it for their families.

3. Planet

Do you have a visible, transparent end-to-end manufacturing and supply chain? Not just for your products, but your packaging as well? It’s a challenge: All of the natural snacks brands we know want to put products in pouches, which are not recyclable or renewable. We’re constantly pushing clients to find different options; cans, for example, while not especially sexy, are sustainable and a package of choice for Loma Linda.

4. Passion

This is your why—it underpins your purpose and drives your people. It’s your origin story. Successful brands have a battle to fight, a wrong that they seek to right. Your enemy isn’t your competition; it’s a challenge that your products help people to overcome. Nike’s foe isn’t Adidas—it’s the voice in all of our heads that says, “you can’t.”

5. Personality

Your brand should sound like no one else; in fact, it should be contrarian to your competitors. It should speak in a language and tone that calls out to your tribe. For example, KIND’s core message—“Do the kind thing for your body, your taste buds & your world” wraps a basic message about health and sustainability in a larger envelope of kindness. It’s a great display of brand personality.

6. Profit

Duh. But some passion brands let profit fall by the wayside in pursuit of the higher calling. We’ve watched founder/owners mistakenly believe that being successful in the business they’ve built equals selling out. So they don’t pursue the right relationships, they let growth stagnate, they get stuck with a $25 million business that costs $30 million to run.

If you’re a better-for-you brand, having a good, wholesome product with clean ingredients is a given. You have to stand for something more: sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices, livable wages for workers, commitment to the environment. You need a prominent, passionate founder (that’s you) with a great backstory and a voice that echoes a siren song to your people.

To this 6 Ps of Marketing, we’ll add a seventh: Partner. That’s us. We’re here to help.

Diana Fryc

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

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The Value of a Corporate Social Responsibility Program for Consumer Brands

If you had to decide between buying a bag of coffee from a brand that supports sustainable farming in Nicaragua or buying from a conglomerate giant, which would you choose? All else being equal, there’s almost no contest.

Statistically (and anecdotally) speaking, we know that consumers connect more deeply with and are more likely to purchase from brands that align with a social cause. In a crowded marketplace, your company’s commitment to a cause can be one of the only differentiators between your brand and every other brand selling products or services like yours.

If your brand is looking to pursue a bottom line that reaches beyond profitability (in other words, a “triple bottom line”), a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program is a great place to start. The real challenge comes with determining what your company will stand for — and behind — and making sure that investment is meaningful to your customers and employees alike.

How to Choose Your Cause

There’s a reason your brand exists. You know that. There’s a practical side of that to be sure, but it goes beyond what you do to earn money. All good brands are aspirational.

If you want to figure out where and how to invest in your community or in a broader cause, start with the story your brand is telling. Choose a cause that weaves into the fabric of who you are as a company and where you came from, and you can’t go wrong.

We recently worked with a brand called Essentia Water that decided after a particularly successful year to invest in a corporate giving program. After weighing different options and evaluating their company’s mission and values, the brand ultimately chose to fund after-school programs for at-risk youth.

If you’re a consumer who’s not familiar with the Essentia brand, you may find the connection between a bottled water brand and at-risk youth a bit of a stretch. But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that this brand investing in this cause makes perfect sense. Just read the company’s origin story, which revolves around the idea that “we all start somewhere… there’s no limit to where we can go.”

By funding these after-school programs, Essentia Water is, in essence, allowing the kids and teenagers that participate in these programs to become “tomorrow’s overachievers.” After all, the brand’s tagline is fittingly: “Overachieving H2O.”

Profitability and Your Triple Bottom Line

It’s a myth that the ability of your brand to give back stems from your company’s age, size, or scale. What truly allows your brand to give back is its profitability. If you can afford your values (in other words, if you can pay for more than just keeping the lights on), you’re in the right place to consider implementing a triple bottom line initiative.

On its face, the idea that your brand needs to reach a certain level of profitability to give back feels selfish, almost callous. But picture sitting on an airplane and listening to a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety speech. What’s the one thing you can count on hearing (even if you’re admittedly largely ignoring the speech to read your Kindle)?

“Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

The same concept has to apply to your brand. Allow yourself to thrive first. Then help others do the same.

