Founded by food industry veterans and parents of young children Jonathan Wolfson and Mark Brooks, Ingenuity Brands debuted in 2019 with whole milk refrigerated yogurts, tubes, and drinks squarely aimed at kids, with cartoon-style graphics and the ‘Brainiac’ brand front and center.
It went on to launch shelf-stable applesauce pouches featuring 160mg of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA/EPA, 120mg of choline, and 25mg Vitamin C with no added sugar, which took off during the pandemic at retailers including Walmart, prompting the firm to reassess its strategy.
“Stocking up became quite the thing during the pandemic, and our applesauce really took off,” Brooks told FoodNavigator-USA. “But the cold chain became really challenging, and shelf stable products took over.”
That said, Ingenuity Brands “never set out to be a yogurt company,” he pointed out.
“We started with yogurt, but it’s always been about taking everyday foods and adding a meaningful amount of the right nutrients for the brain that are supported by science. Foods that are affordable, accessible, and super tasty. Omega threes and choline are just as important for prenatal, infants, kids, adults, and seniors, so we've expanded our aperture to be all of the family, although all of our formats remain super kid-friendly, lunchbox friendly.”
Brain Butter and Brain Bars have secured national retail listings
Building on the success of the applesauce pouches – which Brooks and Wolfson learned were being consumed by adults as well as kids – the firm is now rolling out ‘Brain Butter’ (nut butters with DHA omega-3 and choline) and ‘Brain Bars' (with ALA omega-3,* lutein, choline, and prebiotic fiber), which have each just secured national listings at a major food retailer and will be showcased at the Natural Products Expo West show next month.**
Additional products in the pipeline include ‘Little Brainiac’ USDA organic fruit and veggie ‘brain squeezies’ for young kids with EPA and DHA omega-3s, choline, lutein, and vitamin C.
Each product format has involved different co-packers, which has been challenging to set up during the pandemic, although having a successful launch (the applesauce) in one category “helps build credibility in another,” noted Brooks.
“I think the fact we're bringing something new to a category, and can show very positive consumer reviews on Amazon also helps [convince co-packers to work with a new client], and we’ve found some very good partners.”
While the past 12-18 months “have not been too much fun on the freight side and the cost side,” observed Brooks, trying to keep the products at affordable price points without annihilating margins has been a top priority.
“We’re extremely passionate about the idea that closing the brain nutrition gap is an everyday need, not an occasional treat, and that's why Walmart is our lead customer.”
The new branding: Standing out in a crowded space
The new branding – which features block colors to help stand out on shelf – puts the brain food message front and center (‘Brain Bar,’ ‘Brain Butter,’ ‘Brain Fuel’), said Brooks, who said the brand has been deliberately on-the-nose about its core point of difference from the outset.
“What we need to do in a very crowded space, particularly bars, is magnify our point of difference, but we will continue to iterate.”
E-commerce: ‘You can absolutely lose your shirt if you try and compete in a space that you're not equipped to’
While the Brainiac brand is steadily growing its retail footprint on the back of its success at Walmart, it is also committed to driving e-commerce sales, said Brooks, with robust sales on Amazon, Thrive Market, Hungryroot, and its own website, and partnerships with the e-commerce sites of major retailers
“Our applesauce on Thrive Market is performing tremendously, and walmart.com is another channel we're paying very close attention to. I've seen Walmart embrace us as a small brand and other small brands in a way that is an absolute role model for other retailers [whose e-commerce partnership programs are sometimes out of the reach of smaller brands], they've been incredible. There are programs being built that we can afford, that are within reach, and they can be effective.
“But you can absolutely lose your shirt if you try and compete in a space that you're not equipped to, so brands have to be quite cautious as the economics don't work for every product because of weight or the average order value isn’t there.”
We are only a 10-person company with products in over 10,000 points of distribution, and by the middle of the year, I expect to be double that
He added: “I’m very proud to say our original investors are still our investors and we’re well capitalized to fuel growth in the next couple of years. We are only a 10-person company with products in over 10,000 points of distribution, and by the middle of the year, I expect to be double that.
“But we’re trying not to get too far over our skis in terms of in terms of how we run the company; we don’t want to build a massive organization with a high burn rate.”
*The short chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA – which Brainiac is sourcing from chia seeds – is not very efficiently converted into the longer-chain omega-3s associated with brain health such as DHA. However, adding DHA directly to the bar format has been challenging, says co-founder Mark Brooks, who says the next iteration of the bar will contain DHA.
**Brainiac Foods will be exhibiting at the Natural Products Expo West trade show this year at booth N1402