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Articles from 2019 In December


[email protected]: Advisers question EPA rollbacks | What's coming in 2020?

Getty Images EPA’s scientific advisers warn its regulatory rollbacks clash with established science

EPA’s scientific advisers: Regulatory rollbacks clash with established science

A panel of EPA scientific advisers—mostly appointed by President Donald Trump—is criticizing the rolling back of environmental regulations that the agency is pushing. The lower standards affect waterways, wetlands, gas mileage for automobiles and even the pollutants allowed from coal-fired power plants. The changes aren't backed by established science and raise questions about the agency's political motivations, says a former adviser. Read more at The Washington Post

 

How food might change in 2020

Whether you look back one year or 10, food changes have been big and swift: meatless meat sold at fast-food restaurants; cult groceries expanding across the country; fast-casual restaurants filling an unknown gap; and unexpected popularity of fruits and vegetables such as avocados and kale. So what's coming in 2020? Chickpeas? Seasonings? West African ingredients? Read more at Bloomberg

 

A climate change evangelist takes on Hollywood

Anna Jane Joyner, the daughter of "an evangelical Christian empire" founder, couldn't convince her father that climate change is caused by humans. But that setback didn't stop her from campaigning for clean water, against fossil fuels and in protection of the people most affected by climate change. Using her knowledge of fundamentalist Christian beliefs and the Bible, she recruited Christians to her cause. Now, she wants to get Hollywood involved. Read more at Grist.org

 

Behind the plate: Looking at the food industry in 2020

Climate change is going to drive innovations and propel some agricultural practices into the mainstream in the coming year, Foodprint.org predicts. The nonprofit dedicated to improving the use of sustainable practices in food production and consumption expects to see expansion of regenerative agriculture, increased fighting against deforestation, growth in the market for hemp foods and products, better laws protection ag workers and more. Read more at Foodprint.org

 

Healthy, natural foods became trendy in the 2010s

OK, the cronut and hot chicken made their mark on this decade's food trends, but so have many things the natural foods community embraces. Food columnist Lucas Kwan Peterson share his irreverent take on 15 foods—good and bad—that grabbed the country's attention for at least a while in the past 10 years. Read more at Los Angeles Times

NBJ

Does location matter for running a natural products brand?

Boulder City Limits

In 1992, the internet was something scientists used to trade lab results. Cell phones were barely downsized from bricks. Fax machines were still a thing.

And Dan Lohman was working from home. 

Closing out his third decade from the home office as a category management consultant, he’s still wondering why natural product companies are huddled in enclaves like Boulder, Austin and Brooklyn, keeping offices in high-rent locales, and paying high wages to keep staff in high-cost-of-living regions.

It doesn’t make sense, he says. Brands are limiting the number and kinds of people they can hire and not getting as much out of them as they could.

“I started working today at 5 a.m. and if I worked in an office, I might not be able to get into the building until 8 or 9,” he says.

The work-from-anywhere career that Lohman figured out in the early '90s is far easier today. Video conferencing happens over a phone, as easy on the beach as in a boardroom. A product developer can share screens with a sourcing manager from the opposite end of the country. And all of this in an industry where co-packing has separated management from the means of production by whole time zones.

And yet, Boulder, Austin, Brooklyn and a few other cities remain a constellation of “Silicon Valleys” of natural products. 

The question for entrepreneurs is how necessary it is to move to a natural products mecca and how expensive it is. In other words: What’s the ROI on a Boulder or Brooklyn? 

Anywhere but not everywhere

Eric Schnell of Beyond Brands chafes at the geographical restrictions the natural product industry has put on itself. Life in the bubbles is pleasant for people who enjoy the like-minded camaraderie, and can afford it, but how many brands can afford to keep themselves isolated from where their customers live and shop, he asks. “I could care less about the Boulder Mafia. I care where the consumers are,” Schnell says.

If you like “community,” he says, go to a trade show. “That’s what Expo East and Expo West are for,” he says. “To get together with the tribe.”

Schnell’s sentiment and Lohman’s workplace preference are far from universally accepted doctrine, however. Even people who say any brand can start anywhere, and practically has to given the high rents in those bubbles, also explain that brands can’t grow in isolation. They need the network of service providers—agencies, lawyers, marketing creatives, etc.—and more than that, they need the talent that’s not easy to find in Omaha or Albuquerque.

There’s a reason places like Boulder exist.

“It definitely does make an impact,” says Bob Burke, principal at Natural Products Consulting, speaking of cities he places among a “usual suspects” list for natural products. He also points to a talent element that exists outside the payroll but in the same community. CEOs, product developers and marketers interact with their counterparts from other companies, Burke explains. They trade ideas. It’s a form of “cross pollination,” he says. “I think it absolutely provides a peer support system. It helps people get up the learning curve faster."

Sylvia Tause, founder and branding consultant at the Fresh Ideas Group, is a big believer in the culture concept and cross pollination. She also believes in a kind of competition that drives companies out of complacency. “There’s a kind of healthy natural tension,” she says. Tause comes at that from a unique vantage point. She closed the Boulder office because her staff was working remotely often enough that paying rent didn’t make sense, but she still sees it as vital to do business within the face-to-face culture of Boulder, even if she commutes to that culture from her organic farm outside the city limits. Not every brand needs that, she says, but the fact that the natural product community in Boulder keeps growing—as recently evidence by Yasso Yogurt’s announced relocation—proves that many do.

