Cultivating relationships with consumers
By aggressively serving the needs of a specific demographic group, lifestyle brands transcend food and become a part of consumers’ lives and identities.
BakingBusiness.com, March 1, 2014
by Charlotte Atchley

Brands are powerful. They signify a connection for consumers — to their childhood, family and sometimes way of life. When brands transcend the packaging around snacks or baked goods, it can become a part of a person’s identity. These are lifestyle brands that sell not just the products on the shelf but a culture behind them, and the consumers they aim to please are intensely loyal to them.

Many times, this connection to a brand is passed on from generation to generation, according to Gary Jensen, president of Roman Meal Co., Tacoma, WA. “We frequently have comments from people who say, ‘My grandmother taught my mother about Roman Meal, and she taught me, and I’m going to teach my daughter,” he said. “It’s something that goes to the heritage of the brand.”

Click for a slideshow of lifestyle brands.

The loyalty can stem from a fun attitude behind the snack. “A lifestyle brand needs to go beyond functional attributes and engage with fans on a personal level,” said Michael Parisi, senior vice-president of marketing, popchips, San Francisco. “We put our personality into everything we do. We talk about our benefits in our own voice, using lines such as ‘love. without the handles.’ or ‘spare me the guilt chip.’ ”

No matter where the connection comes from, whether it’s tradition or a need fulfillment, lifestyle brands get their power from the relationships they establish and cultivate with their consumers.

More than a product

Lifestyle brands center on specific consumers and succeed when the company develops a meaningful relationship with them. “Lifestyle brands would go hand in hand with building relationships on a daily basis,” Mr. Jensen said.

About six or seven years ago, Roman Meal made the decision to focus on health-conscious women between the ages of 50 and 64. With the majority of consumer goods going after women between the ages of 18 and 35, this was a bold choice. “We did that because most of our loyal users are in that demographic and also we had some sense that that demographic is underserved from a marketing and advertising standpoint,” Mr. Jensen said.

Lifestyle brands are born when marketing teams do the necessary work to really know their target consumers and what they need or want from their food, whether it’s bread, sweet goods or snacks. Clif Bar & Co., Emeryville, CA, was founded by a member of its target consumer group. According to the company’s history, Gary Erickson, Clif Bar & Co. founder and co-CEO, decided he could make a better-tasting bar than the ones he had been munching on during a 175-mile bike ride. From that challenge came the Clif Bar and its company two years later. By developing an energy bar he would enjoy on a long bike ride, Mr. Erickson tapped into what athletes want and need when it comes to fueling their lifestyles and rocked a category in the baking and snack industries.

Sticking with a specific group of consumers, then developing and maintaining a platform they can get passionate about are winning formulas for transforming a product-specific brand into a broader lifestyle brand that can extend its reach into a wide variety of categories. “It has been very important to us to stay true to that consumer even when we’ve had people tell us we ought to be younger or different,” Mr. Jensen said. “If you try to serve too many different demographics, you end up not doing a good job with the ones that are the most important to you as a brand.”

Already having a portfolio of whole grain breads, Roman Meal established a platform on healthy living and helping people incorporate more whole grains into their overall diet. “If we can do that, then we’ve done something good for people and also made a reasonable return on ­investment,” he said.

Special K, a brand of the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, focuses on women concerned with weight management and centers its platform on the importance of breakfast. Its television and print ads promote the benefits of a balanced breakfast when it comes to losing weight, positioning its products as viable options to fill that meal time.

Popchips positioned itself as a more wholesome option to traditional potato chips and a tastier alternative to baked potato chips. “Our message is simple,” Mr. Parisi said. “Through the magic of popping, popchips created a great-tasting chip that has all the flavor and only half the fat of friend chips.” Tapping into consumers’ professed need for healthier snacks but their unwillingness to spend their dollars on anything less than traditional chips’ flavor, popchips found a middle ground to capitalize on with its novel shape and texture.

“Popchips was founded on the idea that you shouldn’t have to choose between unhealthy fried chips and un-­delicious baked chips,” Mr. Parisi said. “Popchips filled white space in the snack market, and we did it by developing relationships one ­snacker at a time.”

Getting the word out

Lifestyle brands live and die on the relationships they build with their target consumers, and while these brands benefit from traditional forms of marketing and advertising, the digital age has brought on a whole new level of engagement with consumers.

Specifically, these brands make use of everything that the digital sphere has to offer: Video channels, social networks and blogs populate their websites. Clif Bar brings its message on its own Clif Bar TV, and its blogs  cover topics near and dear to the company as well as its consumers: healthy food, athletic life, new products, updates from its marathon team, sustainability and a behind-the-scenes look at the Clif Bar office.

