Whole Foods & KeHE discuss: Reboot, Repackage & Relaunch a Food Brand

Good Food Expo – Get On the Shelf: Whole Foods, KeHE & full panel discuss Relaunch a Food Brand stories.

I was fortunate to be asked to moderate the “Get On The Shelf” panel at the Good Food Expo held mid-March 2019 at the University of Illinois Chicago west loop campus. The panel was made up of several food industry experts including:

  • Kelly Cosgrove, New Business Development Director, Fortune Fish & Gourmet
  • Buddy Levin, Local Purchasing Associate Coordinator, Whole Foods Market
  • Tyler Lowell, Managing Partner, C.A. Fortune
  • Katie Paul, Executive Director, KeHE Distributors, LLC
  • Julie Smolyansky, CEO, Lifeway Foods

This post features panel answers from the full panel on the topic:

Can you give an example of a product you released and helped gain distribution that needed to be repackaged or something, or rebooted, and then put back out there in the world?

Kelly Cosgrove: Right. I won’t talk about any specific brands, but it’s really frustrating for us, just to put that out there. When you’re coming to distribution, and you’re getting ready to be launched on the big scale, I always recommend you please to try to have all these things lined up.
Because for us to go through what’s in our warehouse, what’s in the customer database, switching all this information is difficult and time-consuming for everybody. Most recently we’ve had a brand that had to repackage, redesign, relabel, rename their company, and then the store, something like Whole Foods or … It’s not specific to Whole Foods, but somebody like that, you don’t automatically get placed back into that store. You have to go through a whole another relaunch, and that means that we don’t have those sales anymore. We have to look at it from our perspective. Can we still sell the product? Do we have the sales again? Is the store going to pick it up? It’s just like starting from a new standpoint too if you can have that all ready to go, that’s much easier.

Julie Smolyansk: Yeah. I mean, I have a few of these stories. One of my favorite ones is for a product that we launched called ProBugs, which is our children’s pouched kefir for little ones. We were the first to develop this pouched concept in the United States, and it was an interesting development. The innovation came from running a marathon overseas and getting this pouched beverage, sports energy drink in this pouch and thinking, “Oh, this would be a great delivery mechanism for kids in the United States,” and developing it, innovating it, and having so much love for this product. It was also very expensive. It was the most expensive product in the dairy case at the time, and it was being launched in the height of the recession.

Everyone told us we were crazy. They told me I was crazy, to not do it, to wait, and a whole bunch of things that I heard, but I believed in it. It was initially launched as a four-pack, but since it’s the first pouch that had been developed, we knew we wanted to sell it in a four-pack, but we couldn’t figure out how to put it together. And so that initial first four-pack was a complete disaster and failure. It went to, I believe, like Jewel and probably Kroger originally and Whole Foods. It completely bombed in the mass market stores and Whole Foods as well. We asked customers, and we spent some time researching the actual consumer and asking what the problem was. When we realized that they loved the pouch, they loved what was inside, but they just …

The carrier was falling over the shelf, and that was the problem. That was an easy fix. We just changed that package, and then it worked. It took off but only at Whole Foods. It was one of those cases where it was one particular market where it worked, and it wasn’t quite there yet for the mass market. It just needed some time to build, get acceptance and awareness, and the cost needed to come down. With volume, we were able to bring down the cost and whatnot. It eventually did turn into a huge, huge, huge success for us but it took that real passion and belief in it, and a labor of love because it would have been easy just to say, “Oh, it didn’t work. Forget it, discontinue it. We’re not going to throw more money behind it.” But it was one of those cases where I followed my gut, I listened to the customer, and took some time to understand the success and failure of it. Today it’s a big part of our business.

Buddy Levin: We don’t always encourage emerging brands to look in our stores, look in that four-foot section or eight-foot section that your product would fall under as far as price point, as far as packaging, overall look. Does it fit? Where does your product fit within that category, within that section? Is your product double the price of anything on our shelf? Likely that’s not going to do well for your product. I can think of a product we’re launching in our Missouri market. When they pitched it to us, it’s a shelf-stable queso dip, and it was almost double the size and double the price of everything we currently had on our shelf.

