Does the influence of influencers really work? Does the industry even care?

The increasing presence—and money—of celebrities in the natural and organic products space might not be a good thing, this strategist says. Read more.

Max Kabat, Co-founder

April 10, 2024

5 Min Read

Thursday night of Natural Products Expo West was all about the Goodles party. One of the best hyped gatherings in years, people waited in line for the community, the dancing, the good times. A few notable celebrities took the stage to share the why of their business and why they got involved but the talking points were barely audible, overpowered by the hum of attendees catching up, decompressing and continuing to connect after a long day on the show floor.

It got me thinking. If celebrities boasting Hollywood fame and 25M+ IG followers are unable to break through to a captive group of industry insiders, is that type of strategy just white noise? What’s the true impact of influence? It’s no longer novel or new. It’s what is. How did we get here?

Influence in three parts

Galceau/Vitamin Water broke the mold. Let’s call it 1.0. A cap table full of athletes and musicians doubled as the faces on billboards and in TV commercials. While not a natural and organic brand, the technique Rohan Oza and team deployed morphed into a playbook. Sales and marketing team members that left ended up mainstays in Expo halls. They played the card again and again with mixed results. 

Celebrity-backed gave way to 2.0: The Co-Founder. Famous names evolved to do more than take equity stakes and provide their likeness. They started digging into the business, really packing a punch when fame walked into an investor’s office or a retailer’s sales meeting. It has always felt quite disingenuous and off to claim to be a co-founder after the brand had been in business. Did they really “find” anything or did they just help evolve it moving forward? Did the title make it feel more active than the actions? This isn’t to discredit the impact made. Anyhoo, suffice to say, again, this has been a mixed bag.

Related:Redefining success: Stop growing just for the sake of growth

“If celebs are turning their social media following and influence into owning and ‘running’ CPG businesses, what can I do with my xM+ following?” Enter 3.0: The Influencer Brand. Everyone could build their version of a Kardashian extension. A low barrier to entry made the possibilities endless. Sure, the talent is known, but what for? How closely is their influence tied to the brand or product they’re hawking? Has the industry seen so much of this we’ve become somewhat numb to an announcement of yet another launch?

For every success story like that of Once Upon a Farm, there’s the other side. WTRMLN WTR, offering a variety of cold-pressed watermelon juice blends, boasted Beyoncé, Tony Robbins and NBA stars as investors, only to be sold to Caribé Juice about seven years after its founding. Hello Bello, a baby-care brand started by actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard—who also are married—grew and grew, only to file for bankruptcy in October and be taken over by a private-equity firm. It launched in 2019; the CEO said higher shipping costs and delayed material shipments during the COVID pandemic irreparably harmed the company.

Related:The future looks bright for the natural and organic products industry

For all the Casamigos and Aviation Gin liquor brand success, it just hasn’t worked at the same rate for the natural products world. Why is that? What’s the missing ingredient?

The truth is, influence doesn’t make a product taste good. It doesn’t come with a manual, nor mean you have the stomach to navigate the challenges of running a startup, the operational know-how to scale or a keen ability to build the right team. Being a fast or slow follower doesn’t guarantee repeat success. If something isn’t working, money can’t fix it. And it doesn’t mean your idea has product market fit.

You see, the hard thing about hard things is that they’re hard. This business is hard, and I wonder if being an influencer brand signifies to the market that you’re looking to cut corners? Or maybe it gives off the wrong appearance and raises unrealistic expectations of success and how fast it needs to happen? Can virality turn into something long term or is it just a fleeting moment, pump-and-dump scenario where one group is looking to leave another holding the bag?

What’s next

Being true to who and what you are has traditionally provided staying power in this business. Call it authenticity. Influence even. Credibility and believability is what 3.0 has been looking to nail and it sure feels like there’s two camps: trying to achieve it and living it.

While some brands are born inside talent agencies, Momofuku’s offerings come from endless hours in the kitchen. The new line of Korean BBQ sauces have the perfect viscosity and balance highlighted by a tangy finish. It all took more than one-and-a-half years to get right, an unheard of amount of time when young brands churn out collabs and limited-time offers on a whim. Sure, the likes of Rick Bayless (Frontera) and Nancy Silverton (La Brea) made the idea of restaurant-to-retail a thing, but Momofuku’s credibility doesn’t come from a playbook. It comes from building accessible products that achieve culinary excellence. On repeat.

So, what’s next? Forget the slap a celeb-as-a-founder on it. Give us founders with expertise and a differentiated product building themselves into influencers: Immi, Better Sour, Fly by Jing, A Dozen Cousins, Sanzo, Fila Manila and Nguyen Coffee, to name a few. If they partner with celebrity for reach and capital, well, that’s even better. More long-term thinking that comes from the heart. A story that can last. Less short-term opportunism.

Mushrooms were everywhere. Again. In jerky, coffee, RTDs. Maybe even being micro dosed? And sauces on condiments on sauces on condiments. In all the formats. But to me the trend of the show was the influencer saturation. When the teenage kiddo of an investor is picking out as many influencers in the rows as the parent is finding interesting opportunities, the universe is telling us something.

Four weeks later, we can confidently say Expo was fire, as they say. The newbies loved it. The old timers said it felt like old times. The curmudgeons complained. Onesies, members only jackets and matching outfit merch games shined. It was Expo West at its finest. And maybe that’s the actual influence we all came for.

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About the Author(s)

Max Kabat

Co-founder, goodDog

Max Kabat is co-founder at goodDog, a brand and growth strategy consultancy that helps mostly mid-stage, founder-built, mission-driven companies grow by articulating a singular storyline for the business and locating an audience to grow toward, then bringing it to market. He also is a local news entrepreneur and advocate as the co-founder of the 5% Challenge and co-owner, with his wife, of The Big Bend Sentinel and the cafe and retail space, The Sentinel, that supports it in far west Texas.

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