BevNET Live: Innovation Needs to Get to the Shelf, Panel Says

It’s taken him nearly 40 years, he said, but Greg Steltenpohl has finally figured it out: start with the retailer and work backwards.

Steltenpohl, the founder of brands like Odwalla and Adina, and now the CEO of fast-growing almond milk and juice maker Califia Farms, told an audience of entrepreneurs at BevNET Live during a panel on the ways larger companies apply trends to create innovation. He said that getting new brands to market and into the hands of consumers is, for entrepreneurs, largely a function of their ability to get the brands on the shelf. Meaningful innovation will only work if a company can deliver that and survive, he said.

“In earlier stage companies, there’s a lot of excitement around what we might be creating — but you have to channel some of that into what the world’s ready for,” Steltenpohl said, adding that because many of the products that sell do so simply because they are able to get into the market, the brands that are trying to break in “need to get in the game.”

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Julie Key, Evolution Fresh & Greg Steltenpohl, Califia Farms

“You might not have time to get it all figured out, but you know that it’s possible,” he said, but added that waiting for perfection can be harmful, because margin compression can occur. “When you’re enthusiastic, you just want to create something that tastes amazing, something that is functionally amazing,” but by looking at on-shelf prices first brands can also work with functional margins.

It’s that kind of experience mixed with idealism that BevNET Managing Editor Ray Latif had expected when assembling the panel, which also included Julie Key, the Brand Marketing Director at Evolution Fresh and Alan Murray, the CEO of GoodBelly maker NextFoods, with the intent of helping newer entrepreneurs both innovate and survive.

Key, like Steltenpohl, suggested entrepreneurs step back from the oft-referred-to bleeding edge to consider the cutting edge instead. As an example, the Evolution Fresh brand has recently taken to adding avocados to some of its varieties — a step that might seem radical in conventional grocery, but isn’t that uncommon in incubation channels like Whole Foods or juice bars.

After recognizing the trend as something that some consumers were doing at home, Key said, “we said why don’t we put that in a bottle and put it on the shelf.”

Alan Murray, GoodBelly

Alan Murray, GoodBelly

And remaining nimble at a small size is also the key, added Murray. Small brands are introducing what might eventually be tidal wave-sized concepts, which is something Murray said he expects probiotics, GoodBelly’s stock-in-trade, to eventually become in the U.S. But, he added, in the meantime, the innovation for his company has largely come via marketing as much as it has from the product itself.

“This community sometimes thinks that ingredients” are the best form of innovation, Steltenpohl agreed, “But bringing things together with good design, with communications that are actually deeper and that educate the consumer, those are the things that might actually break ground.”