In our last piece we opened up about the weirdness we anticipated seeing at Expo West 2019. I mean, when mass consumer culture gathers in Southern California to celebrate its obsession with natural products (that ain’t always so natural), what else would you expect? Shit’s gonna get weird.
Well, we made it back. And the flight delays gave us time to sober up enough to jot down our take* on what we just experienced.
So, here ya go:
1. Searching For Signs Of Plant Life
We have fully entered a new age of plant worship. Plant-based foods and beverages have a sensibility that is regarded by consumers as almost holy in its purity and innocence. Plants, in their many forms – from seeds, to weeds, to trees – have come to represent an energy life force that we can’t seem to get enough of. Plants are, after all, a renewable source of energy with a seemingly endless number of species, varietals and stories to appeal to anyone and address any kind of health benefit. From the trusted integrity of locally grown to the exotic thrill of global adventure, from the scientific to the mystical, plant-based foods, beverages and personal care products deliver the benefits and brand experiences that currently define our time.
Here’s some of what we saw.
Three Trees is a brand of plant-based milks distinguishing itself by claiming higher quality, purer ingredients and better taste. Bored of watching the cows graze? Go drink a tree.
Kite Hill positions itself as artisanal plant-based food. The General Mills innovation incubator, 301 INC, is an investment partner. Their recent rebrand has embraced a flat graphic style that leads with the artisanal story first, with the plant-based aspect remaining more of a discovery – a clear indicator that plant-based is no longer a differentiator in-and-of-itself.
image source: https://www.foodnavigator-usa.com
Revive Kombucha is looking to take the funky health drink mainstream by delivering a better taste experience. Peet’s Coffee recently acquired a majority stake in the brand, looking to capitalize on the 168% growth rate (52 weeks IRI MULO, 4 November 2018) of the Kombucha category.
Weed – it’s not just for ditching class anymore. Cannabis, in its many forms, is the magic ingredient that has been woven into just about every food, beverage, and personal care product you can imagine. It’s always 4:20 somewhere. While the presence of the ingredient has exploded, the brands capable of successfully communicating and owning its benefits remain limited. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this category for breakout brands that begin to crack this code. Manitoba Harvest, pictured below, has begun to connect the design language of a typical GNC with the benefits of hemp. Does this mean we should expect to see more muscle heads at Coachella?
2. Stop Making Sense
Plants may rule but the rules for plant-based foods have gone out the window. Case in point: Impossible Foods. While being plant-based, the Impossible Burger is far from natural. It is, however, a true scientific breakthrough. The key, they say, is heme. Heme is what makes meat taste like meat. It also exists in plants, though not in as much abundance. Impossible Foods takes the DNA from soy plants and inserts it into a genetically engineered yeast. The result is a plant-based burger that tastes like an all beef burger. Impossible, you say?
The Impossible Foods design language is a sharp departure from residual plant-based cues, further supporting the impossible nature of the brand (which is clearly its own animal).
3. Don’t Call It A Comeback! We Been Here For Years!
Now, I’m not gonna knock you out. But cauliflower, cottage cheese and oats came to Expo West with something to prove. Yes, while Expo West had many new acts on display, we also noticed that some of the OGs of the natural products world were being presented in a fresh new light.
All hail the power of cauliflower! So says, Outer Aisle Gourmet, a brand of bread replacement items (sandwich thins, pizza crust, etc.) created to deliver all the taste satisfaction without the sugar and processed carbs of bread.
And oats are still kicking it in a new thirst-quenching format. Oat-based milk alternatives are everywhere, with everyone from traditional brands like Quaker to new players like Oatly and Planet Oat joining in. The design language of this set still remains rooted in the milk alternative range. However, we are starting to see brands like Elmhurst begin to own a more distinct brand perspective that extends beyond the ingredient story.
And the original diet food, cottage cheese, made a fresh appearance in the brand, Good Culture (yet another 301 INC. partnership.) The founders of the brand say, “it’s cottage cheese, but better.” Soooo, kind of like a backhanded compliment, but sincere?
Will Good Culture grow up to just be, “Good”, one day? The possibility of a “little g” under the Big G (General Mills) umbrella wasn’t lost on us.
4. We Are The World. And The World Is Mostly Water.
Water brands have become the official ambassadors for environmental sustainability. We love our water bottles but those bottles, and the plastic used to make them, don’t show much love for our environment. The breakout brands in the water category are looking to correct that.
PathWater‘s stated mission is to provide the best localized, sustainable, and affordable bottled water. The bottle is aluminum and reusable, with a call to action to “save the world.” No pressure.
Just Water ain’t just any water. It’s Jaden, Jada, Will Smith water. And it has a just mission to “create better options for the things we need in our lives.” Like…water. The packaging is made from recycled paper and sugarcane to directly address the waste connected with plastic. The also claim no celebrities were harmed in the marketing of the brand.
5. The Empire Strikes Back
Natural is no longer just for the niche. Big CPG is making a play in this space, with the likes of Del Monte, General Mills, Kellogg, and P&G no longer looking to only be fast followers. The big players are now closely investing in and collaborating with smaller startups. And in some cases, the big guys are finding ways to outpace them. And new big players like Patagonia continue to invest in their the stated ambition to make food a major piece of their future revenue. As consumer demand for healthier, higher quality food increase, we expect to see even bigger investment in this space going forward.
Del Monte was out front and proud with its new “Growers of Good™” brand campaign and their very own oat play with a wall full of fruit & oats and fruit & chia snack cups.
Patagonia, a brand that is arguably one of the most progressive and committed to environmental causes, continue their foray into food and beverage with Patagonia Provisions. At Expo West 2018, CEO Rose Marcario gave a keynote speech announcing their commitment to leadership in regenerative organic farming practices. And while the brand remains highly mission oriented, they also see their strategy as good for business – even going so far as to predict their food business would eclipse their clothing business in the future.
And speaking of regenerative farming practices, General Mills announced their commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
Expo West 2019 didn’t so much represent the introduction of never-seen-before-innovations so much as it represented a clear milestone in food, beverage and personal products. The change that started with a handful of niche brands over a decade ago is now a full wave. Expo West doesn’t necessarily represent the natural segment of CPG as much as it represents the now and the future of CPG. In order for brands to truly stand out as unique and forward thinking these days, they gotta be willing to get weird.
*Note: Feel free to take it or leave it and/or give us your take on our take. No need to hold back. We can take it :).
Dustin is a purpose-driven strategy and marketing leader with extensive experience building high-performance teams, driving growth, and creating brand value. In his role at CBX, He is dedicated to helping clients maximize the cultural and commercial impact of their brands.