Giving Back at the Grassroots Level

Even if your company isn’t in the financial position to implement a triple bottom line initiative or massive give back program, it doesn’t mean you can’t start somewhere.

Take Atlantic Natural Foods, the oldest vegetarian brand in the world you’ve never heard of. Just a few years ago, they had the admirable yet far-fetched goal to fix the global food chain.

As a smaller company though, their ability to contribute resources to this cause was limited. But they wisely recognized that global issues are fixed at the grassroots level so that’s exactly where they started.

Atlantic Natural Foods is based in a small, rural town in North Carolina where the minimum wage is low and many of its residents live below the poverty line. This is a population that subsists on diets that, without a doubt, contribute to the food chain crisis. In light of the realities of their community, the company’s first initiative was to change their internal wage structure. Next, they showed their employees how to cook and eat the very food they were helping to produce.

The cultural shift that happened within the company as a result of these seemingly small initiatives was huge and almost immediate.

With no direct prompting from the company, Atlantic Natural Foods’ employees took the initiative to gather company trucks and food supplies and take them to communities that had been devastated by a recent hurricane in North Carolina. What’s more, they were able to transfer the cooking skills they had only recently been taught themselves to the residents in these communities — a gift that truly keeps on giving.

By empowering their employees, Atlantic indirectly created a culture of giving back that spilled into their community and beyond. That says something about their brand.

Outward Expression of Internal Values

The sort of wonderful thing about choosing a triple bottom line for your brand is that it’s not a science. There’s no right or wrong way to create a triple bottom line for your company, no formula to follow.

The key is finding a cause that outwardly expresses your mission and values as a brand and as a company, whatever that may look like.

The right cause will resonate with your customers regardless of age, education level, and socioeconomic status because it speaks to who they are and who they want to be. And that’s a powerful message.

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 Recipe Disney, Whole Foods & Adidas Use to Transform Employees into Brand Ambassadors

Good employees are hard to find. It’s an adage that seems to prove true with every generation. But as with all generalizations, there are caveats. As employers, we need to be aware of the influences that contribute to the success and failure of an employee.

In today’s economy, simply offering a job and paycheck isn’t going to cut it. “Golden handcuffs” (as we like to call them) aren’t what every person is interested in. Your brand must offer something else to create a truly loyal community of employees.

So many brands struggle to gain buy-in from their employees. Either they don’t care about your brand or they don’t understand it. If even your own employees don’t love your brand, surely customers don’t have reason to. In order to grow and retain an engaged employee fanbase, your brand will have to do some work internally.

In this piece, we answer the following common questions:

  • How do you make your employees your biggest brand advocates?
  • How do you use your brand to attract top talent?
  • What companies manage and retain employees well?
  • What are the key ingredients to keeping employees happy and engaged?

Let’s start at the beginning. If you have no vision, you have no future.

Everyone has a vision for their life. Or better said, everyone has a vision for some parts of their life. Some ideas are smaller than others, but a vision nonetheless. Employment is one part of that vision.

It starts very young. We are asked as children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We play sports, we join clubs, and we take on hobbies. And then one day, we are launched into adulthood and we try to keep our passion going. We align ourselves with brands and companies who either share our passions or at least foster them. And naturally, we envision ourselves working for the brands we love and know.

Given the choice, no one wants to work for a company that only wants to increase revenue. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger. We can look to Whole Foods, Adidas, and Disney as stellar examples of brands whose fan base includes employees. These brands know how to recruit, motivate, and inspire customers. And who else would be more qualified for the job than someone who’s already a customer?

A Sprinkle of Mission & Vision

Now, I’d like to introduce you to the BHAG. Originally outlined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,” BHAG is short for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Essentially, it’s a long-term goal that changes the very nature of a business’ existence. At Retail Voodoo, we use this term and point-of-view frequently when starting the brand strategy process. In fact, every company starts with a BHAG – it just gets lost in the P&Ls, M&As, and desire for the bonus at the end of the tunnel. But when a company and brand adheres to that BHAG in every aspect of their business, that’s when the magic happens.

Often, a company’s vision is expressed in their mission statement. Let’s look a couple of examples:

  1. Applegate: Changing the meat we eat.
  2. Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
  3. Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
  4. Walmart: We save people money so they can live better.
  5. REI: A national outdoor retail co-op dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

We know these BHAGs work because they adhere to the building blocks of a mission statement.

