Strategies for Reinventing Ingredient-Centric Brands

02.13.19 / Diana Fryc

Every new diet trend spurs a slew of new products and brands. Paleo begat jerky; Whole30 begat plant-based milk alternatives; Atkins begat coconut oil. Fad ingredients do the same — yesterday it was kale and chia; today it’s CBD.

But building a brand around the latest ingredient or diet, as though that “thing” is what will catapult the brand to success, is a perilous path. At some point, the market will become saturated with products, and the brands that don’t stand for anything else face a choice to pivot or die.

Ingredient Brands Have Little Room to Innovate

It’s not difficult to find examples of ingredient brands; just look at Oatly. Love from baristas who use the product has helped the brand secure cult status, but for how long? Califia Farms, by contrast, has built a well-loved brand on plant-based milks, coffee beverages, and creamers. Califia is now taking pre-orders on its new oat milk. It’s not hard to envision that Califia’s oat milk will be a hit with consumers. Califia has painted with a broad enough brush that allows ample room for innovation, while Oatly has staked its brand on a single ingredient.

That’s the foundational problem of ingredient brands. They get hamstrung by the fad that led them to become a brand to begin with and can’t innovate beyond it. If you’re the kale chip company, you can’t make potato chips. You can’t even make kale pesto.

This innovation limitation means you’re stuck when competitors, eyeing the same fad, flood the market with similar products. In the beginning, your brand may have been one of a few; 18 months later, store shelves are awash in copycats, differentiated only by price.

Risks of Anchoring Brand to Ingredient

Your brand is not your ingredients, features, and benefits; it’s not even your product. Your brand is a promise and the way in which your company keeps it. Ingredients are just part of the equation.

In the better-for-you food and beverage space, companies run by passionate founder/owners are particularly susceptible to this ingredient-equals-brand thinking. The owners often can’t see beyond the the initial product — one they doggedly developed in order to meet a need they felt personally. They’re comfortable anchoring the brand to, say, chia, because they can’t imagine a future with 100 SKUs.

Positioning your brand on features (ingredients) and benefits (flavor, nutrition) is riskier than ever because trends come and go more quickly than ever. We live in a world where consumers are open to new ideas, where technology makes it easy for people to discover something and to share it with others, and where social currency depends on being in the know.

How to Expand Brand Beyond Product

If your brand identity is anchored to product instead of promise, consider these strategies:

Understand why the trend exists. Among today’s food trends, CBD stands out as a food and beverage darling. Rather than pegging your brand to CBD — or whatever comes along tomorrow — lock into the driver behind the trend. CBD has properties that consumers are excited about, like relaxation or pain relief or anti anxiety; let those broader consumer preferences steer your brand innovation process.

Here’s an example: At a recent food industry trade show, I was surprised to find Bush Brothers, the bean brand, pitching a whole line of products for tailgating, including chips and dips. After all, what do you make with beans? Chili. Chili is a tailgating staple. And extending the brand into other pre-game foods taps into the trend of epicurean tailgating. I bet consumers will make the leap.

Pull back the lens. If you’re an ingredient brand, what do you see when you zoom out? Can the brand’s equity be elevated to a higher level in a way that makes sense for your market, with the existing brand as one of a set of products?

Consider Brad’s Kale Chips — the name itself anchored the brand to both ingredient (kale) and product (chips). So what happens when kale is no longer a thing? Even with flavor variations, kale would only take the brand so far, and the word ‘chips’ meant they couldn’t even pivot into kale hummus. The company recently repositioned as Brad’s Plant Based with a new line of veggie chips and an updated mantra, “Snack with purpose.”

Go back to the why. Why was the company founded? What is your brand’s ideology? The wrong you exist to right? What do you stand for?

Living Intentions is a case in point. This brand had built a great reputation as the frontrunner of shelf-stable raw and sprouted foods. But when Whole Foods decided that “raw” was a product attribute, not an entire in-store category, Living Intentions faced real jeopardy. The brand was focused on a food trend, not on attributes it could own.

We worked with their leadership team to get back to the why. The owner founded the company in order to produce healthy, natural foods that he could eat as he pursued his favorite outdoor activities. So we repositioned the brand on the idea of “activated” food — a reference both to the raw, active ingredients and to physical activity — and shifted the brand conversation from the product to the lifestyle it enables.

Plan for transition. The brand may be on life support, and you’re faced with tough choices. So begin forecasting for when and how you’re going to transition, either by growing as big as you can as an ingredient brand and selling, or by pivoting to a broader focus.

If you’re an ingredient brand seeking a way out of the box you’re locked into, look to what you stand for. You don’t really need to search that hard. And you will know you’ve got it right when you can innovate easily.

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