So we had that conversation with that supplier saying, “We like your product, and it’s unique. It’s shelf-stable. It’s vegan. It fits a lot of the current trends, but we need to do something about your packaging and your price point to move forward.” I think recognizing where your product fits is a great way to start to have those initial conversations. Then jumping on top of what Kelly had already alluded to if you’re going to go through a packaging refresh or a UPC change, those things, we need to know about them as a retailer.

It’s tough to maintain that shelf space or potential if you’re working with a distributor to keep that space with your distributor if we have those conversations ahead of time. While a lot of times UPC changes take a lot longer than people anticipate. Their new UPCs or new packaging isn’t ready when the old packaging runs out, so those are some things that I run into a lot working with Whole Foods. Just to flush those out and work way ahead of time if you know you’re going to change your packaging a year from now, it’s not too early to have that conversation.

Tyler Lowell: This conversation just came up when I was walking the floor. We have a client or a brand that’s exhibiting today who we signed on about a year ago. I guess the perspective I’ll give is more from a recommendation or advice maybe; we see a lot of this. Again, with our portfolio spanning across many different categories and tiny boutique pre-revenue clients up to billion-dollar companies, is that you’re going to have challenges. Some things are going to face as far as we’re not quite ready to go, or we have an issue with the UPC, or we have a packaging issue, or we’re changing our creative agency. Therefore we’re going to go through a complete relaunch on that.

What I’ve complimented the brand that’s inside the show today on is that they’ve recognized that, they slowed down, they didn’t force it, and they waited. They waited on six months probably before when they wanted to launch initially. What that did was they never presented this kind of a [inaudible 00:33:07] to the market initially on this is kind of who we are, but by the way, we’ll be changing our entire look six months down the road. That waiting six months, which I’m sure was a grinding, grueling time, in an entrepreneur’s mind, I get it, definitely put them in a much better mindset, perspective, and overall how it was received by the market, retailers, distributors, agencies only six months later. That’s more of my recommendation if that is something that you guys are faced with.

Katie Paul: I’ll bring us home with two very specific examples that are really fresh right now. One is a small and emerging brand, Tony’s Chocolonely. If any of you know it, it’s a great, great brand. They launched a couple of years ago in the US with horizontal chocolate bar packaging. Now they have placement with that horizontal chocolate bar packaging, and Svea’s Farmer’s Market has asked them, “We need vertical packaging. Everyone else in this category as vertical packaging. All your competitors have vertical packaging. We can’t fit as much on the shelf if they’re horizontal.” So they are now repackaging, they’re changing their size, which then, in turn, means a UPC change. Now even earlier, walking a Whole Foods today, Tony’s Chocolonely’s on the shelf with their horizontal packaging, and the shelf’s only this tall.

When Whole Foods goes to do this UPC change, they’re going to have a vertical shelf, and the shelf height won’t work with that, so basically it means a whole reset. That’s one example. The second, actually working very closely with Tyler’s team on this one, a huge brand, Bob’s Red Mill. They are now going through a packaging change. Their packaging is going to be wider than it once was for all of their flours, breakfast, and all of that. That means that not as much is going to fit on a four-foot section, so they have to decide then what are the priority SKUs that we want retailers to have in that four-foot section if they’re not willing to increase the space there. Those are just two very specific examples that take a lot of work and assistance, a lot of work for retailers, and a lot of work for the brand to regain the placement that they could potentially lose.

More to come from the Good Food Expo Panel

We’ll be posting more of the Q&A with the Good Food Expo panel in the coming weeks. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the Good Food Expo or NewPoint, please reach out to the NewPoint team — interested in more food marketing topics? Please visit our “Intel” page or check out my book: Moving Your Brand Up the Food Chain.