A quality mission statement should:

  • Include a goal that is an action
  • Avoid sentiment
  • Be specific and quantifiable
  • Change lives (stands for something other than simply selling a product or service).

If your mission statement can’t be easily memorized or is so full of “corporate speak” people can’t tell what company you’re talking about – you’ve got it wrong. Go back to the drawing board.

And if you need an example of a failing mission statement, look no further than Kroger: “Our mission is to be a leader in the distribution and merchandising of food, pharmacy, health and personal care items, seasonal merchandise, and related products and services.” It leaves you completely uninspired and speaks nothing of value to the customer, community, or soul of the business.

With a solid strategy-based mission statement, it becomes much easier to translate your operations and speak to your employees. Your mission distills your brand strategy into a simple bite-sized boundary that your employees can now easily buy into.

A Dash of Leadership

Leadership starts at the top and is visible all the way down to the frontline employees. Oftentimes, leaders like to see themselves as the smartest people in the room or smartest in their industry or the smartest at, well, everything. That’s not a good sign. If you rely on a few key people to be the smartest and best in your organization, you create a bottleneck.

Leadership should be more like coaching. Think of sports teams. That coach, being a good leader, knows they are there to inspire and groom members of the team. They are not out calling the plays or overseeing the medical staff – they inspire and grow another team of leaders who then go on to inspire each other and so forth.

Since they’re busy coaching and know how to coach well, they hire people they can trust to do the other work they might not have the time or experience to do. They know what they know and more importantly, they know what they don’t know. They hire people that best fill the gaps in their knowledge base. Good coaches encourage teams to work together and identify, nurture, and mentor future leaders.

Howard Schultz’s humble beginnings and his father’s experience with crappy employer/employee relations lead to the Starbucks BHAG. Schultz shares his passion so frequently that his employees own it, rally around it, and live it out through leadership that is almost unparalleled in any other employer with such a sizable minimum-wage force. Employees live the Starbucks vision at a corporate level all the way to the frontline barista making your grande latte with that triple shot of sugar-free vanilla syrup.

A Cup of Nurture & Care

If a company cares for its employees, the employees will care for the company. For sure. However, most companies translate a foosball table, an endless supply of snacks, and some health benefits as the ways to care for employees. And they are, but these items are table stakes. Let’s look at what Starbucks recently did after the natural disasters in Texas and Florida. Inc.’s Wanda Thibodeaux covers the situation well. After the storm, a total of 1,100 Starbucks stores were forced to close and approximately 15,600 workers and their families were impacted by the storms. In response, Starbucks offered catastrophic pay to employees who couldn’t work because of the storms and offered grants for additional aid to employees for rebuilding their lives. What a relief to these families, most of them frontline employees. Here Starbucks lives by their mission of nurturing the human spirit, and in this case, those humans are employees. Not all companies can afford this sort of support. That is not the point. The goal is to find a way that your company can take care of its employees that is a direct expression of your brand.

A Tablespoon of Career Paths

As most employees are on a personal career journey, brands should offer career paths that provide growth opportunities. Small companies have different career path opportunities than larger, more layered and divisional companies. Either way, be prepared for that conversation and even market the possibilities, like General Mills and Costco do. If you are smaller, it’s OK to have one person in a role. Leadership can still identify responsibilities that can be transferred to that role as the person grows. Knowing what a potential career path looks like, and then mentoring those employees is a very important part of employee happiness. Which brings us to our next ingredient.

A Teaspoon of Learning, Testing & Mentoring

The more you encourage employees to participate in shaping and implementing your brand experience, the more your employees will want to commit to the success of your brand. Career paths are great to have, but unless you have opportunities for learning and a pointed direction, the promise for advancement will fall flat.

At Retail Voodoo, we call it “Jedi Training.” It’s a little corny, yes, but Star Wars fans get the connection. We have the teacher and the student, and both know their roles. We tell all prospective employees during the interview process that our firm is a learning environment. And it needs to be one because we promise our clients that we will change the trajectory of their business (rather than just make cool stuff). Then we provide all employees with a set of books to read as part of their onboarding process. It helps level set and allows learning from the same sources as the rest of the team. Then, during quarterly reviews, we review their learning along with their performance, to make sure they continue to grow and push outside of their comfort zone. Our goal is for them to be empowered and stay with us. But if they do leave, they will be much smarter, better, and faster than when they came in. If for whatever reason they aren’t, then we have not done our job as employers who embody their brand.

