Old school strategy to build next generation snack brand
Using a proprietary drying process, start-up Wholesome Valley Foods is offering the nutrition of bananas in a more portable and lasting format with its Barnana chews. Given that US consumers buy more bananas than any other fruit, the company’s dream to become the next Sambazon or Pom Wonderful is within the realms of possibility. This case study is from New Nutrition Business.
Wholesome Valley Foods wants to do for bananas what Pom Wonderful did for the pomegranate. Although it’s a tall order, the company believes its dehydrated bananabased snacks, dubbed Barnana, have the potential to deliver the nutrition and health value of bananas, in a more portable and shelf stable format. But not before the start up methodically builds the brand among the early-adopting, traditional natural channel consumer.
Unlike little-known superfruits with exotic sounding names, bananas rank as the number one-selling fruit in the US. What’s more, “fruit as functional food ” is a powerful trend that meets consumers’ wish for healthy foods to be from natural ingredients.
That being said, the company is not taking anything for granted. Wholesome Valley sought the help of seasoned healthy products industry experts, turned down fast-growth grocery opportunities in the mainstream market and is adhering to a core vision and strategy of measured and steady growth that is classic “best-practice” for healthy foods and beverages.
The snacks fit into what the company calls the next generation of healthy snacks that are high on nutrition and minimally processed. Barnana chews are based on the simple foods that company founder Caue Suplicy ate growing up in Brazil. The bananas are dehydrated using a proprietary process developed by Suplicy’s father in the 1980s.
Caue Suplicy grew up eating the preserved bananas and continued to do so after he moved to California to compete as a professional triathlete. The banana snacks proved so popular with his triathlete friends that Suplicy, upon his retirement from competition, decided in 2010 to put the snacks in a bag and start a business. It took two years of searching for suppliers and partners to recreate the product for the American market in an organic and sustainable way.
The brand uses the tagline “The Super Potassium Snack,” reflecting the fact that one banana delivers at least 450 milligrams of potassium, more than 20% of the RDI. The products also describe themselves on the label as “Heart Healthy”, drawing on the health claim approved by the FDA back in 2000 in response to a petition from orange juice giant Tropicana, now part of PepsiCo, which was seeking to capitalise on the high potassium content of orange juice. The FDA approved a claim about the relationship of potassium-containing foods to reduced risk of blood pressure and stroke.
The banana chews come in two varieties, regular chewy Banana Bites and Chocolate Chewy Banana bites. The product’s suggested retail price ranges from $3 (€2.32) a bag for the regular chews to around $4.00 (€3.24) for a single bag of the chocolate chews.
FILLING A VOID
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Company executives say the products fulfill a basic snack food need that has not yet been met. “If you look at the market, bananas are the number one selling fruit, but they have the lowest shelf life of all fruit,” said Matt Clifford, COO of the Californiabased company. Everyone, he added, has experienced bananas that spoil and turn brown on the counter. “This resonates with everybody.”
Bananas also are not a fruit that can easily fill the need of today’s on-the-go families. “We wanted to solve that problem,” explained Suplicy. “Bananas are delicious and nutritious, but they are not good from a shelf life and portability perspective”. Barnana snacks are dried using a unique process that leaves some of the moisture in (about 14%), while maintaining some of the texture and natural sweetness of bananas. The products also have a shelf life of up to 18 months and can be taken anywhere.
The company sees big potential for the chews, especially in the kids’ market. “It’s so exciting kids can have bananas in their lunches now,” Suplicy said.
Retailers and distributors also spotted the potential. Following Barnana’s launch at Natural Products Expo West in March 2012, the products jumped into 300 stores almost immediately, and the company is predicting it will double that by year end.
“Our goal is to be nationwide, and we are expecting the products to be in a couple thousand stores in the next year,” said Suplicy. “By the end of this year we are planning to be in about 600 stores, but it is still kind of hard to tell because it depends on how our strategy evolves in each region.”
The launch strategy involves introducing the line of chewy banana bites fi rst into the health food channel in California and the North Eastern US. The next stage, which the company is currently entering, involves launching the snacks in the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Northwest. After that, the company will roll out product in the Southeastern US.
