Entrepreneurs and leaders from some of the industry’s most dynamic natural food companies presented tips and strategies for authentic brand building, effective leadership and growth during NOSH Live Summer 2019, held June 3-4 at the Metropolitan West in New York City.
The event kicked off with Walter Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and current principal for Stonewall Robb Advisors, who noted that digital models are becoming part of the larger retail ecosystem, providing consumers with information to enhance shopping and, in turn, giving retailers more data on customer preferences.
In his presentation, John Durant, founder of Wild Ventures, echoed Robb’s feelings about the power of food tribes. He said the word “influencer” is overused, and that a true influencer motivates their tribe to take action, combining established expertise with forward thinking and science-based research. Meanwhile, community shouldn’t be undervalued; “You can build a multibillion dollar brand by getting people in a room together,” Durant said.
That community is often found online. According to Arthur Sevilla, Pinterest’s head of CPG strategy, the digital shopping journey starts with a simple equation: “Relevance + receptivity = impact.” Pinterest seeks to create a personalized experience for users by utilizing a “taste graph,” he said, adding that popular food trends include foil pack dinners, oat milk, ginger water, pegan (paleo & vegan) and mushrooms.
The program’s next speaker was Gail Becker, founder and CEO of frozen pizza brand Caulipower. She emphasized the power of risk taking, adding that breaking common rules — such as launching in the frozen section, in multiple categories, and in Walmart — led to success.
Growth, however, shouldn’t mean losing sight of company culture, according to Robert Craven, former CEO of MegaFood and Garden of Life. He advised entrepreneurs to hire the right team, create clear purpose driven strategies and build a culture that’s in tune with the company’s goals.
Multiple speakers stressed the importance of maintaining strong teams. Nestle, for example, plans to further utilize its 22,000 employees and “make sure everyone understands they’re an entrepreneur in their company and they have the platform to put their ideas forward,” said Doug Munk, director of new business ventures for Nestle. The company debuted a new product at NOSH Live: Jacked Rabbit, a Nesquik-inspired protein drink, and Munk added that Nestle is investing $2 billion in R&D through its new accelerator, which it announced in April.
In terms of growing with assistance from specialized VCs, Megan Bent, founder and managing partner of Harbinger Ventures, advised business owners to ask VCs what they do differently that can enhance what the brand does, noting that “specialization is not one size fits all.”
When it comes to retail, co-ops offer a unique place to amplify a brand’s story, said Heidi Traore, business development manager for National Co+op Grocers. Traore said that co-ops have “some of the most committed natural food shoppers in the industry,” and can help brands launch intros and create attractive promotions, along with great everyday pricing.
The first day of NOSH Live Summer 2019 concluded with the Sampling Experience + Expo, giving attendees the opportunity to network and explore some of the most innovative natural food products in today’s market.
On Day Two, Sarah Alderson and Laura Rush, Walmart’s divisional merchandise managers of chilled packaged goods and frozen foods, respectively, discussed efforts to help brands launch and innovate. To launch in Walmart, Alderson said, emerging brands don’t have to be ready for 4,000 stores, but actually as few as 10 — and they don’t even have to be completely ready for launch when they approach a Walmart buyer. Successful products offer “something evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary,” she noted, citing Halo Top as an example.
On the topic of fostering small brands, Daniel Grubbs, managing director of PepsiCo Ventures Group, explained that PepsiCo’s Hive gives brands the opportunity to take the next step forward, while its Nutrition Greenhouse accelerator helps brands in their earlier stages. While there’s no “typical deal” the company strikes with emerging brands, he said PepsiCo often becomes involved as a minority investor, with a possible path toward full acquisition, as they seek long-term growth opportunities with brands that won’t “just ride a wave and crash.”
The focus then shifted to communication and change; Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams founder Jeni Britton Bauer and CEO John Lowe discussed their personal dynamic. Lowe, a former corporate lawyer for General Electric, said he had to make adjustments before finding an effective way to communicate with the “loving and caring artists” at Jeni’s, and the two have been growing together to lead the brand as the team expands and roles shift.
Jane Miller, CEO of Lily’s Sweets, shared how she modified her leadership style in order for the brand to grow, realizing her “flamboyant” approach was a poor fit in a corporate environment. She subsequently learned to communicate more effectively, getting to the facts quicker.
A panel of brokers — TJ Varecka, principal, KMG Group; Tregg Brown, chief sales officer, Team Direct Management; Tracy Miedema, VP of innovation and brand development, Presence Marketing — addressed the state of retail as natural products move into conventional stores. The mass channel “no longer has to be the last piece of the puzzle,” Varecka said, adding that it’s often better for emerging companies to be open to outside help. The panel also touched on CBD in retail, with Miedema advising that “those who are jumping in have a higher risk tolerance.”
Continuing on the topic of risk, Jaime Athos, president & CEO of The Tofurky Company, discussed the chances brands take by aligning with specific beliefs and establishing a story. For Tofurky, its social purpose is in leading consumers away from destructive global trends. Athos discussed Tofurky’s decision to fight Missouri’s law which would ban companies from calling plant-based meat alternatives “burgers,” voicing his belief that “confusing nomenclature” like the word “simulated” will deter customers from purchasing plant-based products.
T.J. McIntyre, CEO of Bobo’s, closed out the conference by sharing tips on how companies can best optimize cash flow. He emphasized the importance of prioritizing revenue, addressing illegitimate deductions and avoiding infrastructure G&A.
“The key is to monetize the lessons you pick up along the way,” he said.