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How small food and drinks brands can compete with big brands

Owners of small businesses know that overcoming obstacles is part of the job. You simply don’t have the resources that your long-established large competitors have or their market dominance.

How can small food and drinks brands can compete with big brands

With a new food or drinks brand, you may well ask, how does my brand compete with the marketing clout of popular high street brands when we have little money? Or get how do new products get onto the shelves of big supermarkets without a proven track record?

Although clearly, size matters, small businesses, young brands, and new products can make an impact and even break into the mainstream. From the experience of doing this with several once-unknown brands and products, I’ve learned useful lessons in the process.

For small food and drinks, brands wanting to punch above their weight and compete with big brands, here are some tips as given by Craig Sams and William Fugard, co-founders of Gusto Organic.

Be bold

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. So, don’t be scared to put out a line for 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.

Follow the seasons

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.

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 a product you love

If you design a product you feel is simply missing from the market, it’s best to create it in your vision. 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.

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.

Despite the advantages that large businesses have in food and drink as well as other industries, small businesses can succeed. It needs dedication and hard work, as I’m sure you know.  I hope these tips will help you to keep on track and that your vision for your brand and products will win over the buyers.

More on small business marketing and how to get your products stocked in retail.

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