You’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time for that.” We suggest you find the time. Employee turnover is a very expensive and labor-inducing process. Develop a plan around your brand strategy and mission and then spread the training and mentoring responsibility around to others on the team for added strength.

Those that embrace coaching will stay and become an indispensable, passionate part of the company. And those that aren’t coachable will leave. In the end, it will give you an opportunity to find a better fit. If your employees are coachable, that’s a great indicator of success and potential. Show them that you’re willing to invest time and energy into them, and they’ll do the same for your brand.

A Pinch of Empowerment

Empowerment is a strange beast. The dictionary defines empowerment as “authority or power given to someone to do something, or the process of becoming strong and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

In business, empowerment means that you, the leadership, hand over some responsibilities and decision-making powers to others in the company. It can also mean brands allow employees to be ambassadors out in the world on their behalf.

For brands that aren’t dialed into this thinking, there is typically a lot of middle management to wrangle and dictate the bulk of the employee actions on some of the most trivial issues. Leadership should only be involved in issues that cannot be resolved or are simply too challenging to tackle. The more successful a brand, the more those decisions should be parsed out using the mission as the guiding force and benchmark. The more empowered the company, the more powerful the brand.

Let’s look at Patagonia. Love them or hate them, you know exactly what they stand for. And so do their employees. Patagonia’s approach to empowerment extends so far beyond the boundary of retail that it’s sometimes hard to know where the brand ends.

Many brands approach this direction by trying to figure out how to fix what’s broken when instead they should leverage the strength of those key employees that personify the brand’s ethos and mission — And use their dedication and commitment as fuel to grow an employee base that can help solve those problems beforehand. The simplest approach is allowing your employees to make decisions in the best interest of the customer.

A Pint of Recognition

This is a tricky ingredient. Without a definition of what recognition means in your company, employees will rely on weekly meetings, daily attaboys or the oft-dreaded annual review. This isn’t very effective in growing long-term, passionate employees.

We helped to developed key employee rewards programs at REI to leverage their mission in a meaningful way outside of compensation. Our research showed that outside of the outdoors themselves, REI employees valued quality gear and time off to be in the outdoors. We helped REI define and market their President’s Award to give gear and paid time off to employees who significantly contributed to upholding the brand’s mission. REI also introduced another more elite annual award for managers and corporate employees who best channeled the spirit of founder, Lloyd Anderson.

A Cup of Co-Authoring 

The culmination of all the above ingredients is co-authorship. If your brand already has many of the above ingredients above, this is the cherry on your employee engagement sundae. Congratulations! If your employees are feeling the love from all your efforts, they now get to participate in “spreading the gospel.”

The expectancy theory says that people are motivated by how much they want a certain outcome and the chance they have of achieving it.

We look to Patagonia again as an example of a brand that thrives by encouraging employees to co-author the brand’s mission. It’s very much an activist company. They encourage employees to become involved in environmental campaigns and to give back to the community. They provide grants and support to employees pursuing the betterment of nature and humankind. This empowers employees to participate in shaping an organization that allows them to afford their values by bringing them into the workplace.

Combine All Ingredients to Create Powerful Culture

When you blend all of these ingredients together, you can see we’re really talking about company culture. Knowing what your company stands for will help your employees enroll in your brand and a clear vision will help better identify right-fit candidates. But the key to participation isn’t simply the employees, it’s a leadership-inspired, branded employee culture, which becomes a self-feeding machine. It all starts with your brand vision.

So, next time you ask yourself how to inspire employees, start with your brand. The ingredients above are the recipe you need for success.

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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How and Why You Should Target Generation Z Through Branding

Predicting market trends and anticipating consumer shifts can make or break your company. However, we’re so often hyper-focused on what’s happening right in front of us, we forget to look ahead. Don’t let Gen Z sneak up on you – arm yourself early with data and resources to engage this consumer base effectively and powerfully.

You might not have the time or the resources to fully understand how this up-and-coming generation will affect your brand, so we’ve done the work for you.