When Roman Meal decided to turn its focus to women 50 and older, the company also centered its marketing and advertising campaigns on digital forms of media rather than television, radio and print. “We had a brand that people are intensely loyal to, so we felt we could talk to them better in a digital space than in other forms of media,” Mr. Jensen explained. “It’s been really outstanding to be able to get to know our consumers even better. You couldn’t have done this level of engagement 10 years ago; the technology just wasn’t there.”

According to Mr. Parisi, popchips builds relationships by going as far as answering every email from every consumer. This commitment led to a connection with celebrity investors such as Jillian Michaels, who recently promoted the chips on The Rachael Ray Show.  With the celebrity endorsement of Ms. Michaels, as well as Katy Perry and Ashton Kutcher, popchips keeps itself at the forefront of pop culture by having a presence at Fashion Week, musical festivals and sporting events. The company continues its one-on-one engagement that founded the company with online sweepstakes, field teams handing out samples and leading pop-themed classes in fitness clubs.

This level of engagement online creates an opportunity for food brands to bring consumers in on the R&D process. “Thanks to that interaction, our snackers are constantly inspiring ideas,” Mr. Parisi said. “Our closeness with snackers lets us deliver new products we’ll know they’ll love such as our veggie popchips.”

Roman Meal also heightened how it engages consumers. The company started by wiping its consumer database clean to ensure that it was composed of only consumers who had opted in to hear more about Roman Meal. “That has grown in the meantime by tens of thousands of people who communicate with us on a regular basis,” Mr. Jensen said. Many of those consumers have become part of an expert panel for the company to discuss potential new product concepts. “It’s really amazing to be able to work together with your consumers to help direct the future of your brand,” he said.

Going beyond food

Companies with lifestyle brands often make investments that the target consumers will approve of.

With its focus on healthy food for athletes, particularly marathon runners, triathletes and cyclists, Clif Bar & Co.’s philosophy hinges on five aspirations: sustaining the planet, community, its people, business and brands. To meet those objectives requires time and money.

Clif Bar & Co. made a commitment to achieve 90% waste diversion in its headquarters, field events and manufacturing facilities by 2015. The company strives to responsibly source its ingredients, build a supply chain that supports ecologically sound agriculture and promote fair labor practices for the farmers behind Clif Bars. All of this is wrapped up in the company’s Clif CORE Values for sustainable sourcing: Connect, Organic, Restore, Ethical.

While Clif Bar & Co. keeps it production side squeaky clean for its health-conscious consumers, it also supports athletes in their endeavors beyond just fuel. The Clif Bar Pace Team provides marathon runners throughout the year with encouragement and coaching. Members of the Clif Bar & Co. staff routinely compete in athletic events and blog about their adventures on the company’s website, further practicing what the company preaches. 

The Kellogg Company is home to two big lifestyle brands, Kashi and Special K, which have taken their play with health-conscious consumers across categories (see “Bouncing to the next aisle” on Page 50). Special K carries its balanced breakfast theme to the Breakfasts for Better Days initiative, which aims to provide 1 billion servings of cereal and snacks to children and families in need by the end of 2016.

As a brand built on the platform of weight management, Special K also partnered with Tyra Banks to pursue a more positive conversation among women about weight. On top of offering its snack and breakfast products formulated from a weight management standpoint, Special K created the website www.FightFatTalk.com and the hashtag #FightFatTalk on Twitter to raise awareness of the damaging comments women make about their bodies every day.

Kashi took its platform of natural living to the next level with the Kashi REAL Project and Kashi REAL Tour. The REAL Project raises awareness of the lack of fresh produce and food in underserved neighborhoods. The REAL Project supports non-profit organizations that tackle these problems, educates people about nutrition and works to provide better access to healthy foods. The Kashi REAL Tour travels the country and educates children and parents about nutrition and sustainability with upcycling events and a drop-off for cereal bag liners and Kashi snack bar wrappers.

Building a lifestyle brand boils down to cultivating relationships. Years ago, Roman Meal took a hard look at its business’ guiding imperatives, things typical of a major campaign: revenue, profit, quality, innovation. “Almost as an afterthought we had in the imperatives ‘building relationships,’ ” Mr. Jensen said. “Well over the years building relationships has become our No. 1 business imperative, and these other more traditional things have become more like outcomes.”

When a brand is relevant to its core consumer and stays true to its platform, everything else important to a company’s survival is sure to follow.