Plum - which was acquired by New Jersey-based Campbell Soup in 2013 but still operates out of Emeryville, in San Francisco Bay – was the first company to introduce a spouted baby food pouch to the US market, a format that now accounts for almost a third (32%) of category sales.
However, it has also been driving much of the growth in the toddler food category since launching its ‘Mighty’ platform in early 2014, and is looking to capture a bigger share of the kids’ food market overall, senior vice president marketing and brand innovation Ben Mand told FoodNavigator-USA.
“When you think about toddlers and young children, parents are starting to use products that are not in the baby food aisle, but haven’t been formulated with a two year old in mind. But it’s hard when there’s not a designated area of the store for these products. They are all over the store.
“We’re driving a lot of innovation in healthy snacks for toddlers and our mash-up pouches are the #1 organic pouch in the apple sauce aisle. We’ve got some great meatballs with ancient grains, veggies and organic meats that we are doing as an exclusive with Target and we have had really positive feedback.”
Millennial consumers like mission-driven companies
So what’s happening in the baby food category right now?
According to Mand: “Retailers are giving a lot more space to organic versus conventional, almost 30% of the category is now organic. The heritage brands Beech-Nut and Gerber have launched organic lines, but they really haven’t caught on in the way that Plum has, because they deliver organic, but they are not really mission driven, or seen to be all about authenticity, which is what Millennial consumers are looking for.”
As for recipe development, Plum has been leading the market, claimed Mand: “We introduced ancient grains, Greek yogurt, herbs and spices – things that will develop the palette of little ones. We’re very food-forward in our formulations, very culinary-focused.
“Through new platforms such as Grow Well (four new products: bone, dha, muscle, tummy) we’re also homing in on kids’ specific nutritional needs. For example, one of the top reasons that young children go to the doctor is due to digestive issues, so we have a ‘tummy’ formula [made with organic pear, peach, pumpkin and prune purees plus ginger and chia seeds with 3g fiber per serving].
“Over the last three fiscal years, Plum’s compounded annual growth was over three times the growth of all other organic brands combined.”
HPP: We’re watching and learning
“It’s certainly very interesting, and we’re watching and learning, but these are not something you can necessarily put in your diaper bag and go out all day with [HPP products have to be refrigerated], so they are more for at-home occasions for parents that like to make their own baby food, but don’t always have the time.”
As for the claims made by HPP baby food players that their products are fresher and more nutritious than products such as Plum’s because they haven’t been heat treated, he said: “In a perfect world we wouldn’t eat any packaged food, we’d all make our own baby food. But life gets in the way, and sometimes you need something convenient and shelf stable.”
The ‘inner circle’
As to how Plum stays ahead of the trends, a lot of innovations and insights have come from the Plum ‘inner circle’ panel of around 100 Moms and Dads, who help the brand understand what parents need and how they use products, he said.
“What we keep hearing is that parents still don’t have a lot of confidence about navigating the category and making the right choices for their babies and children.
“I remember one Mom I spoke to who said that the first time she shopped the category the choices were so overwhelming she went home in tears without buying anything. We need to work with retailers based on our understanding of how parents shop the aisle. Historically they have worked with brand such as Gerber and Beech-Nut [as category captains] but we address a different set of consumers that these brands aren’t reaching.”
Life under the corporate umbrella
So what is life like operating under the Campbell Foods corporate umbrella?
Not massively different from life before, said Mand, who joined in 2012, just prior to the 2013 deal with Campbell:
“Campbell has a history of making acquisitions and leaving well enough alone, although we’ve really benefited from things like being part of the SAP system, and leveraging distribution networks, trucks and back end stuff that from a sustainability perspective is actually really powerful as it has helped us lower our environmental footprint.
Day to day, he said, “We don’t have a ton of interaction with them; their mission for Plum is to continue our mission, so from a marketing and innovation and mission perspective, they have been fully supportive.
“Right after the acquisition, we incorporated in Delaware as a public benefit corporation, we were the first public benefit company to be owned by a public company. That was really important to us.”
Natural or organic?
There has been an ongoing debate within the industry about whether consumers understand the difference between ‘natural’ and organic’, so as an organic brand, is Plum pleased to see the FDA finally get involved in the debate over what is, or isn’t, ‘natural’ on food labels?
Said Mand: “For a long time I think consumers have been confused about the difference between natural and organic, so anything that might make things simpler and more understandable for consumers is a good thing.”
The same reasoning underpins the brand’s decision to go through the Non-GMO Project verification process for so many of its products, despite the fact that they are all non-GMO be definition, as they are organic, he said. “We’ve debated this internally, but many consumers just like that extra level of verification, so we’ve gone ahead and done it.”
*As of November 1, 2015, IRI, U.S. Multi-Outlet data