Who is Gen Z?

Remember when Millennials overtook Generation X? Well, it’s about to happen again – but this time with Generation Z. Born between the years 1997 and 2015, this group currently makes up 26 percent of the population. Undeniably, marketers need to pay attention to this demographic before it’s too late.

Massive Buying Power

Although they’re young now, Gen Zers already have a combined buying power of $44 billion in the United States. If that wasn’t enough, they also influence $600 billion of family spending and by 2020, they’ll own 40 percent of consumer spending.

Digital Natives

Often referred to as “Digital Natives,” individuals in Gen Z cannot remember a time without Internet. Given this, they spend the majority of their free time online. According to Mediakix, with an eight second attention span, they value speed and ease-of-use.

Their media consumption behaviors differ from previous generations as well. Approximately 85 percent watch anywhere between two and four hours of YouTube per day. They prefer brands communicate with them there as opposed to anywhere else (like television or direct mail). On average, they use five screens – a smartphone, TV, laptop, desktop, and an iPad. That’s a lot of different screens communicating a lot of different messages.

Social Still Rules

Social media heavily impacts the way Gen Zers interact with one another and the way they view themselves. Because everything is so public and visible, personal appearances weigh heavy in their minds. Their parents – mostly Gen Xers – did not grow up with the same technology, so when it became available to them, they went all-in with snapping photos and sharing them with the whole world. Because, why not? Well, now we have an entire generation where their whole lives have been documented online. This is their “normal.”

Desire for Privacy

Since Gen Zers are accustomed to their whole lives being broadcast to the public, they crave privacy. More and more Gen Zers are setting up private social media accounts and being careful about what they post online. While Millennials like to share every experience and every thought with the online world, Gen Zers tend to share things among smaller, more intimate groups of people.

The “Instagram Effect”

The pressures presented by social media are encouraging Gen Zers to spend less on products and more on leisure services, such as vacations, dining out, and going out. This is what we call the “Instagram Effect.” Showing the awesome, cool, aspirational life they’re living draws more attention and satisfaction than just showing the latest, greatest product. Brand-name recognition holds far less credibility – in fact, many Gen Zers are extremely critical and less trusting of brands.


The older Gen Zers watched their families and older siblings suffer financially during the Great Recession. They see Millennials with thousands of dollars in debt and their parents’ businesses scrambling to get back on their feet. Although Gen Zers don’t have their own revenue stream yet, they have still felt the impact of financial crisis. This makes them far more cautious about spending money. They view college more as a time to hit the ground running to prepare for their career rather than a relaxing time of self-discovery.

What does this mean for my brand?

Brands can evolve to reach this new generation of consumers by following these steps:

Cater to Their Unique Shopping Habits

Gen Z individuals are twice as likely to shop on mobile devices – increasing the need for responsive websites and easy-to-navigate apps. Offering mobile-friendly shopping experiences and digestible product education is key. Convenience and visibility are critical here. If your site is too slow to load or difficult to traverse, Gen Zers will abandon ship quickly. More often than not, this generation will see your brand online before they see it on shelf.

This generation searches for information on their own, so proactive marketing will be most effective. Too impatient to wait for it to come to them, Gen Zers seek out to self-educate. They have a do-it-yourself, entrepreneurial mentality from being told “no” time after time during the Recession. They like to take things into their own hands.

Just as they look to their peers and influencers for recommendations on purchase decisions, they also love sharing their own knowledge online. This generation seeks out collaborative engagement and trusts peer recommendations before anything else. Influencing peers and sharing “insider” information on social media gives Gen Zers credibility among their followers. Brands need to give this consumer base easy ways to share this information digitally.

Since this generation lives with almost anything at their fingertips, they demand convenience. With the click of a button, they can have food delivered right to their door from their favorite restaurant in no time. Thousands of movies and television shows exist just beyond the tap of a screen. One-click smart shopping is a must.

Above all, Gen Zers demand speed. As they’ve grown up with quick load times and lightning fast streaming, they have very low tolerance for anything slow. Lagging apps or difficult-to-navigate websites will be the kiss of death for some brands. If a page takes too long to load, 60 percent of this generation won’t use it and will quickly move onto the next.

Put Values First

Gen Zers see themselves as do-gooders. As the most diverse generation, they believe people can coexist in society and want to make the world a more equal and fair place for all.

