(From the Minneapolis St Paul Business Journal)
That is the question that vexes managers at Valley Natural Foods, a 33-year-old Burnsville food cooperative that’s grown into a $12 million business.
They’ve introduced a new label, called “Down in the Valley,” that’s intended to highlight their local connections. But they want to make sure they’re sending their customers the right message.
Last month, co-op officials visited the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal so a panel of experts could help them tweak the rollout.
Going beyond the Bubba
“Down in the Valley” replaces an old label called “Bubba’s Natural” that was stuck on locally raised meat products. The label had some sentimental value for the co-op: Bubba was one of the first steers the store had raised and turned into steaks.
“It was the dark side of naming them,” said Orlando Haripal, Valley Natural Foods’ fresh foods manager.
The new label, which is 2-by-2 inches and often used along with the farmer’s original label, is meant to go beyond products made from Bubba and his animal relatives.
“ ‘Bubba’s Carrots’ just didn’t seem to have the same ring as ‘Bubba’s Beef,’ ” said Charli Mills, Valley Natural Foods’ marketing communications manager.
Valley Natural Foods is so proud of the new label, that it has a “Down in the Valley” flag run up underneath the American flag on the pole outside its store.
Showing off the label is one thing, but sticking it on products is another matter.
When Valley Natural Foods officials sought to use the label not just on meat products, but also honey and locally roasted coffee, it sparked some discussion about what “Down in the Valley” means.
The label’s message is intended to illustrate the company’s up-close-and-personal relationship with food producers. The farmers are local; the meat is local.
“We know our farmers. We know the local foods. That’s really our area of passion and expertise,” Mills said.
But coffee isn’t grown within 1,000 miles of here — that’s certainly not local, noted Aaron Keller, managing principal at Minneapolis-based brand marketing firm Capsule.
“You’re not going to grow it in the ground here. It’s not going to happen,” Keller said. “You get into trouble when all of a sudden you go to coffee and it’s not really local.”
How many is too many?
Another thing to keep in mind when deciding if a label fits a particular product: are there too many labels already?
Jon Seltzer, a former Supervalu Inc. executive who teaches marketing at the University of St. Thomas, found that problem when he visited Valley Natural Foods’ store.
“You need to focus, focus, focus,” Seltzer said. “I think the winner was the package of wieners that had six labels on it.”
“Down in the Valley” should be used sparingly, and hopefully alone, on a package.
“You got to cut back on the adhesive,” Seltzer said.
“I think I’m going to put that in the standards: less adhesive,” Mills replied.
Seltzer encouraged Valley Natural Foods to only put the “Down in the Valley” label on 10 to 12 “unique and exclusive” products that make it special, such as the fresh-made, store salsa that Haripal touted to experts.
“Bacon is bacon. But if someone has a really special salsa ... that is something that would really drive my behavior,” Seltzer said.
‘Great brands have marvelous stories’
Majdi Wadi, CEO of Holy Land Brand Inc., has two Minneapolis restaurants/delis that also produce and sell brand-name pita bread and humus.
Getting the Holy Land name on his products was essential to compete with big corporations.
“For us to protect our own business, we had to create our own brand,” Wadi said.
There is no way that small businesses like Wadi’s could compete with large retailers on price.
“But Holy Land humus has my name on it. I have the excuse to come to my customers and say, ‘This is why you’re paying more money. It’s my brand. It has better quality,’ ” Wadi said.
To make the case that it’s better quality, Wadi found it essential to make sure he was telling the story behind Holy Land’s products.
“Educating the customer is something that’s very, very important,” he said.
Keller agreed. “Great brands have marvelous stories behind their products.”
Wadi said direct connections with customers are the best way to compete with the big retailers. “I built my brand. That’s how I can compete with them. And that’s the same with you.”
Social media makes a difference
Once the company knows what story it has to tell, it should tell it, experts said — but maybe not in the traditional way.
Instead of using print and television ads, Valley Natural Foods should explore social-media tools, Keller said.
“Stories you’re telling here could be wonderful Twitter stories,” Keller said.
Wadi also suggested the co-op might try using folding labels, so it could include more information about products.
“You could add some recipes, a picture, a story of a farmer,” he said.
Valley Natural Foods might even want to get a hot dog stand and sell “Down in the Valley” wieners at farmers’ markets, Seltzer said.
The idea was to go where big food makers and retailers can’t go.
“I would do things in your parking lots, events, going into farmers’ markets,” Seltzer said.