Changes at Cheesemaker: Kite Hill Reboots

Now under new – albeit temporary – leadership, a plant-based dairy leader is launching a new product set. Almond-based cheese and yogurt brand Kite Hill announced this week the launch of three new products to expand the brand’s presence in the dairy set. Along with the new items, former CEO Matthew Sade formally announced that he had departed the company in April.

His departure followed the addition of several new executive roles to the Kite Hill team.

In the interim, while the company is actively searching for a new CEO, the board has “stepped in” to lead the brand’s day-to-day operations with board member John Haugen managing the company on a temporary basis. Haugen is also General Manager of 301 Inc, the venture arm of General Mills which previously led an $18 million funding round in Kite Hill.

Haugen told NOSH that his time at Kite Hill will be limited and is not a regular occurrence for brands that 301 invests in.

“With Mathew’s departure we immediately commenced a full-time search process, but there was not a lot of advanced notice when it happened [and] these thing do take a little bit of time,” Haugen said. “I said this day one when I addressed the company… ‘While I am assisting in the process to provide some continuity, everyone needs to make sure that I am fully 100 percent accountable to Kite Hill and the Kite Hill board of directors and not to General Mills and 301 Inc. That may be confusing and that may be hard for people to get their head around, but that’s my commitment.’”

While Haugen is currently splitting his time between 301’s headquarters in Minnesota and Kite Hill’s headquarters in California, he said that it’s business as usual at 301, which is actively seeking investments in emerging brands.

Before Sade’s departure, Kite Hill had already ramped up its leadership team with two new key positions and hires. John Murphy, formerly of the Honest Company and Sambazon, joined the brand as SVP of Sales. Additionally, Jenny Berrien, formerly of Hampton Creek and Clif Bar, was hired as the VP of Marketing.

Sade told NOSH that he will look back on his time at Kite Hill with fondness.

“I was honored to be given the opportunity to help turn Kite Hill into a leader in the plant-based sector and for four years I did that,” Sade said. “But at the end of the day for me, it wasn’t my company in that I wasn’t the founder of the company, and it was just time for me to pursue another interest that had long been something that I felt strongly about and didn’t feel like was being addressed. At the end of the day I’m an entrepreneur at heart and a builder and it was time for me to go out and build another company.”

Sade’s new company, Freeli Foods, was co-founded with Stephanie Brendel, formerly of F’real Foods, Method and Nestle, who has been working on the concept for several years. Freeli will produce kid-friendly, natural, portable meal-based solutions to compete (in category and price) with more traditional offerings such as Lunchables. Sade hopes to launch the products in conventional retailers.

Haugen, Berrien and Murphy will lead Kite Hill as it rolls out an ambitious product innovation pipeline. This fall the brand will launch a jalapeno cream cheese along with three entirely new categories of plant-based products: “Greek-style” high protein yogurt, drinkable probiotic-enhanced yogurt and tubes of children’s yogurts. The yogurt tubes will be $4.99 a pack, the drinkable yogurt at $5.49 a bottle and the Greek-style yogurt at $1.99 a cup.

All three new products will launch with the company’s primary retail partner, Whole Foods Market. However, said Haugen, consumers should plan to see the entire line in more retailers beyond natural and specialty over the next year. Currently the brand’s other products are sold in Safeway, Kroger, Target, The Fresh Market and Publix.

While Kite Hill initially launched as more of a specialty, plant-based cheese brand, the company has tried to shift into more center store categories over the past few years.

Overall, Haugen said, the brand, and whoever assumes the CEO role, has an exciting future.

“The consumer appetite and preference for great tasting plant-based nutrition continues to grow. And we’re seeing the category and the market continue to grow rapidly,” Haugen said. “It’s becoming a mainstream phenomenon. That’s really exciting and suggests a really bright future for brands like Kite Hill.”

Rebrands: Cricket Companies Molt

Call it insect evolution. Chapul and Exo, two of the leading brands of cricket-based foods, are hoping to get the industry chirping about their new looks.