“It really depends on how strong a network you have already or how strong a network you crave or seek.”

Mary Mulry of Foodwise is another who commutes to Boulder for business and the community. From Mulry’s perspective, as the industry gets bigger it becomes even more important to find a connection to places where that growth is happening. If there’s more going on, there’s more to miss, Mulry says. “If somebody said ‘Gee, I’d like to live in the Ozarks and run my company,’ they’re more like an island.” She doesn’t need to worry about such isolation. “Even if I don’t see people, I know I’m two degrees of separation from anybody I want to connect with.”

Roles and regions

Schnell keeps an office and an apartment in New York City, but he lives in rural Pennsylvania. He can get done most of what he needs to do from the country house. Still, he says, it’s different for brands. 

One of BeyondBrands’ programs is BeyondSKU, an accelerator program run out of New York City. They could only accept brands from the area. “They have to be in class with us every week,” Schnell explains. Accelerators and access to experienced natural products veterans on the level of the BeyondSKU instructors is rare outside of the major metro areas that are known for breeding brands for the space, Schnell notes.

There are not a lot of accelerators in Oklahoma.

Still, he says, Austin or Brooklyn or any of the other meccas are not going to make sense for a lot of brands or even most brands. Those brands should be thinking more about consumers than culture and camaraderie. A beverage brand might look for a market that’s not already been saturated with kombucha before trying to operate their kombucha company from a place where convenience stores have kombucha taps. “All products and all brands are different.” Schnell says. “They all have a little different nuance on where they should be based.”

No one answer

Susan Fecko, a PR professional at her Black Dog Studio, likes to talk about the work-from-anywhere concept and points out that one of her clients, Palm Done Right, stretches from Ecuador to Rotterdam. But then she reveals that Palm Done Right is headquartered in Boulder, as is Black Dog Studio. Still, she says, location should be secondary to a company’s intention. “It’s really about your mission and your culture,” she says, explaining that the logistics fall in to place no matter where you are. “If you are all aligned with the same mission and the same values, that’s how you can grow.” 

There’s no reason a company can’t be both tied tightly to one of the natural product hubs and operating from a scatter of laptops in various home offices and coffee shops, Fecko explains, and, indeed, almost any brand has to be both. Sales people are on the road and production people might be in a co-packing facility. So much work is outsourced that remote interaction is part and parcel of doing business. “It almost forces you, in some ways, to work more collaboratively,” she says.

Fecko wonders what the future holds for places like Boulder as millennials move into more decision-making roles. A generation accustomed to texting from one side of the room to another may not put the same value on face-to-face that earlier generations did. “I think you need community,” she says while explaining that the definition of community continues to evolve. Nobody talked about “online communities” a generation ago. The “satellite” office could easily be a WeWork location, or several WeWork locations in several cities. 

As Tause has proven by closing her Boulder office and working with her team as a digital entourage but remaining closely tied to the Boulder Scene, some combination of approaches can work. She is not opposed to video conference calls, but she appreciated a recent party invite from a family of brands headquartered in Boulder. “Does that happen in Nebraska?” she asks.

The fundamentals of place

As anybody who’s spent more than two or three Expos in the natural products industry knows, execution outpunches location. Whipstitch Capital Managing Director Mike Burgmaier says early round investors aren’t looking at the zip code. They’re looking at the product concept and if the company is living up to that concept. “I don’t think we’re going to believe in something more because of where they’re located,” Burgmaier says. “I think the fundamentals are still going to matter more than absolutely anything.”

That’s early in the brand cycle though, Burgmaier points out.

At some point in the company’s evolution, the gravity of a Brooklyn or an Austin or some major metropolitan area is going to tug the brand into its orbit. Small companies work well with small teams, but when the sales numbers climb, the size of the team must follow. Filling out that team roster is easier if there are more players around. “I do think location matters for being around an ecosystem of talent,” Burgmaier says.

Lohman has stopped believing in that go-where-the-talent-is strategy. Even moving to a metro area as major as New York City doesn’t mean a brand is going to find the right talent. Indeed, he says, casting the net wider and turning it into a digital net that allows the best employees to work from a location best suited to them makes more sense, he says. Line workers need to be where the facility is, but for most natural brands that’s in a co-packing facility nowhere near the office. Accounting and HR staff are available in almost any city. Meetings with advertising and marketing teams can happen from anywhere. The particular talent a company is looking for might prefer keeping their family in Atlanta rather than uprooting their lives to live in Austin.

“You can find people with the right skill sets if you are not in a position where everybody else thinks, ‘I can only hire people in Boulder.’”

NBJ

Hemp may be lost cause and not a lifeline for family farms

Hemp may be lost cause and not a lifeline for family farms

Looking out across the attendees at a NoCo Hemp Expo, Oregon hops farmer Mark McKay speaks of the hemp growers in attendance when he waves his hand across the crowd and declares, “in two years, all of these people will be gone.”

McKay has done little more than dabble in hemp farming by giving his son some acres on the family’s 550-acre Williamette Valley farm, but as a fifth-generation farmer, he knows something about how agriculture works. And what he knows tells him that the economics of growing hemp are not likely to be kind to farmers with smaller acreage and smaller resources, especially not when those farmers don’t have years of experience. Established farmers with the acres, the equipment and the experience are going to beat the small farms and newcomers on price and efficiency, he says.

