Food & Beverage Brand Leaders: It’s Not All About You

May 4, 2021 | by David Lemley

“I’m not feeling it.” “This doesn’t do it for me.” “I want to be wowed.”

Are your emotions, opinions, and whims getting in the way of advancing the brand you’ve built? If you’re like many food and beverage entrepreneurs, you might be.

Entrepreneurship is cool. You started this business because you saw a need and determined to meet it. You’ve secured placement with bigger retailers and attracted investors’ attention. The success of the company so far is proof that your hunches and insights are correct.

Yet your company may now be at an inflection point where your instincts are less relevant. It’s hard to hear and harder to fathom. But bear with me — because when you take YOU out of the organization’s decision-making equation, magic can happen.

The Brand’s Evolution Means Leadership Changes, Too

In our experience, a founder/CEO goes from huge assets to potential hurdles at a specific point in the lifecycle of a brand. As a refresher, that lifecycle looks like this:

First & Only — an innovative, world-changing newcomer powered by a passionate founder

Beloved by Default — a niche brand attracting a growing audience of fans

One of Many — a once-darling brand copied by cheaper competitors

Beloved & Dominant — a category-crushing superstar so favored by consumers that it’s competition-proof

One of Many is the point where passion-driven food and beverage brands have to mature and evolve in order to grow. That involves a hundred little decisions about channels and flavors and social media tactics — all of which add up to answer one question: What is next for the brand?

The stakes are high, because your competitors are underpricing, out-innovating, and out-communicating you. Now is the critical time to examine your foundational strategy, audience, and Brand Ecosystem. The biggest obstacle here is a lack of objectivity and insight from you and your leadership team. You think you know best because what you know has proven true so many times.

The most important insight I can share with you is this: You are not your audience.

Assuming that your customer base shares your likes, needs, and lifestyle leads to limited thinking and marketing (even subconsciously). This often results in limited growth potential and a duct-tape-and-glue approach to product development, brand architecture, and audience analysis.

Knowing When to Let the Brand Evolve

When you’re an entrepreneur, you started with a killer idea and tons of passion. You’ve built this business with your own blood, sweat, and tears — so it can be hard to separate your idea from yourself and let the brand evolve. Entrepreneurship is like parenting: At some point, the child needs to live her own life, and you hope and trust that what you’ve given and taught her will serve her well as an independent, successful, growing human being.

I’d argue that you owe it not just to the company, but to the audience you serve, to do everything you can to help it thrive. Playing small and safe kneecaps your brand’s potential. That’s not why you built this.

You may be thinking: “This brand is my passion. How can I let others criticize, evolve, or change it?” Or, “If we make it big, will everyone think I’ve sold out?”

In order to grow, you have to let go. Let go of the idea that you’re the sole arbiter of what’s best for the brand, that you need to be totally jacked about every aspect of the strategy or packaging or product offering. You absolutely have a role as the voice of wisdom for the brand. But your role needs to look different.

Adopt the platform of the servant leader. True leadership cares about everyone else first; as Simon Sinek says, “Leaders eat last.” Pursuit of your larger mission to help people, place, or planet takes precedence over your own personal objectives.

This isn’t to say you step aside; rather, you step up. Your team needs your coaching, training, mentoring — and then they need your trust that they’ll make the right decisions to evolve and grow the brand to find its true audience.

For a role model, look to Califia Farms founder Greg Steltenpohl, who passed away in March 2021. Steltenpohl built Califia as a juice company, based on his experience with the Odwalla brand — but look at all the evolutions beyond his original passion to create Juice 2.0. Califia is widely considered the brand that helped normalize plant milk as a concept for American consumers. Furthermore, Steltenpohl was a pioneer in applying environmental sustainability, employee empowerment, creative corporate culture, and community-based marketing as core drivers of business success. Under his servant leadership, the company pivoted away from making better-for-you juice products to correcting American’s poor dietary choices and making the world better. I admired him greatly.

I’ll share another family analogy here: Think of this kind of leadership like being married to the brand, not actually being the brand. Do you have to love your partner’s choice of clothing? Nope. Would you choose a different car to drive? Perhaps. But ultimately, you’re there to journey with the brand and supporting its wholeness, in sickness and in health.

If you’re seeking the right balance between loving the brand and letting go of decision-making, we can help. We’ve had these conversations before.