Both Chapul and Exo announced new branding earlier this summer, with similar aims: speak to an offbeat, fearless consumer. Exo’s rebranded products are currently on shelves, while Chapul has rolled out the new look on a just launched protein powder and will transition its bars by the end of the summer.

While both companies felt their businesses were hopping, executives told NOSH the packages were not operating as effectively as hoped. Both bars tried to emphasize the sustainability and nutritional benefits of crickets on their previous packaging. While internal research showed consumers saw these elements as a benefit, it also found that both companies’ branding lacked an emotional connection that consumers who want to eat crickets could rally behind.

“We wanted to step back and reframe the brand as more about the community and being part of this cult, almost, of people who like to do things that others might look at as strange,” Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz told NOSH. “We wanted to move away from any specific attribute in general, regardless of it if was nutrition or sustainability, and instead frame it more as a badge of honor that you were eating crickets in the first place.”

Chapul founder and CEO Pat Crowley said the company spent months not only researching their own consumers, but also examining studies about how consumers approach new foods. What the company found was that an initial negative reaction to consuming crickets was often driven by “neophobia” or the fear of new or unfamiliar things. Instead of trying to address fear with logic, Crowley said, Chapul realized it needed to embrace it.

“We had this underutilized asset. If people have an immediate emotional reaction of fear, our job is to capitalize on that fear and turn that fear into courage,” Crowley told NOSH. “The early stage of consumer adoption are those people that pride themselves on doing something different and seek something different from conventional and mainstream. So they want something that speaks to them and says ‘you are a badass that’s not afraid of being different.’”

The brand added several visual elements to convey this new message, most prominently an eye staring directly at the consumer with a stripe of paint underneath. Crowley said the brand wanted a package that could look consumers in the eye and challenge them to face their fears while the paint symbolizes a warrior or champion.

Exo’s focus is to also embrace the challenge of eating crickets directly. Previously, the brand had banned all imagery associated with bugs on its packaging. Now, the new bars have a stylized, illustrated cricket. Sewitz told NOSH their ability to use a cricket on packaging is also an indication of just how far the category has come.

“There’s been so much attention to us and the idea and other companies in the space that we felt we had a little bit more leeway to play around with the idea that there are crickets in it,” Sewitz said. “A lot of our customers now are finding us for the very reason that we use cricket protein, which is very different then when we started. So we want to lead with that rather than trying to sweep it under the rug.”

At their inception, both companies had tried to mimic the look of more mainstream brands in order to steal customer share away from other lines. However, the two realized that their shopper isn’t a mainstream consumer, and they believe they’ll attract more consumers with edgier packaging aimed at early adopters.

For Chapul, the rebrand also comes as the company is both launching into a new category, protein powder, and adjusting the formulation of its bars to better meet the dietary needs of their consumers. The bars now have more protein and less sugar, for some flavors by almost half. To get the added protein, Chapul has added protein “crisps” which also add a welcome addition of texture and crunch to the bars.

The company has also simplified some of its flavors to be less challenging. For example, the brand’s matcha, nori, goji berry bar is now matcha banana. The shift gives consumers less of a reason to reject a bar that’s already using a novel ingredient, simply because it also is only available in unfamiliar flavors.

While Exo’s bars remain the same beneath the wrapper, the company wanted to keep its new sales strategy in mind when going through the redesign. Sewitz told NOSH that e-commerce is Exo’s number one retail channel and that any new design needed to be both captivating on a computer screen and flexible enough to lend itself to other digital assets. It’s a shift from when the young company launched and was primarily focused on how a product would look on shelf, Sewitz said.

Although marketing strategies and brands may change, both Sewitz and Crowley emphasized that their companies are still focused on getting sustainable protein sources into more consumers’ hands – even if it is a complicated message to convey on the back of a bar wrapper.

“Even though we’re all in it with all of our heart for that sustainability and to do something for the world, I’ve told our team that we’ll accomplish that a lot more effectively if we stop talking about it,” Crowley said. “When you try to [explain a lot of messages] in packaging, you just don’t send any messaging at all.”