Brand Innovation: When You Can Make Anything, What Should You Make?

August 11, 2020 | by David Lemley

Manufacturing capability, ingredient access, and direct sales channels mean that brands in the natural food and beverage category today can pretty much make and market anything they want.

But a blue-sky approach to innovation isn’t particularly helpful. If you can make and market virtually anything, then how can you possibly decide what ideas to act on?

Instead of limitless innovation, you need boundaries to frame the discussion about how to grow your offering. And the source of those boundaries is your brand strategy.

Six Types of Brand Innovation

First, let’s look at the six primary areas for innovation in the naturals category:

Form factor innovation — We hold up Califia Farms as the prototypical example. Califia’s curvy, nostalgic bottle shape exploded all the conventions of milk and juice packaging.

Product innovation — Probably the most common and consistently deployed type of innovation, this involves new flavors, ingredients, and similar or tangential products (like expanding from beef to plant-based jerky or adding organic salsa to go with your organic multigrain corn chips).

Channel innovation — This means finding new places and ways to sell your stuff. When we worked with DRY Soda, for example, we identified an opportunity for the brand to expand in the hospitality market, which had a carryover impact that boosted their retail sales, as well.

Operational innovation — Think people, processes, and systems. This type of innovation is often tasked with driving cost-saving or improving efficiency. Your team should constantly be looking to streamline ops.

Marketing innovation — Not just a new tagline or social campaign; true innovation in marketing involves significant changes in sales and promotion, pricing, packaging, and communication strategy.

Cultural innovation — Internal shifts that reshape the organization, teamwork, and values. Cultural innovation often follows a major reboot in the brand strategy.

Brand Strategy as a Framework for Innovation

Brand strategy should inform all types of innovation. Back to our original question: If you can make and market anything, what should you make and market?

In other words, where does the brand have permission from customers to grow?

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.

Disregard both the consumer and your brand promise, and your innovation will bounce all over the place. You’ll toss a bunch of products out there to see what sticks, constantly shift your messaging in search of the right tone of voice, play the price-discount game. And you’ll never have a sense of what works and why. Willy Wonka was in a constant state of innovation (chewing gum that replicated a turkey dinner, anyone?) and we all know it didn’t go well; he was all about his own joy in experimentation, not about the people he was creating for.

Armed with a strong strategic foundation for your better-for-you brand and a deep understanding of your consumer, you’ll have a roadmap for creating new products that reflect your brand’s promise. You won’t have to test-market 15 new flavors; you can confidently launch 5 you know your audience will respond to. You won’t have to chase the next pumpkin-spice trend.

An innovation miss, on the other hand, has the potential to unravel the brand story you’ve worked so hard to create. You’ll be perceived as inauthentic and opportunistic rather than as a citizen brand.

Case Study in Product Innovation: HighKey Snacks

The low-carb Keto-friendly brand HighKey came to us when they sought to expand from the DTC channel to big-box retail. They were competing in a crowded Keto market, and their world was about to get even more cut-throat. During our 360° strategic review of the brand, we discovered that they were speaking to the wrong audience. They thought their fanbase was made up of protein shake-chugging workout dudes; rather, it was busy moms seeking to manage their weight and unwilling to compromise on taste and convenience.

With this insight, we helped them reformulate their brand’s why, along with a total packaging and messaging overhaul. As important, though, we helped them rein in their innovation pipeline. The team had far too many product ideas in the works; we helped them focus on products that would mesh the brand’s values — low-carb snacks with amazing texture and flavor — with the customer’s desire to not feel like she’s missing out. Once we figured out who the true HighKey customer was, we figured out the products that she’d put into her purse and pantry.

Case Study in Form Factor Innovation: NuTraditions

This third-generation Chinese American-owned company came to us as they planned to relaunch the brand to capture the attention of stressed-out consumers. The company has long sold traditional Chinese herbal products, and it had a great backstory, but it needed a modern brand strategy. We helped them focus on a mission: using natural methods to restore balance to hectic everyday life.

They had a library of potential products, and we advised them to hone in on clean energy and clean sleep products for launch. The natural sleep aid isn’t a pill or beverage, but a dissolvable strip that melts on the tongue. A second product, a ginseng-infused coffee that provides alertness and sustained energy, comes in K-cup brewing pods. The two products work together to help people sleep well and get through their days without the up/down dynamic of caffeine and sleeping meds.

For NuTraditions, innovation meant looking at a three-circle Venn — the brand’s mission, consumer trends, and manufacturing capability. At its reboot, the company is well-poised for future product launches and smart growth.

In life and in business, we need guard rails to keep us from skidding off the road. A strong brand strategy is the guard rails for innovation, helping you answer the question: Is this a good idea or a bad idea?