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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 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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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.

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Food & Beverage Brands: Stop Chasing Your Competitors

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

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

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

The Perils of Brand Parity

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

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

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

It’s a vicious cycle: 

Don’t Stand Among; Stand Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re here for the disruptors. If that’s your aspiration, let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

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

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How to Make Retailers Love Your Food or Beverage Brand

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

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

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

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

When Brands Overlook Retail Partners

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

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

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

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

It’s Not a Sales Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Retailers You Mean Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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A Dramatic Sales Turnaround for a Heritage Brand

The State of the Brand

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

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

How We Helped

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Results 

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

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

David Lemley

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

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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

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

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

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

Why a Base of Core Believers Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing Who Not to Pursue

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Appeal ONLY to the Right Customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

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How Food & Beverage Brands Can Stave Off Private Label Competitors

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

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

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

Not Your Parents’ Store Brands

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

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

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

Getting Ahead of Private Label Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Play bigger and bolder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Lemley

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

Connect with David