Naturals Brands: Is Your Charismatic Founder Helping or Hurting the Business?

February 10, 2021 | by David Lemley

We’re just gonna make a bold statement here: If the sole reason for your company’s success is the actual, physical presence of the founder — during visits with retail partners, sales meetings at trade shows, in-store demonstrations — then you have a branding problem.

Because when that charismatic founder/owner isn’t in the room, the wind goes out of your sails.

It’s a challenge that we see frequently in the natural food and beverage space, which is populated by brands launched by individuals who developed products that initially met their own needs. (Think: an avid hiker needed an energy bar to power through day-long treks; a parent with a kid with a food allergy needed a clean snack.) Typically, a brand rides to out-of-the-gate success on the back of that passionate, visionary founder.

But as the brand grows and the founder/owner can’t be everywhere at once, a few gaping holes begin to develop. While the sales team is capable of selling the brand’s offering to retailers, the product itself doesn’t match the hype. Consumers don’t see the brand as meaningfully different from competitors and choose lower-priced options. The brand loses velocity and risks discontinuation. It’s exhausting to rely on charisma, and it’s expensive to not get the sell-through you need to stay profitable.

When the Founder Becomes a Liability

In the lifecycle of a brand I describe in my book Beloved & Dominant Brands, the risk of founder-as-brand shows up when the brand tips from Beloved by Default (still riding the visionary’s coattails) to One of Many (lost in a churn of copycats).

First & Only — an innovative, world-changing newcomer

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

Two fundamental truths about entrepreneur-led brands are at play here: One, the founder can’t replicate herself, and as she spreads herself too thin her influence wanes. Two, and perhaps more important, the leader and her executive team assume, wrongly, that they ARE their customer. They fail to see that consumers’ needs are different, and that the product doesn’t fit as well into their lives. They think: “Everyone must love this brand as much as we do.” We see this especially in competitive categories where the barriers to entry are lower (e.g. snacks) and where look-alike products are hard for consumers to differentiate.

Faced with dipping sales, the marketing team often steps in with quick fixes: tweaks to the packaging design or sometimes even positioning. The deeper the bias of the founder or leadership about their product’s superiority (when for retailers and consumers, it’s parity) the smaller and more frustrating the moves. Marketing is often unsuccessful or merely produces a short-term bump prompted by ad campaigns or discounting. Meanwhile, the brand struggles to meet minimum velocity hurdles. Sales and marketing are doomed to fail if the brand and business are hinging on the charisma of the founder.

Separating the Brand from the Individual

So, how can marketing executives steer the brand away from the founder’s persona? Very gently.

First, it’s important to remember one definition of brand:

Brand is what they say about you when you aren’t in the room.

That’s because it’s about them, silly, not about you.

Perhaps the smartest thing you can do is to enlist an external ally to help identify the issue — the primacy of the founder/owner is creating serious branding and business problems — and to deliver the difficult news and take the heat for saying so. And yes, there’ll be some heat. (We’ve been in that chair, and we’re well-versed in sharing tough news with grace.)

Just as important, you must frame the situation not as a complaint about the founder, but as a natural, growth-related challenge that has a strategic solution.

Think of other brands pegged to an individual founder: Bob, Barbara, Justin, Annie … it’s been a long time since Bob or Barbara was in a regional retail sales meeting. But Bob and Barbara still project a halo of wisdom and a promise of quality over the brands, even those that are now owned by large multinationals.

As a spunky, entrepreneurial naturals brand grows, the role of the founder/owner must pivot away from hands-on, in-every-meeting doer to benevolent guide. The founder/owner becomes a shepherd for the brand rather than the brand itself. She shows up like a pastor or chairman emeritus; the brand stands for itself and its mission, and the individual hovers above in a sort of endorsement role. Like Justin or Annie, the founder’s presence serves as confirmation that the brand is a real thing based on real people.

Think of the founder/owner’s position like a patronus. (“Harry Potter” fans will recognize the patronus as a magically conjured apparition that guides, protects, and inspires a person in his moment of need.) The founder, then, doesn’t fight the fight, but serves as a beacon.

When we advise founder-centric brands on evolving the brand beyond the dynamic individual, we help turn the liability into a strength by involving the founder in the journey from lead warrior to champion. It often takes some coaching, but rarely have we seen the founder resist the move. Typically, he recognizes his responsibility for the business impasse, feels the pain of decreasing sales, and embraces his new role as vision-giver and mentor to the brand.

And then the whole organization breathes a sigh of relief. The overtaxed founder gets to step out of the day-to-day and focus on work that adds value. Product development responds to real market opportunity rather than the owner’s whim. Marketing moves the needle because the brand’s values align with consumers’.

Apple is often celebrated as a brand with a powerful connection to fans, and it’s also a case study in how dominant leaders can and should behave. In Apple’s darkest days, Steve Jobs was in every meeting, weighing in on every decision, driving every aspect of the business. When he stepped back to let other exceptional minds shape the company and instead became a spiritual guide and external presence at product-launch events, Apple soared.

If you’re working with an in-the-weeds Steve Jobs when you need a product-unveiling Steve Jobs, give us a call. We’ve traveled this path and can help founders find their most fulfilling and difference-making roles.