They’ve grown up seeing the Wall Street protests – rebellion against the establishment is practically in their DNA. They’re label-wary and challenge common “norms” like gender identity. Instead of relying on labels to define their personal identity, they actively craft their own personal brand through shared values.

This generation cares about transparency. They want to know how their beauty products are tested, who made the food they’re about to consume, etc. They will boycott a brand if the owner’s beliefs oppose their own or they don’t treat their employees fairly. Their money-conscious mentality makes them much more thoughtful about every purchase. If they’re spending their hard-earned money, they want to know exactly where it’s going.

With endless information always at their fingertips, anyone can be an “investigator” – looking for the truth behind veils of secrecy so prevalent in corporate America. When brands break their trust, they don’t forget that. Ethical and transparent brands that tell their story will resonate strongly with this generation.

Innovate, Innovate, Innovate

The Millennials paved the way for Internet-based innovation. As Gen Zers have grown up with innovation after innovation, they now expect it.

That being said, they’re far less impressed and excited by technological innovation. They crave something more – experience. In-store virtual and augmented reality shopping experiences will define the customer experience in the next few years. This experiential, interactive technology physically connects this generation to brands – therefore building a much stronger bond.

It’s important for brands to offer value beyond the product offering itself. In other words, brands must offer a lifestyle. These price-conscious consumers want to spend on experience, rather than material.

Although this generation has yet to gain their own revenue streams, we can already confidently identify certain characteristics based on behaviors, culture, and history. This generation craves security (in every sense of the word), convenience, innovation, and brands they can connect with on an emotional level. The Recession made them cautious with their spending, but they’ll become brand-loyal when they’re offered what they crave. Educating customers on the value beyond the product itself and providing meaningful experiences will tap into this generation’s massive buying power.

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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Three Ways to Honor Your Brand’s Heritage While Looking to the Future

In a world where Amazon-Whole Foods and Apple are now the old-guard brands, how can your brand’s past become an asset that connects with employees and customers living a modern life?

Heritage brands today are losing relevance as newer, more transparent, baggage-less brands capture the modern consumer’s imagination. These new options can feel more authentic than those who could claim category original.

In many cases, a company’s history powerfully shapes the way its leadership thinks about vision, strategy, and brand. Heritage is a strength unless decisions made in the past put constraints on the solutions of the future.

When we started our work with Derma E, they were a skin care expert with a 30-year-long reputation as one of the original players in the natural channel, yet they struggled to connect with a younger audience. Despite their strong, ethical point-of-view, their old-school, clinical look felt outdated. We helped them reposition their brand so that once those messages were translated into package design, contemporary consumers could confidently display their products on the bathroom sink.

Real purpose will never go out of style, especially in today’s world. Beyond product and brand positioning, here are three ways to honor your brand’s past while leaning into a fast-paced future.

1. Kill the sacred cows with a pen.

If your brand has any history at all, there is room for your heritage to create a set of unspoken and untouchable rules. Every organization has some version of “we’ve always done it this way” echoing throughout their leadership and employees.

I believe this is because most brands see their heritage as a set of laws, rather than a permission slip to innovation. Anything not written down can be misinterpreted. Innovation begins when you write down all of your brand’s oral history and then edit it mercilessly.

2. Link your brand’s values to your culture.

Brand values are the beliefs defined by what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” When clarified, written down, and shared as part of the culture, brand values guide behavior, actions, and communication throughout your organization and externally to the public.

Your company’s culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation, communication, and effective teams. Today, the most successful companies are the ones that don’t just have great products but are also deeply focused on culture.

In order to win in the market, you need to win in the workplace first. REI is a great example of a heritage brand that continues to enjoy marketplace relevance and an avid fan-base driven by happy, engaged employees who understand how to share the company’s values with consumers.

REI is a brand with a true heritage that honors the past and looks to the future. They have created an internal culture that encourages employees and customers to “be one of us” and go deep. It is personal enough so that people want to share the story, contribute to helping make it real, and express it as one-of-a-kind heritage brand living in the present.