“You don’t need many 2,000 or 4,000-acre guys to swallow a whole industry.”

That conclusion could be jarring to the voices heralding hemp as the savior of the family farm. In that vision, hemp is a lucrative lifeline that could wean growers on smaller farms off the doomed economic spiral of commodity crops and restore vitality to rural communities. That’s not what McKay sees when he looks at hemp. “Hemp’s going to have its day for a couple of years, and then it will get into the hands of the big guys,” McKay says.

To be clear, nobody said it was going to be easy, and even people who support the vision of restored rural economies see the challenges as formidable. Erica McBride-Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association, won’t dismiss McKay’s daunting predictions and says the goals of organizations like hers won’t be accomplished without hard work coordinated between growers, processors and brands. “That’s what I’m hopeful for,” she says, “because certainly one of the main reasons that we fought for this for so many years is to benefit the small and medium-sized farmer.”

In McBride-Stark’s view, there’s still runway left for small farms. Indeed, she says, even beyond the regulatory issues that have kept big players out thus far, industrialized agriculture has little reason to enter the fray just yet. There’s no hemp shortage looming, she observes. “I actually am more than a little bit concerned that supply and demand might be a little bit out of balance with how many more people are cultivating this year than have in the past.”

Such dynamics mean many farmers’ dreams may not be realized in the short term, but McBride-Stark says getting enough farmers into the business early was always part of the plan. “Our hope in this from the beginning was to have the small- and medium-sized farmer get enough of a foothold into the industry to be able to keep up with demand and that it won’t get to the point where Big Ag sees stepping in as being advantageous.”

Fiber and seed oil are different business propositions where scale has more advantage, McBride-Stark admits, but she believes the small farms that she’s talking about are producing for the CBD market, where quality eclipses economies of scale. “For CBD processing, I think that the small- to medium-sized farmer is going to have a pretty good beach in this market for quite some time.”

Green rush mentality

Veronica Carpio, the hemp-farmer founder of Grow Hemp Colorado and an outspoken voice for the potential of hemp as an economic benefit for rural communities isn’t so sure. She tells a story about a Chinese company buying land in Nevada to build greenhouses where they would grow hemp to supply GW Pharmaceuticals, makers of the only FDA-approved CBD drug, Epidiolex. American farmers could have supplied the hemp, she says. They weren’t asked. “They weren’t contracting with farmers, but they were buying up land.”

What Carpio sees is a “clear division” being defined in the hemp industry between growers and processors who are ready to see the hemp industry monetized and professionalized in a big business model and “another side who says everybody should benefit; the whole should benefit.”

That “everybody should benefit” model is at risk, she says. “Do I think the old schoolers that were part of this movement realized it was going to be corporately controlled? Hell, no. Do I think people involved now who are the self-proclaimed leaders of hemp know the possibilities of big corporate and Big Pharma taking it over versus fighting for the medium and small farmers and fair regulation? Yeah, I think they’re well aware of it.”

In the ground

Whatever the intentions, the practicalities of growing any crop at scale requires a level of expertise and resources McKay is convinced many in the current crop of hemp farmers don’t possess. Hops is a small crop in the scheme of things, but the investment is no small matter. McKay says hops farmers like him could step in and put those investments to bear in a way that would put much of the current hemp farming operations out of business. “The dryers are in place and the harvesters are in place,” he says. And that part of the equation doesn’t even account for the years of experience.

Drying operations alone cost millions, he says, and he gets calls from hemp farmers every day who want to use his drying equipment. He assumes most of them haven’t thought the process through. “I’m saying, ‘You have crop in the ground and you don’t know where you’re going to dry it?’”

The hops industry already has the extraction facilities too, he points out, a capacity that many in the hemp industry worry is in too short supply. “We’ve got the infrastructure in place. It’s just a matter of putting seeds in the ground,” McKay says. “We’d kill the market in one year.”

CV Sciences Director of Hemp Production Josh Hendrix doesn’t dismiss McKay’s warnings entirely. He foresees a commodity market for fiber and grain with all the negative connotations of “commodity,” but for the CBD market he sees “an opportunity to not let it become a bad commodity."

“I don’t necessarily think right now that hemp grain or hemp fiber is what people are talking about when they say this is good for the small farmer,” Hendrix says.

“We have an opportunity to do it the right way so there’s still value to the small farmer,” he says. Part of that is a matter of timing. Hemp has a “new, hip, cool thing” quality right now that dovetails nicely with the buy local/buy organic movement in terms of audience overlap, Hendrix says. He talks of it as a “gateway crop” that tugs conventional farmers into the organic space. That overlap and that first-mover factor could be enough to keep hemp-for-CBD in the hands of family farmers.

“The way I look at it with hemp is that Big Ag hasn’t taken an interest, so there is a door open for small farmers to come in and take the first-mover opportunity.”

Organic origins

John Roulac thinks what Hendrix describes is possible. He’s just worried that it’s not being realized. Roulac had a career in natural products founding NUTIVA before he founded RE Botanicals, basing the latter, a hemp CBD brand, on what he’d learned about organic ingredients. Organic is a nice match for hemp CBD, but it’s not happening with enough farmers and enough brands, he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the farm acres in America are not organic, and that’s where the vast majority of industrial hemp is being grown,” he says.

