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Emerging Brands: What is Perceived as a Weakness Could Actually Be a Strength

By Vanessa Doll

A Blog Series: Learnings from working in CPG branding and design with P&G as a client, and applying them to emerging brands in the better-for-you industry.

Illustration by Joseph Baum

In Part 1 of this blog series, From Tampons to Tomatillos, I reflect on my experience working on the Femcare business for P&G. I also ask the question: how can the practices of large CPG brands inform marketing strategies for well-established and emerging brands in the produce and better-for-you industry?

Now it’s time to flip the script and narrow down on the unique facets of being an emerging product and business, or a family-owned and operated one. If properly tapped into, there are aspects to these types of businesses that can give them a leg up on large CPG corporations. Once again, I posit that there really is a “best of both worlds” approach to branding and marketing that merges “huge” and “on its way.”

To recap Part 1 (I do recommend you read it for the complete experience), the top 5 takeaways any brand can learn from a CPG monolith are: 

1) It’s all about driving trial. 

2) Learn from the other guys. 

3) R.E.S.P.E.C.T. D.E.S.I.G.N. 

4) Build a true, long-withstanding relationship with your CPG branding and design agency. 

5) Put power into process.

Part 2: What are the 5 ways emerging brands can claim advantage over large CPG companies?

Go ahead, make friends. 

In one way or another, I have always been in the people business (for more about that crazy journey, read this). I have devoted my career to client services for one reason: building relationships. Yes, I love helping my clients problem solve, and even better, succeed. But the moments I truly find rewarding are the pics of Baby’s first Christmas, a TedTalk link that would interest me, or sharing an “I will if you will” extra glass of wine with dinner.

I find that the best agency-to-client relationships are the ones where the client may not always love what they hear, but they’re always glad their agency told them.

If I had to pinpoint one reason I left a very large branding and design agency, it was because I always felt at arm’s length from my clients. And it wasn’t necessarily the client’s preference but rather due to their corporate policies. They had to be guarded about new learnings surrounding their products. Often, multi-team politics wouldn’t enable them to take their package design one step further. And frankly, that one step further was almost always where it needed to be. We both knew it, but we couldn’t say it. Without that relationship, there wasn’t the candor I value so much and believe essential to a truly successful undertaking. 

I find that the best branding agency-to-client relationships are the ones where the client may not always love what they hear, but they’re always glad their agency told them. That kind of honest communication, and “always on your side” agency support can only come when certain walls are down. In my experience, nimble and emerging brands, small marketing teams, or unconventionally structured businesses tend to value that kind of relationship, and their work is often the better for it.

Building ‘Brand Advocates’ is a cinch.

With the onslaught of digital marketing methods, brand advocacy (a.k.a. “letting normal folks tout your product for you”) is the ideal base for a marketing strategy. Think about it: consumers will forever be more likely to trust a fellow human over a faceless corporation when looking for advice or a new product. Beyond neighbors and friends, there are facebook groups, instagram influencers, and youtube reviewers. They’re all sharing your story or your product based on its quality or how it aligns to their belief systems. For free! As an emerging brand, it’s a good time to be alive.

Of course, people are just as willing and likely to share their thoughts when a brand or product defies their values. What happens when you are a huge corporation who tests on animals or pushes sugar-filled products to children? Most of those brands spend a lot of time and money combatting reputations, or correcting narratives. Better-for-you and fresh brands don’t have to worry about that so much (understand food safety is the big exception). 

Any better-for-you or produce brand that isn’t using social media to build brand advocacy is missing the boat. This is word-of-mouth marketing on steroids.

It’s easy for people to get behind your brand because you are building something they can believe in. In fact, it makes them feel good to share your story! And all you had to do was be you. That’s pretty special. Any better-for-you or produce brand that isn’t using social media to build brand advocacy is missing the boat. This is word-of-mouth marketing on steroids. The effort and costs associated around getting in front of your consumers (and their family and friends) is minimal… your new advocates are eager to meet your product! 

Jack be nimble, and you can too.

