Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: How to become a break-out brand in a crowded category

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Watching models strut down a runway in hoop skirts, feather boas or acid washed denim that likely will never end up in the average consumer’s closet may seem like a waste of time for busy food and beverage entrepreneurs – but it also could reveal the key to CPG success.

According to better-for-you food entrepreneur Jason Cohen, who has struck gold in the competitive food and beverage industry not once but seven times in the past 15 years as the co-founder and CEO of Halen Brands, CPG companies can learn a lot from the fashion industry about how to stand out on store shelves and connect with consumers on a deeper lifestyle level.

He explained that what people eat and drink today is about more than sustenance – it is about accessorizing to portray themselves as healthy, confident and on-trend.

In addition to providing keen fashion tips, Cohen shared several tips on what it takes to become a break-out brand based on what qualities Halen Brands looks for before investing in a company. This includes solid packaging; products that are fun as well as functional; strong intellectual property and relationships with the right people who can take a brand to the next level.

Follow fashion to stay on-trend

These factors, starting with fashion-inspired packaging, were the recipe for success Halen Brands had turning the jerky brand Chef’s Cut from a $400,000 brand sold primarily on golf courses to an $80 million brand within two years, and in transforming popcorn brand Skinny Pop from a $7 million niche brand into one that Goldman Sachs took public for $1.3 billion.

“Part of our secret sauce is we have got a lot of friends or investments in some on-trend clothing companies, and when we are designing packaging we ask them what are some of the hot colors coming out in the fall, or what are the trends people are looking for,”​ Cohen said.

He explained that packaging “is a really important aspect. … For Skinny Pop it was the name skinny. It empowered people to feel comfortable about over indulging. For Chef’s Cut it is just a very clean artisan bag with some vibrant colors resonating with the most important attributes of the product, which are it is a chef-based product and it has a strong amount of protein in it.”

He adds in general consumers want simple words that are not overly confusing. They also do not want anything “medicinal”​ or that highlights problems with which they are grappling.

Based on what is hitting the runways now, he predicts sleek will packaging will continue to resonate, but so will bright blues, white and silver. He joked that black is the new white and that combining glossy and matte finishes are in.

But when it comes to packaging, fashion isn’t everything. Cohen says functionality also plays a big role in why consumers keep coming back. For example, one of the aspects that made Cohen’s Veggie Straws so successful was when consumers opened the package, it was filled to the top and there weren’t a lot of broken pieces.

Consumers just want to have fun

In this way, functionality leads to fun, which is another key to success in the competitive food and beverage industry.

“Trying to change the way people eat, trying to change people’s taste and trying to get people to eat food without emotion is a really tough pass to win, and if you can get a great product that has great attributes and tastes great – well then there is not really much you need to do to sell it because there is not many of those on the marketplace,”​ he said.

But there are a few from Halen Brands’ portfolio that stand out to Cohen in this regard. Chef’s Cut jerky stands out because it is so soft that people can eat it on a sandwich and Skinny Pop is empowering because it is clean and light so people feel proud to eat it.

It’s not just what you know, it is who you know

One of the lessons that Cohen learned early in his career is that to succeed startups need more than just a good idea and funding, they also need guidance from those who have gone down the same path before them. And this is exactly what Halen Brands, which touts itself as a company by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, provides.

“We are not an investment firm. Over the years of building and selling brands, what I have notices as an entrepreneur myself is there were only two forms of getting money. There was the friends and family and the venture capitalists, and neither one of them provided you with the insights and the relationships that you really needed to get going,”​ he said.

Halen Brands does. It has designers, marketers, sales, finance and retailing staff all on hand to help its brands succeed.

Halen Brands is hoping to use all these resources to build another winner out of its recently acquired plant-protein brand Only What You Need, or OWYN, which Cohen says demonstrates in spades the key attributes of a successful brand that he laid out.

He explains that the brands plant-based protein drink doesn’t taste like a protein drink. It tastes like a mainstream product, but packs 20 grams of plant-based protein, high levels of omega-3s and -6s, has only four grams of sugar and 180 calories and only 180 calories.

Unlike many protein drinks, the company skipped the Tetra Pak in favor of a bottle that felt “cool” and which kids would want to drink on soccer field or basketball court.

Brace yourself – and others

Whenever Halen Brands takes on a new company, like OWYN, Cohen advises the entrepreneurs to brace not only themselves for what giving 110% to a business means, but also those around them.

“You have to set up not only yourself, but the people around you to understand that you are going for it. This is going to take 110% of your time, which means that there is going to be sacrifices at home, there are going to be things that other people are doing on a Friday or Saturday night or going to a Sunday football game that you need to be in the office. You need to be thinking 24/7 on what is going on and how to make your business successful. … The problem that a lot of people have is they haven't really sat down with their family and told them what it is going to take and I see that disruption with entrepreneurs,”​ he said.

When to say goodbye

After investing countless hours and endless love into getting a brand off the ground, letting go can be difficult – even if it is what is best for the brand. Cohen also shared advice for knowing when to let go, and how to make amends with that decision.

He said the first major sale an entrepreneur makes should validate them as a brand-maker in the eyes of investors and retailers, so that when they start then next venture they already have a leg up over where they were first time.

It also should provide them an extra level of financial comfort, which can help remind entrepreneurs that a business should be built profitably.

Don’t listen to me

Reflecting on the overall process of getting a new brand off the ground, Cohen’s final piece of advice to new entrepreneurs is to know when to ignore advice.

“Don’t take advice from everybody,”​ because everybody is going to have an opinion and they will conflict, Cohen said. “As an entrepreneur you really have to dig your heals in and be committed to what you want to do and just utilize people like myself to bounce off your gut, but not necessarily change your plan.”

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