If it were happening more widely, he believes, organic hemp could keep the dietary supplement branch of the hemp supply chain rooted in family farms. But he sees little evidence that the fast-growing category is committed to organic standards. “Did you know that the vast majority of every hemp CBD brand is using Monsanto Roundup corn ethanol to process their CBD?” Roulac asks.

In that sense, the natural products industry, and the supplement industry in particular, is failing to stand up for farmers, Roulac says. “The natural food industry has given a hall pass to the CBD industry,” he says, explaining that there’s no paperwork or certification behind most organic claims for hemp. Organic certification wasn’t possible before the 2018 Farm Bill was passed and is still being worked out now.

Gone to seed

Whether hemp farmers need help to come from the natural products industry or not, they certainly need help, says Jeffrey McConnaughey, who, until early July, ran a hemp growing operation for the Rodale Institute to research how organic farming techniques could best be applied to the crop. Practices and techniques for growing hemp organically are not well established, and the genetics that would allow it to grow organically in different climates and latitudes have not been developed, McConnaughey says.

Without that support, small farmers may find themselves outgunned. First-mover status doesn’t mean much if the numbers don’t add up. “As the prices continue to fall, it’s not going to be economical for the smaller farms,” McConnaughey says.

As research is conducted, however, it may be that the advantages the big seed companies have in producing hybridized varieties of other crops that grow well in varied climates and locations may be lacking for hemp. Hemp genetics may favor regional varietals that make the Big-Ag one-seed-fits-all model impractical. That could give small farms a better chance and yet still not be enough, says McConnaughey.

Outside of select niches, the realities of agricultural economics favor big farms with big capital, he says. Hemp could thrive as a niche market the way organic vegetable farms can turn a profit when they’re close enough to big cities to make the farmers market and gourmet restaurant trade work. But he’s not sure he sees hemp as a niche crop in the same way an heirloom tomato catches the attention of a farmers market shopper. “Honestly, a lot of the stuff I’ve seen, I wouldn’t call niche market,” he says, explaining that when CBD is available at gas station convenience stores, it can be hard to elevate to single-vineyard status.

The good news, McConnaughey says, is that at least some of the equipment and infrastructure farmers use to grow hemp could grow those tomatoes too. Hemp could be the first step in a longer plan, he says. “If these farmers are able to be adaptable enough, they can kind of jump into hemp while the prices are high, and then maybe transition into different crops other than just corn and soy.” 

Vote Hemphemp farmers by state

Placing bets, taking risks

For McKay, farming has always been a matter of taking risks and placing bets. He was around for a hops boom sparked by the craft brewing market and saw some of his fellow farmers take too many risks before prices settled.

He’s not sure how many of the newer hemp farmers can claim a similar perspective. “They’ve probably got capital behind them,” he says, “but put somebody else’s money with somebody who’s never done it before and it’s like you’re lining up for disaster.

“You gamble on something you know nothing about.”

Why Minneapolis-St. Paul rocks for natural food entrepreneurs

The Twin Cities skyline

When outsiders think of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the first things that come to mind tend to be Prince, hockey, niceness, 10,000 lakes and, of course, cold, snow and ice. But what many people don’t realize is that the Twin Cities metro area, home to some 3.4 million, consistently ranks among the healthiest, fittest and most educated urban centers in the nation. In this vibrant Minnesota metropolis, there are bike trails everywhere, lakes galore, sprawling parks, myriad farmers markets and a strikingly high number of natural foods co-ops and independent retailers per capita.

“In the Twin Cities, people are very health and wellness focused,” says Hannah Barnstable, co-founder of Minneapolis-based muesli brand Seven Sundays. “When we first got our products into Costco’s Midwest region, which includes St. Louis and Chicago, the buyer told us the Twin Cities stores would blow the other markets out of the water [in terms of our sales].”

With a healthy, engaged consumer base hungry for nutritious, sustainably produced foods, Minneapolis-St. Paul is an excellent springboard for natural startups like Seven Sundays. In fact, several other prominent national brands launched in or near the metro area, including Angie’s Boomchickapop, Peace Coffee and JonnyPops. And in recent years, there has been a sharp increase in natural products entrepreneurship, with an impressive roster of natural and organic food startups rising up and gaining prominence.

This growth is no coincidence. Along with a receptive consumer audience, a confluence of key factors makes the Twin Cities a standout spot for natural products entrepreneurs. 

“What is unique and interesting about Minneapolis-St. Paul is there is deep expertise and activity in both food CPG and agriculture, from regenerative agricultural practices to large-scale-production agriculture,” says Lauren Pradhan, managing director of Grow North MN, a resource and connection hub for food and agriculture entrepreneurs. “The farm-to-fork activity that's happening here at all levels of scale is not happening elsewhere. I tell people if they want to start a food business and impact the food system, there is no better place to do it than here.”

Business ag-vantage

One of the big reasons the Twin Cities is so accommodating for small food businesses is it is surrounded by agriculture, providing ample access to locally grown ingredients. Just drive an hour in any direction from downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul and you’ll find acres upon acres of farmland. Minnesota is especially known for growing grains, which is why ingredient and grain-based finished-product behemoths like General Mills, Cargill, Grain Millers, Pillsbury and SunOpta are based here.

