How to build a ‘passion’ brand like GT’s Kombucha and Hyland’s Teething Tablets

You know you have a strong brand when consumers literally freak out when the brand is pulled from the market. This was the case for both GT’s Kombucha and Hyland’s Teething Tablets last year.

Late last June, Whole Foods Market yanked GT Kombucha and other brands selling raw versions of the fermented tea beverage from its stores, after testing found elevated alcohol levels in kombucha drinks. The move was followed by other natural products retailers pulling all raw kombucha brands, as well as by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Treasury stepping in to make sure that any kombucha sold in the United States strictly adheres to all federal alcohol labeling laws.

As GT’s Kombucha Founder GT Dave told me, fans of his product “went ballistic” once it was no longer available for purchase. “When the product was taken away from them, they refused to move on,” he said. Fans of the product began begging for its return on Facebook, Twitter and other Internet sites. The event was even recently satirized in Dave Wittman’s wickedly popular “Whole Foods Parking Lot” YouTube rap video: “Take it easy man, I try to calm myself. I’ve been on edge ever since they took kombucha off the shelf.”

Dave says the outpouring of customer (and retailer) support for and love of GT’s products helped him and his company weather a “terrible” time. “It was what kept us strong and optimistic.”

A similar explosion of consumer fervor resulted last October, when the Standard Homeopathic Company voluntarily pulled its popular Hyland’s Teething Tablets from all retail shelves. The move occurred after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found some inconsistent amounts of belladonna in the products. Upon word of the recall, parents throughout the United States began flooding the Internet with messages of support for Hyland’s Teething Tablets.

“We are seeing a lot of consumer passion out there for Hyland’s Teething Tablets,” Standard Homeopathic Co. CEO Jay Borneman told me last November. “One of the early online posts we saw from a consumer said, ‘You’ll get your Teething Tablets back from me when you peel them out of my cold, dead hands.’”

So what can other natural, organic and healthy products companies learn from passion brands such as GT’s Kombucha and Hyland’s Teething Tablets? Here are a few observations from my conversations with both companies:

  • Stand for something. As GT Dave sees it, his kombucha resonates with consumers because it was created from his personal passion for supporting health and wellness. “My mission and purpose is to offer kombucha’s health benefits to those people who can’t make [the drink] on their own,” says Dave, who created the company after seeing the health benefits it provided his mother during her battle with breast cancer. “Every decision I make is in line with that.” This included the decision to go through the expense and legal hoops required to create a “21 and over” kombucha line based on his company’s classic formula.
  • Connect personally. GT Dave is more than the founder and namesake of GT’s Kombucha—he remains the heart and soul of the company, which invests no money in traditional advertising or marketing yet has grown to be the largest kombucha brand on the market. “I strive to make my brand more than just a bottle and label,” Dave said. This philosophy is reflected in GT’s website, which captures the poignant story of Laraine Dave’s recovery from breast cancer and GT Dave’s personal passion for organic, raw kombucha.
  • Be willing to make hard decisions. When Standard Homeopathic pulled Hyland’s Teething Tablets from the market, the company acknowledged publicly that improvements could be made to its manufacturing processes to deal with the product inconsistencies found by the FDA. Said Borneman: “If anybody at any time introduces me to information that would make me believe that I might be wrong about the absolute safety of a product, I need to act on it—and that is what we did.”
  • Listen to your customers. Standard Homeopathic also made the decision to adhere to FDA advice and add a child-safety cap to product, even though the company’s CEO admits feeling conflicted about the change. “To me, a child-resistant cap signals to parents that a product might not be safe—which is not the case for Hyland’s Teething Tablets,” Borneman told me. “But moms now are used to everything having child-resistant caps on them and that is the direction we are moving in, too. The good part is this new packaging might provide more peace of mind to parents.”
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