Natural Food & Beverage Brands: We’ve Got Work to Do

We’ve been percolating on this topic for several weeks now, and we’re guessing that you have, as well. The Black Lives Matter movement is impossible to ignore, and it has raised persistent truths that are uncomfortable to reckon with.

One of those truths is this: Natural food, beverage, and wellness brands — mission-driven brands with aims to improve people and planet — are doing a lousy job serving customers of color.

A recent virtual meeting on “The State and Future of Natural & Organic” presented by New Hope Network and WhipStitch Capital brought to light several trends that have developed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what caught our eye was two slides citing a bigger, longer-term issue plaguing our category. Slide 40 in the leave-behind deck reads, “We are currently missing the opportunity to serve more diverse consumers,” followed by a subtitle that reads, “Natural and organic consumers are mostly white.”

And the next slide points out the foundational problem: “This is a reflection of our current industry leadership.”

In other words, the natural and organic audience is mostly white not because there are no Black, Indigenous, or people of color out there to buy our products. It’s white because that’s how we market, not because there is no demand.

The lack of diversity in brand leadership has built up over time, and it won’t be resolved overnight. We’re not suggesting that hiring practices alone will pivot natural brands toward more diverse audiences. (Diversity is also a function of product innovation, distribution, pricing, marketing, and other business disciplines.) In fact, our goal with this article is to spark dialog about this issue, not to propose concrete tactics.

Why Natural Brands Aren’t Serving Consumers of Color

Let’s begin by talking about how this institutional bias affects the products we make and the ways in which we talk about our brands.

For naturals brands, marketing is about seeking their tribe: people who buy the product not just because it tastes good (its features and benefits) but because they believe in the mission. They feel the brand supports their lifestyle and self-identity. As brand leaders, though, we assume the tribe looks and thinks like us. That’s always a flaw, and especially so when we’re reaching out to consumers of color.

In the same vein, our industry’s definition of health is inherently white. We prize an aspirational level of fitness, we aim for a certain body type, we idealize Instagram-worthy dewy skin. But consumers of color don’t necessarily share that definition.

Working with actress and influencer Tia Mowry on her new You Are the Anser! brand of supplements was an important educational opportunity for us. Through extensive consumer research and deep-dives with Tia’s team, we gained insight into the community she was seeking to reach. For the Black woman, health and wellness mean that she feels confident and good about herself, not in comparison to others. She has a million other things to focus on in her life and doesn’t care about keeping up with white culture’s definition of fitness or wellness.

The University of San Diego School of Business researcher and associate marketing professor Aarti Ivanic, who studies racial differences and the impact on health and nutrition habits, puts it like this: “When looking at exercise habits, research shows that African Americans see working out in a gym as primarily a ‘white person’ activity. That’s why Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign was great, because she was a role model for minorities and exercise and healthy nutrition was now seen as accessible to everyone, including minorities.”

Better-for-you brands are highly attuned to solving their consumers’ problems. After all, many of these products were developed by a founder who set out to overcome a dietary challenge or meet a lifestyle need. But collectively, we are not actively looking to solve the needs of anyone of color who doesn’t subscribe to the aforementioned definition of “health.” We impose our needs without understanding others’.

What’s more, the naturals industry as a whole defines consumers based on who can afford their values — values that come from a place of privilege. That perspective overlooks a whole other group of consumers who need your organic and natural products that can help them live better lives. Marketers are not talking to them at all; not even looking at what they need (and we’re pretty sure it isn’t a $7 kombucha).

As brand marketers begin to reach out to nonwhite audiences, there’s an initial tendency to be “colorblind.” That’s safe and allows us to feel good about checking boxes. But in fact, all people want to be seen and honored as complex individuals with a culture that makes them special. To deny color because you’re trying not to be racist is a way of perpetuating the bias. A willingness to see and respect color is the first step in creating a community that’s racially diverse.

Greater Diversity Comes through Baby Steps

So how do we begin to reimagine the audiences for our brands?

Here’s what gives us hope: Better-for-you brands are hard-wired to serve. We’re really good at articulating a higher calling and innovating products that improve lives. We’re determined to make the world a better place. We’re also great at educating consumers about how they can be their best selves and why that matters.

When we worked with Tia, her mantra for her customer was, “We see you.” People of color don’t feel seen or spoken to. We’re not even giving them a chance to connect with our brands.

Can we start to observe and understand what a more diverse group of fans might want from our brands? Can we reach out and listen? Can we find greater ways to serve?

It starts from within: The only way to have visibility is to have marketers and innovators in top positions who are people of color, to establish mentoring programs within our companies and across the industry that elevate a new generation of nonwhite leaders.

And it will take hundreds of baby steps to make lasting changes — not just in response to headlines. We have a saying around our office: “An oasis begins with a puddle in the desert, so start spitting!”

We’re ready to get to work. And we want to hear from you about efforts to serve a broader group of consumers. Let’s talk!

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Chief Sales & Marketing Officer
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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