The Future of Food is in Your Hands

Josh Kohnstamm

Onward is an exclusive content series authored by broadhead’s thought leaders, highlighting their unique perspectives on adapting, adjusting and pushing forward.

Written by Josh Kohnstamm | EVP

As food marketers, there is no substitute for believing. Over the past two decades, I can mark the year by food trends. 2010 was the rise of gluten-free products. 2011 was kale. 2012 — kombucha. 2013 — sprouted grains. 2014 — high-pressure pasteurization. 2015 — beets and turmeric. 2016 — keto and high-protein foods. 2017 — low-FODMAP diet products… and so on. But getting and staying in front of the innovation curve, as a marketer, had its own particular challenges.

No question, my career in food marketing has been defined by my work on iconic brands. Our team’s ability to foster food trends that consumers, and even some dietitians, often didn’t yet know about, and the ethics behind being stewards of better health, presented tricky terrain. There always remained the challenge of how to best whet the consumer’s appetite for what’s new, make it more than a fad, and turn it into a bona fide food trend.

I recall speaking at the Natural Products Expo in 2014 right after a major Hartman food study came out that said gluten-free foods were forecasted to go the way of the Atkins diet, and food manufacturers shouldn’t invest in what they predicted was going to be a short-term phenomenon. Everything I was seeing on the ground was indicating otherwise, and I said so.

Honest Tea, Noosa Yoghurt, Happy Baby, Naked Juice, Kill Cliff, KYLA Kombucha and dozens of others we worked on, all were an answer to a call that no one could yet hear — except perhaps for their founders — and marketing people like us. When you’re on the front end of a food trend, it can be a lonely existence. There is no consuming public — you’re creating it, and often tasked with creating a whole category with very little behind you.

We partnered with Noosa Yoghurt as they rose from $4 million to $104 million within three years. There was no money for advertising — it was all earned storytelling and fostering retail partnerships such as Target on every new variety that Noosa Yoghurt rolled out which did fuel shelf-clearing consumer interest. For Honest Tea, it was bringing the first organic RTD line of teas to life and making organic certification and Fair Trade understandable to mainstream consumers. For Icelandic Glacial, it was creating a category around the first carbon-neutral bottled spring water (something Fiji Water quickly imitated) when the client merely asked for a press release about its new hydro-electric manufacturing practices and the climate benefits it reaped.

Make no mistake, there was plenty of misguided efforts along the way — effervescent drink tabs that we just couldn’t make land (which later vexingly became a huge hit under the Nuun name), natural bug repellent vitamin B transdermal arm patches that we couldn’t give away. But what would I say were the secrets to a mostly successful run marketing emerging brands and food trends?

No. 1 is belief. If you, as the marketing lead or part of the marketing team don‘t believe, it’s like running a race with rocks in your pockets. So many food PR people ask to work for brands and concepts that “sell themselves.” We’d be out of work if that’s all we did. The best in the business know that climbing walls is ultimately what we’re paid to do — and that means positioning ourselves and exhibiting the resilience necessary to see new concepts and companies hit critical mass. Today as an example, take the issue of Regenerative Agriculture — one of the most consequential issues facing food and the environment. It will ultimately fall to deft marketing pros to break down and translate this huge issue into ways that consumers will value, understand and ultimately pay for. At broadhead, we’re making huge strides to do just that. But first, you have to believe in the concept’s viability to transform if you are to have any chance to drive it past the tipping point and truly have success.

No. 2 is to have a clear marketing vision for where the brand must go and have the cojones to get behind that vision — even when the client balks. At the risk of sounding arrogant, food clients are head’s down in managing operations and often don’t see the big picture in the same way an outside team does. That’s mostly a good thing in the aggregate — but don’t sell out what you’ve identified in the marketplace just because your client marketing point person doesn’t see it the way you do. One example from my past is Honest Tea. Obama had been ordering pallets of their bottled tea during the election, and we identified a growing fascination over what brands the new president liked — Oakley, Nike, and Honest Tea! Seth Goldman, who I continue to have the highest regard for his marketing instincts, just didn’t want to imbibe in what he feared might be seen as crass commercialism. We pushed, prevailed and had Barack Forest Berry commemorative iced tea bottles emblazoned with the president’s image and distributed to national media covering the inauguration. Honest Tea was thrust front and center in the largest of media cycles surrounding the first black president — and it worked magnificently. Within months, Coke made an offer for the company, but don’t be waiting for some thank you note from the client. Their place in the world often doesn’t allow them to see it for what you’ve accomplished. Look at it this way: Sometimes the brand is the client, just as much as the client is the client. Your loyalty and truth through results will be found in both.

No. 3 is don’t cater to your fears, but rather take the long view and then play it all the way through. The blessing and curse with innovative brands and emerging consumer trends are that no one really knows. Have a clear vision and plan. Test/learn/optimize/scale along the way, but then execute hard and leave it all on the field — earned media especially. Inexperienced PR pros often get discouraged. “No one has ever heard of this before!” they will say. But find the resolve to stay with it and maintain the collective courage of your conviction that your message will resonate once you generate that critical mass of buzz across the board within trade, consumer, business, social media and with influencers. Lining up those stars is tough. But, every iconic brand worth working for has gotten there through marketing people like us climbing a wall of worry. Parenting young people is like parenting emerging brands and new concepts — if you’re too comfortable, it may not be working.

It is satisfying for me to look back at all the work and awareness I’ve helped create over the past quarter century, the sweeping move towards a more plant-based consumer ethos as one example. But it pales in comparison with what lies ahead. For every marketing person who occasionally wonders in the darkness of night whether their work amounts to anything important, wonder no more. We are entering a golden era of consequential work, aligning consumer values and behaviors around the inimitable connection between food, agriculture and the climate.

If my career life cycle has shown anything, it is that marketers are now more highly valued for their ability to read and create conversations with consumers than ever before. Our role has palpably been elevated in the food world these last decades, so watch out. What you wish for, it is here! Given that new standing, however onerous, I am very optimistic that we will rise more than ever to this challenge, lean into where it matters so much and fulfill our promise.