6 Ways Agencies Fail Food & Beverage Brands

08.22.18 / David Lemley

As the food and beverage category continues to hone in on the importance of natural brands across all channels, getting investors is no longer the challenge — because better-for-you brands are driving category growth and, consequently, private equity investment in food outpaces all other categories. The pace of change in the last three years has outstripped even the staggering changes of the previous decade. Natural and better-for-you brands have moved beyond the realm of Whole Foods and made Costco and Walmart the biggest retail buyers of organic products.

The game has changed; investment opportunities appear to be falling from the sky for anyone with a clean ingredient deck and a crumb of a brand story.

But we have spent the better part of the last decade deep in the boardrooms, farms, and factories with some of the well-respected players who have driven this change, and we have some potentially bad news. If you have invested in rebranding within the last three years and are not experiencing the growth you expected, your agency may have failed you. This white paper explores six unexpected ways in which we have seen the agency drive the naturals brand off the proverbial cliff.

1. Sanitizing the truth about your brand. When the creative agency doesn’t take the time to learn, analyze, and ultimately challenge the category conventions or the closed-loop thinking of the founder-owner, the company’s culture, product offering, and vision, they inadvertently default to cool and clever tactics. Without mind-melding over the real pain points (or legitimate white space innovation), any creative outreach is more likely to be slick and not grounded in business strategy. And — because they are moving quickly — they tell the brand owners what they want to hear instead of the sometimes deeply blemished truth in order to get the creative ideas approved. The result is unownable beauty.

Need proof? Flip over any better-for-you packaged food and read an origin story that sounds like this.

“I had this challenge/pain point and so I made a company. Insert clever/humorous/witty tone to cover up the lack of depth in the origin story and add sizzle.”

– The Earnest Founder

2. Faking the category audit. Was your category audit insightful or did your agency merely check the box? The most common complaint we hear from brand owners, particularly in the naturals space, is that their category audit was too sterile and looked like something an intern could have produced using Google in an afternoon.A meaningful category audit must include the sometimes-ugly reality of retail. At a minimum, this means that the category audit should showcase lighting conditions, shelf restrictions, and key adjacencies from multiple locations. This along with analysis of your channel strategy is important if your category audit is to show you both potential threats and budding opportunities for your brand.

3. Claiming social media engagement will get you trial and velocity. Many agencies are still telling clients that likes and mentions will drive sales. And perhaps while the meter is running on that vegan snack fitness influencer contract there is some traction. We have seen it time and again — when that contract ends, the likes go away; the brand is forced to resort to buying likes with coupons and promo codes. Product efficacy, a contrarian point-of-view, and transparency to back up any claims of authenticity go further than any celebrity endorsement. And while we won’t discount the growth opportunities of influencer marketing, defaulting to this single tactic won’t get you the velocities you’re looking for. Bottom line, your marketing strategy needs to be multi-faceted.

4. Calling star-power strategic branding. Using celebrities can be a powerful endorsement for your brand, particularly when they fit the positioning of your brand ethos. We have seen the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Kobe Bryant and many others assist with a brands growth potential. However, branded products and famous people in ads only works for a few minutes. Once you stop paying endorsements, your brand disappears. You also do not have control over that person’s personal life. You can look to Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong to see what sort of collateral damage a celebrity can have on your brand. Unless you are a multi-national, we suggest you spend your marketing dollars elsewhere.

5. Assuming your consumer speaks your brand’s language. Marketing or advertising filled with insider jargon, certification claims, and tons of “us” vs. “them” verbiage emphasizes the negatives instead of the lifestyle associated with the brand. These tactics won’t grow a brand, increase its sphere of influence (among people, not influencers), nor get into a new customer’s consideration set. This approach automatically assumes that your consumer-to-be speaks your language. In extreme instances, we have seen this create a retail environment where the front-line employees have been poisoned by the marketing team to think unflatteringly about customers. The right way is to use brand strategy to decide why your brand exists in the world and who you can help because of it. Once clear on your brand’s purpose, the act of profiling your audience moves from merely demographic and leans into ambition, hope, human tendencies, and inspiration. We all want to believe we are working toward becoming a better version of ourselves. Brands, when they consider real people to be worthy of them, help us get on and stay on the path.

6. Using squishy strategy so the creative team isn’t fenced in. The agency creates a strategy, the client signs off, and then… the creative team comes up with a cooler idea. So the agency is forced to change the strategy to match the creative concept. Abraham Lincoln once asked, “How many legs does a dog have if you count the tail?” He answered, “Four. Calling the tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Killer creative ideas are not brand strategy. Killer creative’s intent is to get people’s attention so that they notice (and buy) your brand. Brand strategy’s intent is to evolve the company, its culture, offerings, sales opportunities, and ultimately its contribution to society in order to grow a large tribe of believers both inside and outside the company. A case in point: In our work with Essentia Water, we inherited a brand strategy that was clearly designed to produce adverts filled with blonde women in white yoga pants sitting on the beach (despite the fact that the data pointed to a racially diverse audience focused on being active in radically diverse ways). After scrapping that strategy and building one from the ground up, foodnavigator.com says this brand is on fire.

Consumers’ needs, competition, marketplace, and channels all change. Which means positioning needs to be refined or overhauled every once in a while to make sure your brand stays relevant.

We recommend that each brand that we work with establishes a scheduled audit and tune-up at a minimum of five-year increments — unless something significant has happened with your market or something is NOT working. Obviously, if your brand is losing share, don’t wait five years to make a change. But you should also be aware that a brand strategy driven rebound takes take 12-24 months before you can sit back and know with confidence that you have nailed it.

If you have gone through a rebrand in the last 18-24 months and aren’t realizing growth, I suggest a reality check that begins with the following questions before blaming your current agency.

  1. Is your internal team truly following the new strategy or have you tweaked it to make yourselves more comfortable?
  2. Did your strategy produce an innovation pipeline that has retail buyers looking to your brand for what is next in the category?

If after careful reflection you feel like your agency has failed you, or it’s time for a tune-up, it may be time for Retail Voodoo.

Ready to talk about your project?