3. Care about human needs more than market opportunity.

In other words: Love your people as you love yourself. REI’s #OptOutside campaign is a great example of a brand using company values to push against the grain of what has become of our annual Thanksgiving holiday. By keeping their doors closed on Black Friday, they have taken a stand for their employees, promoted their values, and accomplished more sales than many of the retailers who opened at 4 a.m. and worked their people into the ground on day one of the holiday season.

For Derma E, once they embraced the realities of a changing consumer and acknowledged that what worked 30 years ago might not be as effective anymore, they saw dramatic results. Their leadership began thinking like their target audience and found a way to share their brand’s values and preserve the history while simultaneously evolving. Streamlining their offering, telling their story, and repositioning their focus to ethical beauty resulted in 45 percent growth in just 12 months. What was once seen as an outdated, medicinal brand now stands worthy of sitting on the vanity countertop of a contemporary woman.

As a business with heritage, you have an opportunity to turn your origin story into a powerful differentiator. As you go, remember that people seek out brands with authentic stories and a purpose beyond the bottom line. The strongest version of your brand story includes the past, present, and future of your how, what, and why.

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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Using Values to Differentiate & Define Your Brand

Brand values impact relationships and reputation – two key business assets that are earned (rather than bought). When the marketplace is cluttered and consumers have tiny attention spans, brands must bring something more valuable to customers than their product or service. They must connect with consumers through shared principles.

Ethos can best be described as beliefs and behaviors that advance an ideology. Brands, just like people, have values they hold near and dear to their hearts. These principles form the reasons that brands exist.

In our profit-driven world, many brands consider emulating values as an afterthought. It’s easy for leaders to have tunnel vision focusing on the bottom line instead of turning their eyes internally to reflect on the company’s original mission. But just as the marketplace changes, the consumer changes. The individuals with the highest spending power care less about the “what” or the “how” and more on the “why.”

Brand values influence two important business assets:

1. Relationships build loyal customers and organic brand ambassadors

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on delivering on your promise. In our overcrowded marketplace, points of difference that are function- and future-based are no longer sustainable. Consumers today are tuning out marketing and tuning into those brands that represent shared values.

2. Reputation forms the basis of an enduring brand legacy

Reputation revolves around respect and legacy – both are earned, rather than bought. This highlights the importance of companies putting values first rather than profits. Since many companies fail to do this, a brand that excels at earning respect and creating a meaningful legacy will earn a stellar reputation.

Clifford Geertz, arguably the godfather of cultural anthropology, put it this way: Ethos and worldview describe how cultures create a seamless, unified system. The ethos, which is an understanding of how we should act in the world, is supported by the worldview, which is our picture of how the world really is, and vice versa.

In a sense, ethos and worldview are what differentiate one culture from another, and it is the culture that traditionally gives individuals their definition of self, who they are, what they believe, and how they should act.

Let’s take REI for an example of an ethos-driven company. Through equipping customers (and employees) for adventure, REI promotes a love of the outdoors and stewardship of nature. REI is an employee-centric operation meaning they attribute the success of their company to their workers and offer incentives for them to live out the brand promise of engaging with nature. These values translate into happy and passionate employees, which then permeates every aspect of their business to create a strong, loyal customer base.

When employees live out brand values, those principles naturally translate to the right customers.

Patagonia thrives by wearing its ethos on its sleeve as well. The company’s Common Threads initiative converted people into customers based on the shared desire to do more with less. Leading with “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine,” they speak to consumers’ interest in sustainability and doing good for the planet. It is aspirational and inspirational. They even launched an e-commerce recycled clothing site called Worn Wear to encourage a “sharing is caring” mentality. Not only does this subtly remind consumers that their high-quality products last a lifetime and commitment to sustainability, but it also encourages storytelling around the adventures the brand equipped.

Ethos-based brands value their purpose more than their profits. They eliminate a sales-first culture and focus on things money can’t buy. They live their convictions, rather than conform to the convictions of the marketplace.

Ethos-driven brands listen more, and market less. They elevate the quality of life for their cult followers.

Shared values form the basis for all relationships. Wherever we go in business, and in life, we bring our own values along. When others share our values, this becomes a powerful and attractive force to bind us closer together. Enlightened brand owners realize that in our busy days, most of us have little time for things and people that don’t really matter to us.

For brands to matter, the customer must believe the brand is bringing something more valuable to them than the money they spend.

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