“Companies like Grain Millers and SunOpta, as well as independent farmers, grow a plethora of crops, and food companies have a strong desire to use Minnesota-grown ingredients,” Pradhan says. “The Department of Agriculture runs the Minnesota Grown program and has a variety of grants to incentivize this.”

Besides supplying quality ingredients, the area’s strong agricultural market and presence of big suppliers also means the Twin Cities is flush with expertise and talent to support startup brands. “In a community with such a heritage of large food companies, you get the spectrum of talent,” Pradhan says. “Some folks want the security and scale of working for these big companies, but they make great mentors. They have incredibly deep expertise on how to grow and scale innovation and are happy to have coffee with entrepreneurs. Along with having a great idea, a new business also needs to understand food safety, logistics, quality, packaging design—and entrepreneurs will find that expertise here too.”

Other large-company veterans are the same people who strike out on their own to launch something new. “They have a great idea that’s not getting traction where they work, so they take their expertise, make the leap to start their own business and join our community,” Pradhan says.

State-funded support

Another factor fueling food entrepreneurship in Minneapolis-St. Paul, as well as statewide, is the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s strong backing. “Our Department of Agriculture has to be the most supportive in the nation,” Barnstable says. “They subsidize our trade show booths, develop best practice committees and host networking events.”

In 2013, the DOA launched its New Markets program to nurture Minnesota food and ingredient businesses. “At that time, food entrepreneurship was becoming more prevalent, and some resources were freed up in the department budget to do this work,” says Brian Erickson, program director. “As I was figuring out our strategy, I met with local food companies, including Seven Sundays, to understand what its pain points were. I kept hearing that in-store demos and trade shows were expensive and hard to execute on their own, so we started a cost-sharing program to help with those costs.”

On top of that, New Markets arranges Minnesota Naturally pavilions at Natural Products Expo West, Fancy Food and other trade shows around the nation, in partnership with the state’s Department of Employment and Economic development, Xcel Energy, economic development agency Greater MSP, among others. “Our first year at Expo West we had a 3-by-10-foot booth and crammed in five brands,” Erickson says. “This year I think we have 18 brands and 2,300 square feet. We partner with Grow North at Expo West and co-host the Minnesota Mingle, which draws 200-plus people in Anaheim.”

Erickson estimates that in the last few years, the DOA has served 100 companies either through cost-sharing or pavilions—"and the results have been great,” he says. “Companies we’ve surveyed have indicated $15 million in sales in the next 12 months as a result of participating in a pavilion.”

Additionally, the DOA offers Value Added Grants to food businesses needing facilities upgrades or new equipment that will result in benefits to Minnesota agriculture; the state matches 25%of the cost of the project.

Thriving entrepreneurial community

Looking to serve the rising number of food and agriculture entrepreneurs in the state, Grow North MN was born in 2016 out of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “We are focused on cultivating and accelerating a fertile ecosystem for innovation in food and agriculture,” Pradhan says. “We help entrepreneurs and innovators scale ideas through education, programming and connectivity events so they can grow their businesses and positively impact the food system.”

The networking opportunities are especially important for startups. “They help people get involved in the ecosystem and bump into their next partner, supporter or consultant,” Pradhan says. “Many partnerships and collaborations have started from those events.”

Every year, Grow North hosts Food | Ag | Ideas Week, a multiday series of events, speakers and demos to showcase the area’s local offerings to the world. And outside of official events, the organization matches entrepreneurs with mentors. “Entrepreneurs will email us and say they’d love to connect with a certain expert or understand more about a topic, and we’ll try to make an introduction to someone in the industry,” Pradhan says.

The entrepreneurs themselves are also finding great camaraderie among one another. “We and other brands do a lot of things together that are less organized,” Barnstable says. “There are probably 25 to 30 up-and-running midsized companies like ours that get together, and that number is growing.”

Clearly, there are multiple assets putting Minneapolis-St. Paul on the natural foods map. Barnstable sums it up best: “All of these pieces—support from the state, focus on health and wellness, big consumer-focused companies—come together to make this an exciting little hub.”

4 strategies to help boost social media ROI

Chuck Aikens, Volume Nine

When it comes to social media, it might feel like you’re throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Brands today are having a harder time getting visibility, engagement and conversions from social media than years prior. Luckily, there are strategies you can use to see more results with your social media efforts (and investment).

1. Use benchmarks.

Establishing benchmarks to measure growth is a great way to measure the success of your social media campaigns. You can set benchmarks based on competition (i.e. “Receive 550 engagements on similar content), or internal benchmarks (i.e. 10% growth in engagement, video views, etc.). This allows you to choose strategies and content targeted to help you meet those benchmarks—and provides easy-to-interpret data.

2. Pick the right social platforms.

Your brand doesn’t need to make use of every social media platform available—contrary to what you might hear. For example, there may be certain platforms that make more sense for your specific audience. Instagram and TikTok often work with a younger audience, while Facebook and LinkedIn appeal to a more professional or older audience.

After you’ve chosen the best social media channels, use that platform’s tools to determine important elements of your strategy. Which days of the week and which time of day your fans are most active? What content performs best? Use this information to post the right content at the right time.

