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How Food & Beverage Brands Become Category Disruptors

A lot of emergent brands in the food, beverage, and wellness categories borrow a page from the tech playbook. They’re out to break things and disrupt the market. And sure, startup brands have a disruption advantage: They don’t have an existing customer base to satisfy, their teams don’t have emotional attachments to old ways of doing things, they’re not afraid of consequences or failure.

But you don’t have to be a startup brand — or a global heavyweight with dollars to burn on marketing campaigns — to disrupt your category. All the time, we see midmarket players that make gutsy moves rise above their competitors to become Beloved & Dominant brands.

What Does Brand Disruption Look Like?

So, what do we mean when we talk about disruption?

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen outlines three primary types of disruption:

· Sustaining innovation = continually producing better products at higher margins than competitors, forcing other brands to up their game.

· Low-end disruption = breaking into a category at the bottom with cheaper offerings.

· New-market disruption = creating a completely new segment that attracts a previously unreached audience (think smartphones).

I’ll offer our slightly different take on disruption for food, beverage, and wellness brands:

Brand disruption = developing a brand in such a way that is unexpected and uniquely ownable; creating an audience of devotees that have swagger when they own the brand and share it with everyone they know.

In our world of F&B, disruption is typically linked to product development. Launching amazeballs new products is one way to blow up your category. But just throwing out new product after new product is dicey because every other player in your niche can add the same trendy flavors. Competing on features and benefits is a sure path to becoming a commodity, not a leader.

And the way to become a disruptor instead of a commodity is to dig deep into your DNA to understand your WHY. You have to know what your brand stands for and what the consumer needs; that is your opportunity to zig when every other player in your space is zagging — not the new flavors or ingredients you introduce.

Look at our definition of brand disruption above: Nothing about it mentions products. It doesn’t say anything about cool packaging, or killer marketing campaigns. Disruption is the whole shootin’ match. It’s building a brand on a promise, not a product.

To be truly disruptive, a brand has to stand for something. We’ve said it a million times: Your brand is your promise and the ways in which you keep it.

Disruption Isn’t Only for Startups & Big $$ Brands

It’s true: Midmarket brands can grab the brass ring of innovation. We’ve seen it happen. A few years back, the leadership team at Essentia came to us for help as they steered the brand from Whole Foods darling to category killer.

How were they going to disrupt what’s now a $90+ billion market? It wasn’t going to come from product innovation; they’d had a pretty distinguishable product in the market for a while. It wasn’t a matter of refreshing the label; our upgrades to their design system were incremental.

For Essentia, disruption resulted from true brand strategy — promise, positioning, audience. We helped them translate their product advantage into a bold promise: That Essentia’s proven hydration made it a better water to fuel whatever you want to do. We positioned the brand as the future of water. And we uncovered a vast audience of consumers who need superior hydration — a broad demographic and psychographic profile that dwarfed their previous niche of yoga practitioners and fitness fanatics.

Essentia became the fastest growing performance water brand in the U.S., posting 84% growth in 52 weeks and cementing a dominant position as market leader.

That’s what disruption is all about: sales and revenue. You want to be disruptive in a way that you’re considered a category of one … you become almost synonymous with the category. Like Essentia.

It isn’t easy to achieve. A normal, human fear of failure keeps marketers and brand managers from making bold choices. They’re wary of alienating retailers and consumers. I get it. But your audience won’t mind change if it aligns with your brand’s promise. When a move feels like, “Of course, this is totally something I’d expect from this brand,” they’ll be OK with it.

Marketers think that disruption comes with bigger risk than simple line extensions, but I disagree. I think the risks are the same; you can make an easy extension and still flat-out fail.If you want to do disruption the right way, we should chat.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
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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