My/Mo's CMO On The Making Of A Disruptor Brand

Two years ago, mochi ice cream — ice cream wrapped in a sweet rice dough — had a 0.2% share of the frozen novelties category. Today, thanks to the phenomenal success of My/Mo, mochi ice cream has a 1.5% share, with My/Mo commanding 80% of those sales, per IRI data.

Actually, My/Mo is a mass-market version of a mochi ice cream treat invented by Frances Hashimoto, president and CEO of Mikawaya, and first launched in the U.S. (Hawaii) in 1994. By the time Hashimoto died in 2012, Mikawaya Mochi Ice Cream had grown to a $13-million business, with distribution in Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Albertsons and Ralphs, according to Entrepreneur.  

Century Park Capital Partners acquired the company in 2015, and launched the rebranded My/Mo Mochi Ice Cream in 2017. (Mikawaya is also still sold through Asian and specialty stores in the United States.)

My/Mo's mass-market vision included moving away from Mikawaya’s traditional Asian flavors (e.g., plum wine, red bean), to mainstream flavors like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mint chocolate chip and cookies and cream, as well as a bit more exotic choices like mango and green tea.

Today, My/Mo is distributed in more than 18,000 mass outlets, including Target, Wegmans, Kroger and Fairway. It’s outperforming big traditional brands in sales per store per week, including Haagen-Dazs (+41.3%), Dove (+49.4%), Magnum (+5.8%) and Ben & Jerry’s (+173%), and is ranked 25th among all frozen novelty brands. Its 2019 dollar sales are projected at $150 million (up from $100 million in 2018), and its unit sales rose by 103% in the last 13-week period.

My/Mo is designed to appeal to millennials. The treats are colorful, multi-textured, “naturally portion controlled” (110 calories per ball) and gluten-free. There are now “layered” flavors (such as Chocolate Sundae and S’mores), pints of mochi bits, and vegan varieties.

Last week, the company launched its first multimillion-dollar branding campaign, dubbed “Because, Whatever.” The creative, by StrawberryFrog, epitomizes the brand’s playful, celebrate-the-unique-and-odd (“chew your ice cream”) mojo. Multiple 15-second videos include a contortionist playing the piano (below) and a guy roasting a marshmallow over a flame from a fire-spewing saxophone.

My/Mo CMO Russell Barnett, who in past marketing posts helped take brands including Kevita, Garden Protein International and Popchips mass market, shared some thoughts with Marketing CPG Weekly about what traditional and new CPG companies need to do to succeed in today’s ever-changing marketplace.

Start with experience and a solid culture:  “There’s no turnkey secret for success, but having a team that had success leading brands prior to joining My/Mo, as well as embracing the pace in which one has to move today, have both been key to driving our growth. 

So has culture. We want our employees to feel appreciated for their work. For us, the importance of people and an understanding of how our company operates at the most basic level is imperative. We know that product intimacy drives incredible knowledge and relevancy when marketing. 

For instance, our marketing team is required to work the line in our manufacturing facility once per month. While this seems uncommon to most, this ensures that everyone has a holistic understanding of the business from the ground up. 

I went on most every single sales meeting when we first started out to ensure that our story was told the right way. This really resonated with the retailers and the buyers. Most companies wouldn’t send multiple people to sales calls, but this approach was a perfect one-two punch, and the reason we were able to get into retailers like Target, Wegman’s and Publix quickly. We hired salespeople who have experience, have the relationships to get My/Mo on the shelf and keep us there — they’re scrappy and block-and-tackle every single day.” 

Understand your purpose, and how your brand resonates with the consumer:  “At My/Mo, play is our brand purpose. CPGs tend to chase ‘the next big thing,’ but we found white space in the simple joy of chewing your ice cream. We want our customers to enjoy the moment and understand that snacking on My/Mo should bring them a moment of joy of life without anything else to think about. And we make sure that that’s felt by our employees from the moment they walk into the office; in our branding; and in every bite of ice cream that our customers experience. 

And whereas other startups and CPGs tend to think about starting small and expanding, we understood the importance of relevancy to the masses — which is why we focused on ways to architect the business at scale.” 

Be bold and brave, and get comfortable with being really uncomfortable: “We live in an era in which many companies are competing with some level of share of voice. To stand out, you need to have a POV that exemplifies who you are as a brand and what you stand for. And whether you’re trying to find white space, create a category, or innovating — whatever the nomenclature — realize that while data provides crucial direction, it takes knowledge and savvy to spot or conceive a new hypothesis or big potential opportunity. Data by no means provides every answer, especially when it’s a new category or the early stages of a brand’s life. Your hypothesis doesn’t always easily correlate with data, and that’s scary."

Leverage retailer data to understand your customers and their shopping habits, and adapt products and marketing accordingly:  “All that said, when you’re launching a product, or need to sustain momentum, data is absolutely critical. For us, data shaped the omnichannel nature of our business. While not primarily an online brand because of the frozen nature of our snacks, we understood that we couldn’t afford to disappoint anyone wanting any form or flavor, so we do make all of our items available from our website and Amazon, as well as in stores. 

Data also helped us understand millennials. They don’t just shop the freezer aisle. They’re an on-the-go group who snacks more than any other generation. And for them, snacking is hyper-experiential. With those insights, we created the My/Mo Mochi Bar — which sits in the grab-and-go section on the perimeter of traditional supermarkets [and drives about 20% of total brand sales]. 

The data must be recent, so it’s relevant to helping us continue to tell our story. I review retailer data that’s four or 12 weeks out, at most. Knowing what products and what flavors are selling where directly impacts our sales and marketing strategy, of course — as well as our understanding of our impact in this new frozen snack category we’re creating. 

We use traditional sell-through data — IRI or Nielsen — to track performance regionally and nationally, as well as account-specific data. 

More important, our key learnings come through social space, which allows us to optimize messaging and uncover affinities within our consumer groups. Social learnings provide us enormous insight. 

For example, we’ve found that while more women than men buy our brand, our marketing must continue to be gender-neutral to resonate with a wide fan base. And we found that there’s a strong correlation between food and fashion, and between food and gaming. All of which informed our packaging and brand aesthetic — our colorful, bright, bold and playful look. 

Given that we’re creating a new category, there’s limited research available, so we really need to drill down into the sales figures throughout the country. That’s allowed us to uncover some big differences in flavor preferences. For example, the West really likes green tea mochi ice cream, whereas in New York City, we see a strong preference for cookies and cream. We listen carefully to the market and adjust appropriately.” 

Adapt products by demographics, as well as geographic markets: “Every customer is unique, and experiences different emotions. We want to keep this in mind for our diverse consumer base for every flavor, color, design and label that we create. 

Still, demographics are useful, if you master the art of understanding them. If we look at women 25 to 40 years old, urban and suburban, who have children, traditional CPGs might check the box by marketing their products to moms. But we thought that that approach didn’t give enough credit to the individual.

Instead of marketing to 'mom,' it’s important to be respectful of each individual’s identity, and that she’s first and foremost an empowered woman. If My/Mo is ‘Jane’s snack,’ not ‘Jimmy’s mom’s snack,’ we have a higher likelihood of longer staying power in the freezer. Jimmy’s mom’s snacks are transient, Jane’s snacks are eternal."

Know what your business will need 18 months out: “Being able to anticipate the needs of your business is critical, especially when you need to scale. At My/Mo, we recognized early on that we would need a second plant line, and were able to make that investment so that we wouldn’t disrupt our retailers -- and, most important, our customers -- across the country.”

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