Can I Mainstream My Passion Brand Without Losing Our Mission?

September 2, 2020 | by David Lemley

A recent article on the natural food industry news site NOSH caught our eye: A specialty brand just closed a round of funding. The company aims to use that money on sales and marketing to expand from a narrow channel strategy to a broader retail brand.

A pivot from niche to mainstream is one we’re quite familiar with. Leaders often come to us for guidance as they steer their brands from a quirky, started-in-the-garage brand to Beloved & Dominant status. But these leaders are concerned—about losing control, about looking like they’re selling out, about messing up the brand they’ve spent so much sweat equity on.

The Pivot from Small to Medium to Big

Mainstreaming your passion brand is a huge step for founder-owners and their marketing and innovation executives. So there is a good reason for a bit of caution.

Often, the founders who come to us are at an inflection point in their businesses. They’re tired of playing small ball and exhausted by all the work it takes for them, personally, because they’re wearing all the hats. They’re ready to explode this thing that they built in their kitchen or garage.

But they’re scared that if they loosen the reins, the carriage will careen out from underneath them. They worry about whether the brand can carry on its mission when they start to scale, because with scale comes new internal players, new channel partners, and new audiences. They might even be concerned that they’ll lose the brand’s original diehard fans.

Before Your Naturals Brand Scales, Focus on These Areas

The devoted buyers who’ve been with you since you started selling at a farmers’ market are invested in your brand story. We call this your WHY—we define brand as the promise you keep and the ways you keep it. A well-constructed brand mission transcends scale because it’s fundamental and authentic, and it’ll call out to an ever broader tribe of enthusiasts as you leverage the seven platforms of the Brand Ecosystem to reach them.

As you grow, know that your roots also generate significant blind spots for the founder-owner. Beware of thinking that your entire audience is just like you; they’re not. As the brand moves mainstream, the owner can no longer be the guy who’s pitching the product at the local Whole Foods store on Saturdays.

It should go without saying (but often we need to say it anyway) that any growth requires that operations be ready and capable. Especially if growth comes quickly—say, Kroger wants you on the shelf in all its stores in the Northeast—your supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution have to be ready to press the gas pedal. You’ll need a robust sales team, too, to build retail relationships and get you on shelf. You have to be OK with evolving beyond the handful of ingredient suppliers you’ve gotten to know.

Taking your brand mainstream inevitably involves adding to your product portfolio. If you’ve come this far on three flavors of kombucha or varieties of gluten-free snacks, expect that retailers will need more of a presence from you. To fuel innovation, you have to deeply know your customer and their needs, understand the competitive landscape and consumer trends and then chart your innovation pathway.

One of the fun side-projects of scaling is renovating your brand identity and packaging. This is where you get to work with a creative team and play with type and color. Caveat emptor: Let the visual components of your brand be among the last things you tackle, AFTER you have your WHY, your ops, and your innovation pipeline well anchored. Trust us: Visual execution without strategy is a dumb way to spend money.

Case Study: Alden’s Ice Cream

So, let’s circle back to the conversation. With an infusion of funding, specialty and naturals brands have a huge opportunity to scale. We’re expert at taking brands from little darlings to mainstream players; here’s the advice we gave Oregon Ice Cream at that intersection:

First, focus on the WHY. Alden’s has a great backstory — family-owned, born and bred in Eugene Oregon, and the only ice cream manufacturer that could ensure enough organic cream to make ice cream in half-gallon quantities. However – the were simply pinning their brand on the scale manufacturing capabilities – and in the modern naturals market, that’s not enough reason for being.

Second, rethink messaging. The brand talked about being a family-oriented and delicious, but the copy tone was too serious and holier-than-thou. Aldens’s was a different kind of brand — one that could talk about being a family and about creating products for families — but they don’t really know how to talk about it to consumers.

Third, update visual and branding elements to the premium a price point. Alden’s product lineup leaned heavily on organic ingredients and it’s signature half-gallon “scround” – but its package design and visual messaging didn’t line up with a high price tag (2-3x over mainstream brands). There is an adage that most sales and marketing pros have heard, “design informs price”. If you are charging a premium price, your packaging must match – otherwise, you are lined up with other products on the shelf and your consumer won’t buy. No one will by a Honda Accord for the price of a Mercedes Benz.

You Essentially Have to Go Mainstream

As the founder/owner or CMO of a mission-driven naturals brand, you have to realize that if you want to have the impact with your brand that you envision, you can’t go it alone. You are limiting your brand’s reach by staying small.

Fear of growth is an old-school naturals category mindset. After all, multinationals have seen success in taking passion brands mainstream and preserving their Beloved & Dominant status. The new game is that in order for your brand to have a significant impact on the world or culture or environment – you need scale. Investment and growth, even acquisition, is your aim.

Looking for guidance on how to do mainstream well — finding new fans, building retail partnerships, preserving your mission, and remaining the hero? Give us a ring.