3. Create engaging content. 

It’s been said before, but the value of engaging content can’t be underestimated. To make your social content more engaging, don’t be afraid to include calls to action (CTAs). Use brief, concise wording that makes sense for your goal and the CTA’s link. For example, don’t use “Contact us” if what you really want is for people to visit your blog or product page.

Other ways to encourage engagement? Answer questions in a timely manner. Encourage followers to share their experiences on social. Create branded hashtags for followers to use on their posts. Ask for reviews. Share user-generated content in your own posts or stories. 

4. Don’t set it and forget it.

When looking to boost social media ROI, you need to audit your efforts frequently. Look at which posts perform best with your audience (i.e. high engagement or positive comments) and then figure out why. Were the tone and imagery on-brand? Does that time of day seem to be ideal? Is the medium you used “novel” to your audience (a quote graphic, a video or a short text post)?

Also, check for a balance between engaging content and promotional content. No one likes a company that’s trying too hard to sell something. 

With the right strategies, you can see traction on social

Social media can be really frustrating for businesses. That’s why it’s so important to take some time to get clear on who you’re talking to, where they “live” online, and what the data is telling you. When you do that, and consistently show up with content your audience wants, you’ll see results.

Chuck Aikens is the founder of Volume Nine, a digital marketing agency, helping brands connect to the audience through creative content marketing strategies. The agency helps brands with SEO, social media, Google Analytics and a whole lot of other stuff as well.

Have some big ideas or thoughts to share related to the natural products industry? We’d love to hear and publish your opinions in the newhope.com IdeaXchange. Check out our submission guidelines.

[email protected]: FDA advice on vaping | Fungus threatens peppermint | New fitness trends

Getty Images The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that President Donald Trump ban flavored e-cigarattes,

FDA hands Trump new guidance on flavored vaping products

The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that President Donald Trump ban flavored e-cigarettes, according to the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Of course, that decision has political consequences, so it's not clear what he will decide, as he previously said he wants to make everybody happy. Read more at Bloomberg

 

An ugly fungal disease could spell the end of American peppermint farming

Peppermint might be an invasive plant in your home garden, but for commercial farmers, it's a crop under attack by a deadly fungus. Verticillium wilt can attack a wide variety of crops and once it's in the soil, the field can be permanently damaged. A world without peppermint is difficult to imagine—and researchers are working to prevent that scenario. Read more at The New Food Economy …

 

Fitness trends for 2020: Stretching labs and bone-density training

As our population ages, more people face problems such as osteoporosis. Even younger people can suffer muscle pains that interrupt their workout plans or even their jobs. And regular exercise programs may not be the fix for either. Enter the new players in fitness: Commercial companies such as OsteoStrong and StretchLab that go beyond the typical strength and flexibility programs. Read more at the Los Angeles Times

 

This was the decade we knew we were right

At least five times this decade, the world set new records for being the warmest year. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached levels unprecedented in human history. And unlike the climate changes of the past, we humans have great responsibility for these changes that are triggering ever-bigger forest fires, hurricanes and droughts. Read more at Scientific American

 

DishDivvy partners with DoorDash to deliver home-cooked meals

In California and parts of Utah, the online marketplace for home-cooked meals DishDivvy has reached an agreement with DoorDash to have its dinners delivered. The arrangement makes the home-cooked food available to folks who don't have a car or have limited mobility. Read more at TheSpoon.tech

Why college campuses might be the natural fit for your brand

Barnes and Noble College

Barnes & Noble College services millions of students, faculty, parents and alumni at universities and colleges, in about 770 locations across the United States. In addition to the course materials and school supplies that occupy shelf space in these bookstores are foods and beverages to fuel those on campus.

Each location varies on what kind of offerings it provides, from simple beverage coolers and candy displays in some, to freestanding cafes in others. "Every store is very unique," says Sarah Tesoriero, Merchandise Manager Convenience Food Products at Barnes & Noble College.

Because the Generation Z consumer values natural brands, it's a way to find an accessible format—something they can eat on the go, Tesoriero says. The retailer is incorporating natural brands into everyday sets, such as breakfast items and the trending salty snack set, in addition to doing lifestyle merchandising and putting natural products in sections based on attributes, such as non-GMO or organic.

"Brand-wise it's really about how the brand appeals to the consumer, and what it provides them," Tesoriero says.

So why should natural brands consider college campuses as part of their planning? "I think college campuses are really important because the consumer we serve is educated, Gen Z and values what natural brands have to offer," says Tesoriero. "It's not just a trend for them, it's how they eat and live." And, as she points out, if you get a consumer while they're young, you'll have a customer for life.

The ideal partner

To determine the right brands for Barnes & Noble College, Tesoriero looks at where a brand is at with its packaging and marketing. What has the brand done to connect with the Gen Z consumer? Is the packaging grab-and-go sized? Is it merchandisable in a way that works in the stores?

For her, the accessible piece is big. Anything that a student can grab and consume instantly works best. Products that require adding water or using cutlery are less appealing.

In addition to grab-and-go, she says the college campus shopper is looking for freshness. "They're telling us they want natural and better-made products, and a lot of instances that means fresh food," Tesoriero says.

