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In the earliest days of The Supplant Company, when we were just sketching out the details of the fiber sugars concept, it really wasn’t clear what the right path to market might be.
Bringing new food ingredients to market is not SaaS and there is no set instruction. And while there are already several success stories, there is still nowhere near a consensus in the industry. There is also no consensus among investors. Over the years, we’ve received a lot of different and conflicting feedback on the best path from idea to store shelf.
As an ingredients company, branding or not branding has always been a major bone of contention. At one extreme, some investors told us, “We don’t care how you go to market as long as you do it with a brand.” Conversely, others told us, “If you’re going to invest in building a brand, then tell us how much you’re going to spend, because we want to we know how much we will waste.’
Really different! We’ve spent the last few years working out what we think makes the most sense. Here are some of the lessons that have led us to the position that branding is a huge asset to us in ingredient commercialization and not an unnecessary distraction.
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It makes things easier by taking the burden off the heavy
In some ways, the skepticism is understandable. Hard science is hard. Building great brands is also hard. Doing both at the same time is the hardest of all. Also, the types of people who are good at hard science are often not the types of people who are good or skilled at building a brand. So why make it even harder for yourself? Stick to what you know – right?
The reason I think this logic fails is that even when you’re good at hard science, the hard parts are still very hard. Solving some problems inevitably takes a lot of time, effort and capital. And even those that are generally more easily solvable are often not as malleable as you would like them to be to conform to perceived market orthodoxies. This is especially the case with hard science problems.
The best way to move forward is for the business not to lean heavily on the parts of the business whose challenges are the slowest to solve. Having a brand can take the pressure off solving these problems and gives an immediate opportunity to present things in the right way to the consumer.
Related: 5 Strategies You Need to Build Your Brand
This means that we should not stick with the status quo
Fitting into perceived market orthodoxy is a great example of this. New innovations don’t usually fit perfectly into the status quo’s perceptions of what’s good—that’s certainly the case for us. Does it look weird? I can see how it could. After all, we’re doing exactly what the food industry wants us to do: We’re replacing cane sugar in foods. So, it’s a no-brainer, right?
In some ways, yes. But in other ways, we’re breaking the mold of what defines success on this issue, at least on a narrow reading of it. One obvious example is that we replace sugar, but we replace it with a new mixture of sugars. They are lower in calories, lower on the glycemic index, and prebiotic, but are still labeled (at least in part) as sugars.
Being able to communicate how an ingredient is made and why and how it has the nutritional benefits it does is extremely helpful in avoiding the rest of the company having to conform to the often arbitrary nature of the status quo. Branding is the main tool that enables this.
Related: Keys to Brand Building: Innovation, Integration and Identity
It allows us to tell more of our story
Not only do new innovations often not fit perfectly into the lens of the current status quo, but they often have much more to say than a brand-free approach can allow. This applies to both what we do here at The Supplant Company and why we are doing it.
We have the health story to tell (lower calories, lower glycemic index, prebiotics), but we also have a sustainability story (upcycling the most abundant and underutilized resource in agriculture) and a food security story (making more food than the same amount of land). But the real magic in what we do is the combination of all these benefits, and specifically how each one leans on the other: We make fiber sugars from fiber-rich and extremely abundant agricultural by-streams; they are low calorie because they are made of fiber, low glycemic index because they are made of fiber, prebiotic because they are made of fiber, and sustainable because they are made from these (high fiber) sources.
The wrong, or at least less impactful, way to market would be to simply say “We’re lower in calories” – there’s a lot more to what we’re building than that. Again, branding is the main tool that enables this.
Finally, there’s the “why,” which we believe is important to add even more depth to what we do and help people understand our core belief systems. We believe that a better future for people and the planet is possible, but it will require a radical rethinking of how things are currently done, and we know that we are well-positioned to drive that change. Communicating this as part of a brand helps us get out into the world and connect with others who share the same beliefs, whether they are consumers, retailers, investors or employees.
I don’t want to downplay the amount of thinking that went into getting to the user narrative that we ended up with—explaining these things clearly isn’t easy. But from our experience, looking back, the decision to build a consumer brand was a seamless and certainly easier experience than not, and it opened up avenues for us that wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t. I think any company doing something innovative and difficult that ends up in food or the consumer space more broadly would be crazy not to think carefully about whether a consumer brand could help them.
Dr. Tom Simmons is the founder and CEO of The Supplant Company