When I worked on Tampax, it took almost an entire year to release a new package design to shelf. Usually it was barely an evolution of the former design with maybe an updated claim. From the design approval process to the legalize, not to mention the months upon months of testing and rounds of revisions… it was an EPIC process. When you are a smaller company, or you have existing relationships with vendors, packers, shippers, etc., you can experiment a little more. Try unique messaging for your flagship products, or give seasonal packaging a whirl. It doesn’t take a year to run off a new label and it’s not that costly to update a sticker or a shipper.

I love working with entrepreneurially spirited companies, even if they have a well-known brand, because the very core of entrepreneurialism is to be a risk taker. That willingness to try something new is a unique point of differentiation. It should be utilized and celebrated.

There also tends to be an identifiable decision maker, instead of some mysterious person at the end of very long red tape. Trust is often in place: you can usually get sign off on a concept or design quickly and it doesn’t have to run up the chain of command for every little tweak. In produce, it seems there are less regulations surrounding innovation so you can roll out new products at a quicker pace and continue to evolve a design when the time comes for a new run.

Testing is just one thing; not everything.

When undergoing a redesign, large corporate conglomerates go through a series of complicated testing. I’ve taken part in testing at an entirely fake grocery store! According to Forbes, “A large CPG company with enough resources can regenerate shopper personas each month in all their major locations to understand how their product sold, change in consumer preferences and if the price needs to be adjusted.” When putting forth so much effort and expense, it makes sense that test results would weigh heavily on design decisions.

While I do admire P&G’s commitment to ensuring the success of their product through consumer testing, I also think they tend to rely too heavily on that methodology for decision making. I’ve seen common sense and inherent knowledge thrown out the window because of test results.

For one, you have to understand that no matter what the environment, if people know they are being tested or scrutinized in any way, they will not mirror their true shopping habits. Understanding how to ask the question in an unbiased way and learning how to absorb the information gleaned from the test is key. And challenging (especially for emerging brands with limited resources or experience).

Please don’t misunderstand me: I do think it’s an important tool in the toolbox. It’s just not the only one. The team at Freshmade has certainly learned a great deal from testing over the years (we actually share those learnings here). With each test, we build on our inherent shopper and category knowledge base. However, we do the same with trendscaping, paid social media campaign testing, and hard-won experience… to name a few.


Act Quick! No one is looking.

KRAFT isn’t aware of you, and if they are, they aren’t threatened… yet. You can fly under the radar while you build an iconic brand. Take advantage of a little anonymity while you can. Actors sometimes play their most formative roles when they don’t yet have to be concerned about tarnishing a reputation. The expression “Live to Fail” is centered around the idea that improvement only comes with mistakes. The more eyes on you, the more afraid of mis-stepping you become. Large CPG brand identities have remained stagnant to the point of irrelevance because they were afraid to push the envelope.

For emerging brands, this is a glorious opportunity to be bold, be thoughtful, and capitalize on the same traits that brought you to where you are today: innovative, entrepreneurial, and diligent.

This is a glorious opportunity to be bold, be thoughtful, and capitalize on the same traits that brought you to where you are today: innovative, entrepreneurial, and diligent. 

In addition, there are a plethora of leader brands in other categories you can emulate––try things on, see what fits. As emerging brands, with the help of affordable digital marketing platforms, you can test messaging, design language, even product innovation. All without having to worry about tarnishing a 100-year-old reputation. Huge CPG corporations are always having to fight someone for some reason. You know what they say, “it’s lonely at the top of the mountain.”

You may have no interest in becoming a P&G conglomerate, or even growing beyond a family business. I get that, but I believe there are learnings to be had from every angle if you are looking in the right direction. When we look to our peers, our experiences, and brands and people we idolize, we will see one thing in common if nothing else: determination. Building a brand isn’t easy. But with the investment of time and some capital, the right partnerships, and willingness to truly learn, it can be done. And it will be worth it.

Vanessa Doll, Partner, Director of Clients & Projects

As a strategic and creative leader, Vanessa helps spearhead growth for our clients. She has extensive experience in CPG branding and design as a senior project manager on P&G brands, such as Always, Pampers, and Vicks. Between her dual master’s degree in Writing Theory and Pedagogy from DePaul University and experiences as a sailboat racer and bar owner, Vanessa brings well-rounded intelligence and determination to everything she does.

June 2021

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