Hip hip hooray

As part of the growing salty snacking category, Hippeas has found great success in Barnes & Noble College. The chickpea puff snack brand made it to shelf in 70 stores as part of the retailer's "Smart Snacking" test program. The product had a great response from students. "We were then able to roll it inline to our regular salty sets in over 400 stores this past fall semester," Tesoriero says.

Hippeas is an example, she says, of items that are still indulgent, but made cleaner—another characteristic her shoppers are asking for.

For brands interested in partnering with Barnes & Noble College, Tesoriero's advice is to think about how you're reaching the Gen Z consumer. Do they know who you are? "We can put it in our stores, but you have to have a relationship with them if it's going to work," she says.

She also advises to think about your packaging and if it's going to work in a grab-and-go format—a must.

Unboxed: The top 10 categories of 2019

Be they about foods and beverages, supplements or personal care products, our weekly Unboxed galleries are Newhope.com reader favorites when it comes to scoping out new and interesting natural products. 

As the editors and writers of these articles, it's a privilege to get an early glimpse of many of these products as they come to market. We also feel the responsibility to look more broadly at what these products represent in terms of industry trends and, beyond that, at how and why they relate to the macro forces driving our industry today.

A big part of this, obviously, has to do with what retailers and consumers are identifying with today. The following 10 Unboxed galleries were the most-read of 2019.

 

[email protected]: Department stores lose beauty industry influence | Combating US obesity

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How department stores lost their clout in the beauty industry to Ulta, e-commerce and influencers

Social media has fundamentally altered the way consumers interact with beauty brands; the majority of 18- to 34-year-olds, for instance, "trust influencer's opinions of brands more than advertising done by the brand itself." This has led to massive gains for specialty stores like Sephora and upstart personal care brands, while department stores are scrambling to enhance their in-store beauty experiences. Read more at CNBC

In 10 years half of Americans will be obese. Here's what we can do

Obesity is a growing problem, and the pervasive cultural sentiment puts the blame on individuals' eating habits alone. But there are many contributing factors to obesity, and an approach that tackles the issue from a legislative standpoint is the best way to "create healthier defaults in schools, supermarkets and society at large." Read more at The Hill

Nearly all Atlantic salmon escape Vancouver Island fish farm pen after damaging fire

21,000 salmon recently escaped their circular pen to the waters of Canada's Queen Anne strait as a result of a fire. Environmentalist are concerned because the farmed salmon carry viruses and pathogens that aren't native to Pacific waters and can infect those species that are native to the Pacific. Read more at Global News

Plant-based milks aren't the reason US dairies are struggling

The reasons behind dairy farmers' struggles are far more complicated to be understood solely in the context of plant-based alternatives. Some other possible contributing factors? Globalization and declining consumer interest in breakfast foods like cereal. Read more at Quartz

The rise of 'grocerants': Grocery stores that can cook you dinner

Several big-box grocers have begun to add sit-down restaurants and food halls to their larger locations in order to better serve the growing number of consumers who wish to eat out instead of cooking at home. According to the Food Marketing Insitute, grocery store foodservice sales are growing by about 8% each year. Read more at CNN

Why transparency supercharges your appeal to investors

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RXBAR took its category by storm with a clean label that brought a short list of ingredients to front-of-pack—a tactic some companies, like BluePrint, had successfully employed in the juice and cleanse market.

The declaration of ingredients in such a simple, primary expression of transparency is but one example of the trend manifesting itself in market, and it’s a winning one. BluePrint sold to HainCelestial back in 2012 for $26 million. RXBAR, less than five years after its founding, sold to The Kellogg Company in late 2017 for $600 million.

To hear Peter Rahal, CEO and co-founder at RXBAR, speak of it, transparency runs much deeper than packaging. There are no secrets in an investments of this size. All laundry, clean or dirty, is fully aired in the offing. “In a transaction like the Kellogg acquisition,” says Rahal, “you’re disclosing everything. Two months of diligence and auditing went into it.”

Transparency is a bold enough concept to impact both sides of the investment equation now. Transparency in a company’s operations can increase its attractiveness as an investment target, and the investment process itself is its own exercise in transparency. This begs the question: what is today’s investor looking for with respect to transparency, and how do they measure it?

Transparent portfolios

At S2G Ventures, Chuck Templeton serves as managing director and carries plenty of portfolio brands that bring transparency to life in all its manifold iterations. There’s Kuli Kuli building an ethical, transparent supply chain in moringa. There’s Ataraxis developing rapid testing for the presence of antibiotics and adulterants in meat. There’s SafeTraces, Fishpeople, Shenandoah Growers, all squarely ahead of the trends with deep levels of transparency in their respective fields. “Many of our brands work in the supply chain; we don’t have that pure brand focus that some other firms do” says Templeton. “And I think surety of supply is only getting more important. Look at the lettuce recalls, the listeria outbreaks. Look at what happened to Chipotle or the hits that Fairlife is taking now.”

At White Road Investments, the venture arm of Clif, the portfolio runs just as transparent with Honest Kitchen in pet food, Guayakí in energy drinks, and Wild Planet in pole- and line-caught seafood, all textbook-worthy examples of transparent brands leading with purpose and passion. “We have absolutely passed on investments that fell short on transparency,” says Gregg Bagni, director at White Road. “Some people care and get it, some don’t, and we can tell pretty quick.”

