Before COVID-19 shut down their Seed + Mill artisanal foods store in Manhattan’s iconic Chelsea Market, Rachel Simons and her two female co-founders knew they needed to up their branding and marketing game.
They had managed to secure distribution in some 200 stores—including Whole Foods—in the Northeast. But the process of finding an agency that could help them become a nationwide CPG brand kept getting put off.
When Seed + Mill decided the time had come, putting groups of people into one room to navigate the process of brand building—including determining long-term vision and brand values, developing customer personas and finding a concise brand statement—was no longer an option.
What did happen was a virtual branding experience for Seed + Mill, conducted live for 90 minutes every day this week on YouTube and the website of Theory Marketing Partners. In addition to representatives of Seed + Mill and Theory, dozens of marketing experts—along with vetted consumers—were invited to participate.
In this interview, Simons and Andy Rooks, Theory’s founder and CEO, talk about the virtual brand-building experience and the value of outside input.
CPG FYI: What’s the background on Seed + Mill?
Simons: When we started in 2016, our product line included tahini, which is a ground sesame paste; a tahini soft-serve ice cream; and halva, which is a sesame confection made of sugar and sesame—plus a range of sesame spice blends.
CPG FYI: How did Theory approach this brand-building exercise?
Rooks: We took this as an opportunity to say “how do we innovate the process of branding and take it to the limit?” Branding is such a creative exercise, it can feel a little daunting to our clients.
We usually have three or four folks from the Theory side and three or four from the client side. We all meet in one room. The big difference with this virtual event is, there’s an audience able to jump in and help ideate as well.
CPG FYI: What were your thoughts heading into day one, which covered Seed + Mill’s long-term vision and brand values?
Simons: When Andy said it was going to be live, I actually had quite a lot of trepidation about that. I wasn’t sure this was a process I wanted to do in a public forum. So I had to think for a little while about the pros and the cons.
I was a little bit nervous that the technology might make it a bit clunky, or I wouldn’t feel that sense of intimacy that you look for when you’re in a room.
CPG FYI: How did it turn out?
Simons: I thought day one was amazing. One of the real pros was to have all these people adding their thoughts and suggestions to our business -- connecting with our business and really wanting to cheerlead for us and help us succeed.
CPG FYI: Day four was about identifying customer personas. How did that go?
Simons: I think what I learned was, rather than talking to somebody very specifically by age or geographic location, I was trying to talk to people whose values we really connect with.
CPG FYI: Such as?
Simons: The values that we felt were really strong are around joyfulness: finding and bringing joy through food. Also, globalism. People who are curious eaters and thinking about their place in the world when they eat.
Last and most important is a sense of connection. The customer we’re really talking to is somebody who really wants to connect with us as a brand and our personality.
CPG FYI: What have you learned overall?
Simons: Sometimes we need to step away from our own little bubble. After four years of living and breathing my own brand, it really helps to hear what other people have to say. To hear from the audience through YouTube has been so valuable.
CPG FYI: So getting live input from outsiders turned out okay after all?
Simons: I was very anxious about that. I was a bit embarrassed, I guess, that our brand was sort of so disorganized and that we hadn’t worked all of this stuff out ourselves already.
Now I just can’t tell you how valuable that outside audience has been. So many of the decisions that we’ve made truly came from audience and consumer feedback. If anyone said to me “would you do this again?” I would say yes in a heartbeat.