October 25, 2020

What do Yorkshire’s small drinks and food brands need to do to succeed in the big leagues?

In an increasingly competitive marketplace it can sometimes be difficult for small companies to gain a foothold within the food and drink industry. Craig Sams and William Fugard, co-founders of Gusto Organic drinks, know a thing or two about doing just that. Here they share some of the knowledge they’ve gained along the way.

When you’re running a small business you know you don’t have the budget and clout of the long-established large firms.  For instance, how does a new food or drinks brand compete with the marketing clout of popular high street brands with little money? Or get their products onto the shelves of big supermarkets without a proven track record?

It’s a fact of business life that size matters. However, that’s doesn’t mean that small businesses, young brands, and new products can’t make an impact and even break into the mainstream. Having achieved this myself with a number of once-unknown brands and products, I’ve learned some useful things along the way.

Here are our tips which will help small brands in the food and drink sector grab opportunities despite the heavy weight competition:

Don’t hold back. When you’re leading a startup or another small company, it’s understandable to think that big players won’t be interested in what you have to offer. For example, you might assume that supermarkets won’t care to stock your new brand. However, you might be surprised to find several who are. The only way to find out is to engage them with a strong pitch and an open mind. Don’t be scared to try and land the bigger fish!

Last year, I wrote to Jason Gissing, one of the founders of Ocado, to introduce Gusto. I’ll admit that I was a little surprised when he replied and agreed to meet up so I could show him the Gusto range. It turned out that he loved our brand and ethos, which led to him plugging Gusto to senior Ocado contacts who have been hugely supportive.

As a small brand vying for attention amongst the massive portfolio of products at a big supermarket, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. Finding influential advocates really helps, so networking is pretty key to this. LinkedIn is a goldmine for key industry contacts, as are in-person networking events. So, if you find one open-minded person who’s influential in their organisation, it could help you get your foot in the door.

A farmer’s mindset. The popularity of many food and drink products tends to fluctuate with the seasons. So, like any good farmer, learning when to sow and when to harvest is essential. When we launched three drinks last April in preparation for summer, we learned the hard way that the summer buying window actually starts around September/October and extends as far as March. 

By March, most retailers and restaurant chains have chosen their summer listings. So, it’s crucial to know all the cut-off dates for retail seasons and offer your products to retailers well ahead of the cut-off date. Ideally, you’ll have decided your seasonal ranges a year in advance so you can also get a head start on marketing. All of this will give you the best chance of capitalising on seasonal food and drinks trends and enjoy the sales boost that comes with it.

Maximise the three pillars.  For a new product to succeed, it – and this may sound obvious – needs to taste good, look appealing, and be sold effectively. If any of the three pillars are not up to scratch, it’s better to delay a launch rather than push a product with bland packaging, a sales strategy that’s been hastily cobbled together, or a taste you know isn’t quite perfect.

A misjudged sales strategy will scupper your crucial launch and the first stage of growth, all of which will put off potential retailers, investors, and partners who may doubt your abilities and your product’s mass appeal. Getting the taste, texture, or appearance of your product wrong, or indeed using poor branding, will be pretty hard to recover from. If your three pillars are built on strong foundations though, you’ll have every chance of success.

Make the product you adore.  If you design a product you feel is simply missing from the market, it’s best to create it in yourvision. Chances are that if you love it, many others will as well.

We created Gusto because there were no natural, organic, and Fairtrade drinks out there, and well, we wanted one to drink regularly! So, rather than using focus groups or flavour houses, we set out to make the taste we wanted, by using only the ingredients we wanted to consume. Likewise, we made sure the design and branding resonated with us. Thankfully, it’s struck a chord with many others too.

Sticking to your guns is also the best way to bring out a genuinely new and unique product. The other thing is, if you really love your idea, you won’t get tired of trying to share it with the world. This will make your advertising more genuine and conjure passion and enthusiasm from customers So, make sure you’re truly happy with your products and brand from the outset.

Be patient – Good opportunities can often take a frustratingly long time to come to fruition. We’ve had plenty of conversations with retailers and restaurants that have lasted more than a year before they agreed to stock Gusto. It was certainly worth the effort though. If you think the opportunity is an important one and the retailer hasn’t closed the door, don’t throw in the towel.

In general, strong sustainable brands with a broad customer base take time to build. So, seek to win over one shop, one café, one bar at a time. There is no silver bullet, just time and persistence.

Define your brand values – Every business is faced with an array of decisions, some of which can also challenge your ethics and values. Will you choose cheap or Fairtrade ingredients? Go organic or not? Will you add sugar and preservatives or tweak the recipe? Will your packaging be recyclable?

Having clearly defined brand values helps a brand navigate their decisions and remain consistent. So, it’s best to incorporate your own ethos into your brand and stay true to it. For example, we put great focus on our organic and Fairtrade credentials, which we’re sure our customers appreciate. In an age of endless product choice, we feel integrity counts for a lot.

We have to accept that big business has weight behind it. However, your food or drink product doesn’t have to be lightweight. If you work hard and implement some of these tips you have every chance of success. Your next product can be a champion.

About the Authors

Craig Sams and William Fugard are co-founders of Gusto, the world’s first natural, organic, and Fairtrade energy drink. 

Craig Sams is also the co-founder of Green & Black’s luxury chocolate, and Whole Earth Foods. 

Craig Sams

Gusto is available from over 600 outlets, sold in eight countries and distributed by 20 UK Wholesalers. Gusto is stocked by Ocado, Whole Foods Market, The Waldorf Hilton, Sourced Market, Eat17, Tate Modern, SKY TV head offices & Chiquito restaurants.  Gusto Organic was the official soft drinks sponsor for 2018 & 2019 Tour of Britain Pro Cycle race, and we directly market with Craft Clubs through their 28,000 monthly Gin subscription boxes.