Go Big Or Go Home: How Small Brands Can Make It Big

Everyone likes an underdog story. As consumers increasingly choose products and brands that are unique or differentiated, small brands can have a definitive advantage. Taking on the food giants that dominate the CPG landscape may once have seemed like a David and Goliath challenge, but that story doesn’t ring true today as consumers of all demographics seek out brands that signify quality, uniqueness and choice. 

As large corporations continue to acquire small brands, it’s clearly valuable to have a small, but passionate consumer base. Big brands often make a special effort to communicate their brand story in an authentic, personal manner, while small, owner founded brands have the coveted ‘authenticity’ factor built into their origin story. Yet it’s not always easy for those small brand stories to break through. 

It’s not just urban millennials that are pushing retailers for niche, organic foods. Retailers like Walmart and Safeway now carry kombucha and liquid aminos, foods that were once relegated to the “crunchy” or “health food” store. With high consumer demand, it’s easier than ever for small brands to break through at large retailers, yet they often face the challenge of small marketing budgets and few shelf facings. In order to stand out from the crowd, small brands can borrow techniques from big brands such as brand blocking, clear communication hierarchies and distilled brand equities. Several small brands have made the leap successfully by focusing on the details, considering how they compare at shelf to the big brands, and maintaining the distinct brand equities that made them unique in the first place.

Creating a Brand Block 

Smaller brands need to emphasize what makes them different from the mass competition, be it their process, specialty flavors, or quality ingredients. At the same time, they need to enhance their communication and branding in order to compete in a bigger, more chaotic mass environment.

When niche ice cream brand, Phin and Phebes, redesigned prior to being sold in mass retailers, they kept the home-made feeling of the package illustrations, but refined them slightly for a more sophisticated look and added product imagery for appetite appeal. They also emphasized the color purple, thereby creating a distinct ownable, brand color that stands out in the ice cream aisle, creating a brand block. The brand’s visual language still maintains the same voice, just more polished for the wider audience of retailers. 

Define a Clear Hierarchy

As small brands break into big box stores, they’re often given few shelf facings and placed directly next to larger competitors. In order to stand out, it’s important to evaluate the design within the shelf context and consider the hierarchy of communication consumers will understand from the package design. 

When cult favorite condiment brand Mike’s Hot Honey prepared for an expansion to large retailers they broke through as a completely new offering in a shelf known for sweet products. Through evaluation, it was clear that emphasizing “hot” would be key to standing out and communicating to consumers that critical difference from traditional honey. The brand was initially picked up by specialty stores and then moved into national chains across the country.

Distill Brand Equities

Shoppability must be carefully balanced without straying from the brand’s heart and soul and origin story. Distilling brand equities is key to defining a unique brand proposition — a technique that big brands often use. 

Specialty nut butter brand Justin’s is an excellent example of an easily shoppable design that still feels like it could be sold at the local co-op by maintaining its original brand essence. The strong use of white space clearly signals the higher quality ingredients while the slightly whimsical illustrations and type feels hand-made, thereby standing out amongst the big brand competition. 

While it’s certainly no easy task to scale a brand from local to national, there’s no better time for brands to take the leap. Focusing on what’s unique to the brand, honing in on the small details that set them apart while considering how new consumers will shop the brand within the larger store context will help small brands succeed while keeping their heart and soul intact. It’s the perfect scenario for a David vs. Goliath challenge.

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