Messaging Beyond a Singular Mission
Impact messaging is complicated. It used to be easier. As a college student back in the mid 2000s I worked on the floor at the first mega Whole Foods Market (now the global headquarters) in Austin, TX. As a WFM employee we received discounts on everything in the store. I still did most of my shopping at Fiesta (my first grocery love), but occasionally I would walk through the pristine aisles of Whole Foods and marvel at the gorgeous produce and all the brands declaring their missions to change the world. This type of messaging was novel at the time. Brands could appeal directly to consumers from their package and it worked! The simpler the message, the easier to digest. The 1:1 model was the shining beacon of effective social impact messaging – if you buy one we give one to someone in need.
I jumped into the food and beverage world on the brand side in 2012 with a tea company called RUNA. I had just finished a master’s degree in International Education and I was intrigued by impact models outside of traditional NGOs and governmental aide. I was drawn to the company because of their broad social and environmental impact model. It was a mission that was complicated, nuanced and powerful. RUNA worked with smallholder farming communities in the Amazon to grow guayusa, a highly caffeinated tea with immense cultural importance, by using sustainable agroforestry systems to bring this tea leaf to market in the US where it was completely unknown. I joined on the sales and marketing side, expanding our footprint and figuring out how to communicate our brand to the world.
The straight forward social impact messaging of 2006 had changed. There were more voices in the room. Every brand had a story and everyone was vying for consumer attention. On the consumer side it became message overload. Beyond impact messaging there were other things to say as well: health, functionality, calories, low-sugar, no sugar….and on and on. We struggled to tell our story effectively. There was just so much to it. Where to even start? In 2012 our messaging was very impact forward. We spent a lot of time talking about Ecuador, working with farming communities, and the cultural importance of guayusa. By 2017 our message had been distilled down to ‘clean energy’. RUNA was acquired by Vita Coco in 2018.
Image Credit: Candid
I took the lessons and mission-oriented business model of RUNA and began laying the groundwork for a new snacking chocolate company called Candid. So what is Candid’s mission? Like RUNA it’s complicated. We work with smallholder farming communities in Latin America to source cacao and other ingredients that are grown using regenerative agroforestry practices. We upcycle the cacao pulp and use it as our primary sweetener. We work with manufacturing partners in Latin America that are B-Corp certified and build valuable economic infrastructure. We chose to package our products in recyclable carton boxes and compostable inner-bags because we’re sickened by the deluge of single-use plastic. If we were to broadly encapsulate what we stand for, it would be environmental justice. So how do you message that to a consumer? These are the lessons I’ve learned from RUNA that I’m applying to Candid.
1. Taste is still the most important – Consumers still buy on taste. Whatever your product is, it needs to taste good to your core consumer. Make sure that taste message reads right away on your package and brand.
2. Functionality over Impact – If you have a truly functional product, that message should be prioritized over your impact story.
3. Stop Trying to Say Everything – Figure out what’s the most important message for your brand and distill it into something simple.
4. Branding Shouldn’t be an Afterthought – A lot of mission-oriented founders think that consumers will care about their story and mission as much as they do. That’s not the case. Especially not today when there are so many great mission-oriented companies populating the CPG landscape. You should ask yourself, will this product sell if no one knows or cares about my mission? If the answer is ‘no’ then you have a problem. You should think beyond your own story and how to translate that into a brand.
5. Visual Messaging – Often the most effective messages are succinct and visual. When Tropicana switched to a clear bottle for their orange juice it had an immediate impact. They let the juice speak for itself. Think about how can you visually articulate your value propositions. Certifications can be a succinct and very effective messaging tool. They let consumers know a lot about your brand product without having to spell it out. Packaging matters a lot.
6. Where to Tell Your Story – Your packaging is your most valuable real-estate and brand asset. Don’t muddy it up by telling every detail of your story. Elaborate on your mission on your website and social media. If a consumer makes the pilgrimage to your website, then they likely have an interest in learning your story on a deeper level. A consumer at a grocery store makes a purchase decision in a few seconds or less. Make sure you communicate what’s most important right away.
7. Founder Stories – Is it all about you? If so you might want to reconsider your brand messaging. Founder stories are important for investors. An investor will want to know your story and your motivation. They want to make sure that you care enough to put your heart and soul into the business, especially when the going gets tough. Consumers care a lot less about your individual story. They want to feel good about buying a product and supporting a company that’s making a difference. They don’t want to know the intimate details of your college abroad experience in Kenya.
The CPG world is a crowded space with a lot of brands shouting at consumers. If you’re a mission-oriented company, it’s important to distill your message and communicate effectively. That might mean leaning in to the flavor or functionality of your product and letting impact messaging live in other brand touch points. At the end of the day, if a consumer buys your product they are helping your cause, whether or not they know the intimate details of your story.
Author Bio: Chris Kajander
Chris Kajander is a food and beverage entrepreneur. He has an MA from Harvard, 10 years of experience in food and beverage CPG, and a passion for sustainable food systems.