Clif Bar & Co.’s Trailblazer Incubator pushes into new categories, underscores commitment to bold innovation

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Clif Bar & Co.
Source: Clif Bar & Co.

Related tags: Clif bar, Innovation

Undeterred by the chaos of the pandemic, including supply chain challenges and retailers significantly scaling back selection and even pausing new product introductions, an elite, cross-functional team of innovators at Clif Bar & Co. secretly pushed forward to explore and create sustainable business opportunities as part of the company’s ambitious plan to double its business to $2b.

Emerging from stealth mode today, Clif’s new in-house ventures group, the Trailblazers Incubator, is ready to take the company best known for its oat-based energy bars into completely new, and potentially unexpected, categories, Clif’s chief innovation officer Rizal Hamdallah told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Each member of the team has their own discipline, from product architect to supply and design, and they operate like a startup company within Clif, which is very important because we needed to give them their own space to operate like an incubator … so they could learn how to innovate fast,”​ think outside of the box – uninhibited by the company’s historical viewpoints, layers of reporting and other red tape – and take Clif to new places, Hamdallah said.

He explained that by empowering the team “more than anyone else,”​ they came up with an unexpected but “bold”​ new product line that will take Clif into a completely new category for the company: pet treats.

CLIF Pet will introduce next month a line of plant-based jerky snacks for dogs made from only seven ingredients, including sweet potatoes and berries, that are recommended under the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ guidelines.

The result is a completely safe product that is “delicious,”​ according to Hamdallah, who based his assessment on the number of Clif employees’ dogs that have found their way to his office where he keeps some of the treats.

Hamdallah acknowledges moving into the pet category “takes a little bit of guts and braveness,”​ but with more than 11 million US households bringing pets home during the pandemic, Clif believes the category is ripe for new offerings.

He explained that the new line will tap into the humanization of pets – a trend that characterizes pet owners and “fur parents” and which many Millennials and Gen Zers are leveraging for practice before adding to their families human children, who could one day be loyal Clif consumers.

The expansion also represents a natural extension of Clif’s DNA as a brand that fuels adventures given how many people take their pets – especially dogs – with them on hikes, bike rides and other outdoor escapades, Hamdallah said. 

As such, the new line could help Clif reach a new subset of consumers for its human products through the pet food aisle. Hamdallah explained that upon discovering the CLIF branded pet treats, new consumers may also be inspired to find corresponding treats for themselves in the human snack aisle.

Clif’s Trailblazer Incubator also is aggressively building a pipeline of new products for people, including snacks that Hamdallah says will role out soon and be “completely disruptive.”

All of the new products, for pets and people, build on a flurry of innovation introduced by Clif in the past year and a half as part of its goal​ to double its business and impact.

Recent launches that CEO Sally Grimes previously described to FoodNavigator-USA as “fit for movement” ​include crunch Clif Thins that come in a 100-calorie pack and are ideal for a mid-afternoon snack, and Pop’n Crunch clusters that combine nutrient dense ingredients such as seeds and nuts with indulgent but healthy flavors.

Many of the new launches seek to take Clif beyond the bar segment and expand its appeal to active mainstream consumers and not just the hardcore athletes for whom the company was founded.

‘We want to build a culture of innovation’

Clif’s creation of the Trailblazer Incubator and dedication to innovation throughout the pandemic, when many other manufacturers and retailers scaled back production and paused new product development, speaks volumes about the ethos that Grimes and her new leadership are establishing at the company, Hamdallah said.

“We want to build a culture of innovation. We want to create that discipline … which is not always easy especially when there is pressure from the operational side,”​ but in the end it will help the company stay in touch with consumers and meet their needs much more efficiently than by focusing solely on acquisitions, Hamdallah explained.

He also said he is eager to take Clif’s innovative spirit beyond the walls of the company and team with other companies to lift up the industry as a whole.

He explained: “I’m a person who would like to partner with my friends at other companies to help each other to continuously innovate – especially now with supply chain challenges. A lot of companies have to start making choices, but I think the choice of innovating should still be on the table. That is something I am committed to and hope I can inspire other organizations to do the same thing.”

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