When I was 7, my dad was driving our family of six kids through Idaho in a Winnebago. My dad took us to the campground souvenir shack and got us all an Idaho Spud candy bar. To this day, I remember the pine needles, the picnic tables, the smell of the campfire, and the bug bites — and most important, I remember the look on my little brother’s face as he snarfed that puppy down. To this day, Idaho Spud candy bars are etched in my memory as proof that my dad loves me.
Think back to when you were a kid and remember your favorite snack. Chances are, you also remember people, places, and events … because you’re remembering love.
Food is love.
And yet as food marketers, we emphasize the functional benefits of our products and miss the emotional connection that our products can trigger in our customers.
Our products are not basic sustenance; they stand at the top of Maslow’s pyramid where brands become part of people’s expression of their identity. Our products let people show love: to themselves in the form of self-care and self-satisfaction; to others in the form of nourishment and nurturing and indulgence.
So if our products represent love, then why do so many naturals brands get stuck in their marketing efforts and growth plans?
The Apex of the Brand Lifecycle
For starters, let’s review the typical brand lifecycle that we discuss in-depth in our book, Beloved & Dominant Brands:
Stage 1: First & Only
A visionary founder with a health or lifestyle need pioneers a new food or beverage product to meet that need. Others with the same need flock to the brand and the personality behind it, and a tribe begins to form.
Stage 2: Dominant by Default
While the product remains unique and the founder remains the charismatic spokesperson, the brand gains traction in the market. Its retail presence expands and it starts to gain national notice.
Stage 3: One of Many
Competitors, including store brands, hop onto the trail that the brand has blazed, following in its footsteps, copying its innovation, and parroting its communication. In a flooded market, the original brand loses out to cheaper competitors.
Stage 4: Beloved & Dominant
This is the sweet spot for a naturals brand, where it’s embraced by passionate fans who love not just the quality products, but also what the brand stands for in the world. Where consumers advocate for the brand using language that the brand itself has taught them. It’s competition- and future-proof.
Note the root of the word here: love.
Beloved & Dominant Brands make their fans feel loved, and they enable those folks to show their love to others.
For Naturals Brands, Love Beats Functionality
As marketers we consistently communicate that the food we are making has a functional benefit: being healthy, avoiding certain ingredients (allergens, gluten, etc.), or simply satisfying a craving. What we sometimes forget is that food is really an expression of who we are.
Features and benefits are part of the equation, absolutely. But in the long run, they do not equate to emotion.
Big, not-so-great-for-you brands know this all too well. “Oh I just love Oreos because they are made with partially hydrogenated oil to ensure a one-year shelf life” — said no one, ever!
No, we love Oreos because the brand has helped us ritualize love: every TV spot or social media message shows two people, together, unscrewing their Oreos and dipping the cookies in glasses of milk. It’s not about the product’s features; it’s about the act of unscrewing, dipping, treating, sharing.
There’s lots for us as natural brand marketers to learn here.
First, remember that food is a primal need. And because of that it’s loaded with power and messaging. Naturals brands, especially, can leverage that power to show consumers what they can become by embracing the brand. When we care for ourselves or others, it’s not transactional; it’s an expression of who we are: “This is the snack that I take on our hike; it makes me a good wife or mother or friend.”
Second, remember that food triggers memory and emotion. It’s embedded in the rituals of life and the stories of our families. Packaging, aroma, taste, and appearance all associate with something bigger. I’ll share a recent story of a friend: Her family drank sweet tea when she was growing up, and all of them have health challenges related to diet. So her mission has become to create a healthy sweet tea that tastes like what she drank as a child. That memory underpins her brand.
Third, understand that the emotional connection with your consumers, the love, has to come from your story. As a brand, you have the opportunity to influence the narrative that people tell about their memories of certain occasions or foods or flavors. Be mindful of how you want them to talk about you when you’re not in the room. Use story to give them sound bites to weave your story into their own story. That’s where the magic is: When they love the brand and it becomes part of their day to day lives.
Fourth, use your messaging to help people ritualize your product, like Oreo and the whole unscrew-and-dunk ritual. Big beer brands do this well, too, especially with advertising related to sporting events that show camaraderie and cheering and celebration. The more consistent your messaging is over time, the more it becomes institutionalized, creating layer upon layer upon layer of reinforcement for the brand.
Finally, don’t overly intellectualize your communication. Listen to your gut about what that messaging should be. Showing the love is more anthropology than data science; it’s about the heart, the voodoo, the magic. Features and benefits are easy and tangible talking points; story, passion, emotion, nostalgia, and memory are harder to communicate well.
You’ll grasp the holy grail when your brand becomes part of consumers’ food memories like Grandma’s chocolate chip cookie. That’s Beloved & Dominant status.