Inside the investment community, transparency exists within mission and purpose. These are qualitative brand attributes that allow for some differentiation in market with social causes related to healthier people and a healthy planet. Brands that build themselves to serve their consumers with trust and transparency are meeting consumers where they now want to be. Accordingly, they also seem to be better at raising money. “It’s part of the DNA,” says Templeton. “It’s there or it isn’t. A startup can’t do everything, but it can develop that ethos of transparency internally, start somewhere with it, and improve year over year.”

Metricizing transparency

There are no easy shortcuts or tempting loopholes to the transparency game. When pressed about how investors measure transparency, there’s a lot of gut and intuition involved. “We do not have a formula that measures this,” says Bagni. “There’s no ratio of blank to blank, or you’re at 8.9 versus these guys over here at 4.6. Clif and its five aspirations set the tone for us.” Transparency emerges from those attitudes organically, he explains.

Templeton would concur. “Transparency is hard to validate as a metric,” he says. “In fact, it’s hard to evaluate from a positive economic perspective. The negative perspective is what really matters. We want to limit the downside risk and avoid a blowup.”

B Corp surfaces on occasion as a clue to transparent behavior, but that platform tends to stay inside the company with little relevance to consumer packaging and messaging. “There’s really no shorthand for this,” says Templeton. “I haven’t seen any standard rise to the top as a good tool for transparency. It’s all about diligence, deep diligence, to make us feel comfortable with a particular claim.” While B Corp scores are showing up more often in board presentations by entrepreneurs to their investors, Templeton sees that simply as part of the business plan. The only true test of transparency remains a careful audit of the supply chain and pressure testing by savvy investors to validate a brand’s claims.

The lack of hard metrics around transparency does give rise to softer ones, however. “We do use some ‘intuitional metrics’ to evaluate an opportunity,” says Bagni. “You hear us use ‘goodness’ a lot as shorthand for all of the mission and purpose stuff, including transparency. We definitely look for businesses and people with a lot of goodness in them.”

The other side of the table

From the entrepreneur’s perspective, transparency can provide the direction and focus necessary for a brand to move forward. “I like to say that the truth is all that matters,” says Rahal. “Honesty, candidness, transparency, that’s everything. Don’t massage things, because it all comes out eventually.”

As an investor himself now, under Litani, his management company, Rahal knows what to ask. “One of the worst things an entrepreneur can tell me is that nothing’s wrong, everything’s all rosy,” he says. “Come to me with the truth. A business is nothing but solving problems. The reality is often chaos, so those problems will ultimately surface in the P&L or revenue story if you try to hide them.”  This speaks to the importance of finding investment partners with operating experience, partners who want to stay involved after the check gets cashed. An operator will better empathize with that chaos and have some tricks at hand to tame it.

Brands that operate without secrets tend to rise to the top. One Degree Organics—another pioneer in transparency using QR codes on pack that link to full product profiles with source information for each ingredient, including its farm and farmer—is one such brand. “We get very granular with our transparency,” says Danny Houghton, one of the principals behind One Degree and its sister brands in Canada, Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery and Little Northern Bakehouse. “I think that’s why we are regularly approached by investors wanting to invest in our brand, even though we’re privately held and prefer to stay that way for now.”

For all its allure, transparency does carry its own unique set of risks. “I equate a transparent supply chain to stripping off your clothes and running out the door for everyone to see,” says Houghton. “The competition gets a peek too. I remember being at Expo West and hearing from one of our organic spelt farmers in Saskatchewan. He was getting all of these calls from competitors just clicking through our QR code. So that works to our detriment, but it’s really a benefit to the farmer, to tell their story along with our own.”

A transparent future

To speak of transparency’s impact on the industry moving forward is to speak of blockchain, seed-to-shelf messaging, and traceability programs that offer greater degrees and specificities of provenance. It’s also to speak of the increasingly vocal minority. “I see it as similar to Reddit,” says Templeton. “Ten or 15% of the population pays attention, but that’s the noisiest segment. The rest consume the products, but that vocal minority sets the tone and calls out the companies not doing things the right way.”

So, expect more fallout for conventional brands like Fairlife that have withered in the bright lights of transparency as well as their more nimble peers, and expect more brands to develop real transparency efforts for competitive advantage. “We’ll see more brands showing how the sausage is made,” says Rahal. “That’s a way to differentiate and set the tone for everyone else.”

There is also the problem of “transparency creep” to be managed industry-wide, as conventional brands look to co-opt more of the goodness halo afforded by real transparency. Think of that family farmer portrayed on a juice carton run nationally on three million cartons, when his farm might actually supply only a small fraction of that volume. “We did some focus group research where we ran into real jaundice and a lack of trust,” says Houghton. “The big brands have abused transparency by bluffing a bit, and the consumer knows it. We had to do some tweaking with our messaging to disconnect from that.”

Given the broad scope of transparency, and the increasing threat of abuse by wannabe contenders, should the market get more serious about definitions? “There’s just no consensus out there for transparency, what that actually means,” says Houghton. “We often see it get confused with local, which is great, but real transparency has a lot more depth to it.”

According to Houghton, more industry dialogue and consensus might be in order before “transparency” suffers the fate of “all-natural” and becomes just another empty word.