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Bear Naked Granola founder on building a brand

By Hank Schultz , 10-Dec-2012

Many successful food brands have a founding myth.  In the case of Bear Naked Granola, it is the story of the co-founders offering “breakfast in bed” to the wrong person.

Brendan Synott, who founded the company in 2002 with a friend, Kelly Flately, began by distributing hand packed lots of granola to bed and breakfasts and other similar outlets. As part of their first foray into retail they had been trying without success to connect with the buyer for Stew Leonard’s, a small chain of premium grocery stores in New York and Connecticut. 

Their idea was to have a breakfast tray ready in the lobby of the store’s headquarters for the buyer as he came in the door, only to be told he was on vacation.  As they were absorbing that disappointment, from a side door emerged Stew Leonard Jr. himself, who agreed to try the granola, liked it, and their entry into the stores was assured.

Food as spectacle

And the chain proved to be a good place to start, Synott said.  He learned a lot about the spectacle of food after seeing how things were done within the stores.  He saw first hand how a brand’s messaging can connect with customers right at the point of sale.

They sampled the granola for customers at Stew Leonards and worked on their messaging, packaging and formulation until theirs was the no. 1 selling cereal SKU in the store. They repeated that method, talking their way into retail grocery strores across the Northeast and onto the shelves at Walmart, Target and Sam’s Club.  By the time they sold the business to Kashi, a Kellogg subsidiary, for a reported $60 million in 2007, they were in 10,000 different outlets.

“Everywhere we went, we wanted to make it successful.  After we made it successful there, we could go someone else,” Synott said.

Synott, who is now the CEO of Revelry Brands, spoke recently as a gathering in Boulder, CO, where he now lives, sponsored by Compass Natural Marketing. He had this advice for entrepreneurs: Whatever it is you are selling, whatever benefits you claim for your product, it had better taste good.  And, especially in the natural space, you need to have a believable story that the consumer can connect with on a visceral level.

“The product is king. You had better have the best product. And whoever is making the product better have an authentic story about why you are making it,” he said.

Intimate relationship

Marketing food products differs from the selling of many other categories of consumer goods, Synott said.  The opportunity for connection with the consumer is greater, but there’s more risk they’ll coming away disliking you, too.

 “(Marketing is) the relationship between the producer and the consumer. In food particularly the consumer has more power because they are actually ingesting something,” he said.

“Food is so intimate.  Our relationship with it is deeper than a lot of elements in our life.”

While Synott counsels entrepreneurs to have a product they believe in, it’s possible to love it too much.  Bear Naked made some decisions early on of a pragmatic sort, such as foregoing an organic positioning that would have made the product too expensive.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies where the founders fall in love with their product and they use that love of the product as an excuse of why they can’t scale,” he said.

What's the motivation?

And he said he tries to find out from companies he’s advising or considering investing in what their prime motivation is.  When push comes to shove, that’s what will drive decision making, he said.

“The first question I always ask is why are you doing this?  What’s your expectation? It is lifestyle choice?  Do you need to make some shareholders money?”

In his case, Synott said his motivation for founding the company was more personal than palate-driven.  While he liked the original granola and was intrigued by the category, Flatley was the original formulator. Synott said he wanted to build something that could bring him success enough to start a family and to have something of which they could be proud.

“It was about doing something I loved and making a difference at it and doing something that my kids would be proud of looking back because there is going to be a history of it,” he said.

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