The line had so much interest after Expo, Clifford said, that no one on the team slept for about a week. “It was hard because we had some interest at the grocery level, but we had to say no because it didn’t fit our strategy,” Clifford added. “For us it is not about the number of stores, but the volume per store and the communication with consumers in those stores. We believe that it is more important to sell the products well, help our stores promote the products and then move on to the next store. If you look at the growth in our stores, it is very deliberate and dictates everything we do.”
The company’s business philosophy definitely harkens back to the brands founded in earlier days of the natural products industry. Beyond its commitment to building the brand well instead of fast, the products are gluten-free, vegan, kosher and the company sources its raw materials from sustainable as well as certified organic producers. “Even the chocolate is 52% organic cocoa. We are just not interested in doing anything less,” Suplicy told NNB.
SOCIAL MEDIA TO REACH NATURAL CONSUMERS
Wholesome Valley is betting on the natural consumers first because they share a similar vision and ethos with the company, according to Nicholas Ingersol, chief creative offi cer. “We understand that these consumers are more educated about natural products and nutrition. They have organic buying patterns and a desire to be part of a community, which is a good fit with our products.”
Ingersol said the brand will use social media and search engine optimization (SEO) techniques as a focus in its marketing efforts, noting that both support its roll out plan. He said Wholesome Valley wants to be as tech savvy and interactive as possible, with a heavy social media focus targeting customers and retail partners at the store level with Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
“Since we are not yet a national brand, we need to focus on sub-regions. Now we can reach consumers at a core level in those specific areas with social media.”
The company, Ingersol added, will eventually grow into national presence in the grocery channel but on its own time schedule. “There is no time frame for that yet, but it will be when we have a solid foundation and brand reputation, and when we will not be discounted in the grocery channel.”
With all the interest in the brand, resources and expertise have been a constant challenge for the company as it ramps up. “We learned that everything takes longer than expected,” recalled Suplicy. The initial idea was to put bananas in a bag, but it takes a long time and the management team had a lot to learn, he said. “We didn’t understand when you put products in a store how much work it takes and how many people are involved,” Suplicy said. “But everything we did wrong, we learned from, and it has helped us in what we are doing now.”
To address its need for industry expertise, the company recently announced key appointments to its Board of Directors and Advisors. The list includes seasoned entrepreneurs and experts with long records in healthy and mainstream food brands, such as Jerry Bello, founder of Mama Says in 1999, which he sold to Nonni Food Company, and Sensible Portions founded in 2006 and sold to Hain-Celestial in 2010; Scott Presnall, a former executive with Kraft Foods and JM Smucker; Jeffery Campbell, a brand development executive from PepsiCo; and Thomas Aarts, co-founder and principal at Nutrition Capital Network.
To handle its need for a passionate and sophisticated sales team, Wholesome Valley established a service-for-equity partnership with natural products industry broker Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence. The broker’s OmniPresence Fund specializes in investing in innovative, natural startup brands while also giving the brokerage a stake in the brands it helps to build.
“We were very fortunate to choose a broker that has a national presence but also a culture and community that fi ts well with us,” Clifford said. He noted that the partnership helped the company address its need for both cash fl ow and an experienced and sophisticated sales team.
Although taking on an equity partner can present difficulties for brands as they grow, Clifford doesn’t anticipate any problems because the visions of the two companies are so well aligned. “On the whole, we have a great partner to provide guidance and advice toward our growth strategy, who will be there as an equity partner as we grow.”
This editorial from New Nutrition Business's magazine was first published in its October 2012 edition.
About New Nutrition Business
New Nutrition Business is a London-based research, publishing and consulting company which specialises in researching, analysing and forecasting developments in the business of food, nutrition and health around the world.
The strategies and success factors it has identified in the 1990s have become the benchmarks for strategy development and brand positioning in the worldwide nutrition business. It works with companies all around the world, from the United States to Australia and from Sweden to South Africa.
New Nutrition Business is headed by executive director Julian Mellentin (right), one of the world’s very few global specialists in the business of food, nutrition and health.
He is the editor-in-chief of New Nutrition Business and Kids Nutrition Report, the only industry journal in the world on the rapidly developing kids’ nutritional marketplace. See