Whole Foods vets say ‘don’t try to be all things’ to win at sustainability game

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Image Credit: Getty Images - AJ_Watt
Image Credit: Getty Images - AJ_Watt

Related tags Sustainability Organic Whole foods

When it comes to delivering on consumer sustainability demands, food and beverage CPG companies must juggle many plates from developing flavorful products to ensuring their supply chains are environmentally secure. But above all, brands need to focus on authenticity and not try to appeal to everyone to win in this space, a panel of former Whole Foods leaders shared during a webinar hosted by CPG consulting company Brandjectory.

During the webinar, independent Consultant Errol Schweizer, B. Riley Financial Consultant Michael Schall, Foxtrot SVP Private Label and Supply Chain Mitchell Madoff, and Simpactful Senior Consultant Bobby Turner, shared insights into the trends that they noticed throughout their careers, including their time at Whole Foods, and how brands can best position themselves to win consumers, especially in the sustainability space.  

Don’t be all things to all consumers

When asked about the number one trend or product that has transformed the CPG industry, Schweizer pointed out "the unprecedented growth of USDA organic seal​," which he noted is about a $60bn dollar market. While "it's not perfect,​" the USDA organic seal is the "gold standard for sustainability,” he said. The USDA organic seal has also raised many organic issues with the mainstream, including sustainable agriculture, what’s in food, fair prices to farmers, and more, he added. 

With a more educated consumer base, brands need to respond in an authentic way, but it’s also important that brands “don't try to be all things to all people,​” Turner said. From his experience, Turner has seen many founders going from creating a product to fix a problem, “but then the brand ends up with 12 flavors​” to appeal to a wider consumer base. “They go way too wide before going deep,​” he added. 

I think brands go down the rabbit hole in the sense of trying to be all things, and it's really about knowing who your customer base, or your tribe is, and really building that.​”

Going beyond sustainability: How flavor, differentiation factor in

And just as the demand and growth of organic products have increased, the technology to meet some of these label requirements and consumer trends has come a long way, as Schall pointed out. And flavor remains a key driver of consumer behavior. 

One thing that never changes is flavor, and I know that sounds pretty benign, but the reality is consumers buy food products and beverages because they taste good,” Schall said. “So, I think that one of the trends that we've seen in the past is the refinement of flavors and the ability for more technology in natural flavors to emerge to the point where we're getting more globalization of flavors.​”

While it’s not only important for brands to differentiate from their competition – with flavors and product claims – it’s also important to have a “point of preference​” and understand why consumers prefer to choose one brand over another brand, Schall said.

I call it brand ethos. For those brands that are meaningful, whether meaningful means sustainable or regenerative agriculture, … it's important to have that connection, and that's where I see the point of difference and point preference becoming more important for brand owners today.​”

Picking up on that point, Madoff also noted that consumers sometimes don’t know what they want until they see it. “If you went to folks back in the day, before there were cars, and you asked them how they wanted to travel faster, they would just say, 'build me a faster horse,'​” Madoff added.

So, while flavors can be a consumer driver, brands need to go beyond the current moment of trying “to emulate what customers like​” and find products that are net new, Madoff said. “You really have to think about what is different; that customers don't even know they want and then they get it, they are like ‘Man, I don't know how I lived without that product before.’​”

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