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Steven Hoffman, Compass Natural Compass Natural

On the organic trail: A visit to Whole Foods’ innovation summit

Even as natural products retail grows, established companies and innovative startups want their products in this national chain.

Editor’s note: During May, Compass Natural’s Managing Director Steven Hoffman traveled the Western Hemisphere visiting organic hot spots. In this three-part series, he shares what he learned in Austin, Texas, Costa Rica and Washington, D.C.

For a relatively small town, Boulder, Colorado, features quite the concentration of natural products entrepreneurship and resources available for both startups and established businesses is like few other places. It’s a pretty great place to base a marketing agency that is dedicated to natural, organic and mission-based brands.

Yet, after a long winter and having received a small handful of unexpected invitations, I packed my bags. My nearly month-long road trip began with a visit to Whole Foods Market’s global headquarters in Austin, Texas, to attend a unique brand innovation summit and ended by participating in the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Week in Washington, D.C. There, yours truly served as a speaker and sponsor of the Organic Trade Association’s annual policy conference, which included lobbying visits to congressional offices.

In between, I took advantage of a unique opportunity to travel to Costa Rica—where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s—to visit and learn about a number of permaculture, regenerative organic and sustainable agriculture operations and educational institutions in a country that has taken the lead on sustainability and climate change in Latin America.

From Punta Mona—an educational permaculture farm located where the Caribbean Sea meets the coastal rainforest, reachable only by boat or hiking trail—and EARTH University—the world’s leading sustainable tropical agriculture institution, drawing more than 400 students and researchers from over three dozen countries—our Costa Rica tour took us to Finca Luna Nueva (New Moon Farm), a 300-acre biodynamic farm and eco-resort whose founders are dedicated to promoting sustainable building and regenerative agriculture.

Mo Seigel, former Whole Foods board member, 5-2-19, Steven Hoffman

Mo Siegel, former Whole Foods Market board member, opens the innovators summit on May 2.

Whole Foods Market is the place for innovative and established brands

With a lower pricing strategy and a renewed commitment to supporting brand innovation, Whole Foods Market hosted on May 2-3 Secrets to a Healthy Brand Strategy, an invitation-only summit that matched some of the world’s largest food companies with unique startup and emerging brands.

I was invited to the brand strategy summit after getting to know Michael Schall on a hiking trail during an earlier trip to Hill Country outside of Austin. Schall, senior coordinator of global growth and business development for Whole Foods Market, is also former CEO of Manischewitz Kosher Foods and Guiltless Gourmet. A very knowledgeable and experienced business leader and one heck-of-a-nice person, after learning of my work, he insisted I attend. How could I possibly say no?

At the summit, I met Wes Hurt, a recovering drug addict and founder of CLEAN Cause, a sparkling Yerba Mate beverage company that donates 50% of its profits—nearly $300,000 to date—to support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. I also spoke with Peter McGuinness, CMO of Chobani. While the company has an unsurpassed social mission, I asked McGuinness if Chobani is considering coming out with certified organic products—produced without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones—to serve a core organic consumer like me. While Chobani’s yogurt products are not produced organically, McGuinness mentioned the company is exploring some plant-based offerings made with organic ingredients—a positive move for people and the planet, in my respectful opinion.

My takeaway: Competition is everywhere today, yet Whole Foods Market continues to be the mecca of natural and organic products—it is the place where the largest multinational corporations as well as local startups aspire to sell their products. And its association with Amazon, while infrequently mentioned during the conference, was certainly felt. In my perspective, the leadership at Whole Foods is energized and empowered to expand the company’s influence and reach and further enhance the bridge between brick and mortar and online retail. Whole Foods remains the gold standard in natural products retailing.

Steven Hoffman is managing director of Compass Natural, providing brand marketing, public relations, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. Contact steve@compassnaturalmarketing.com.

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