How should an artisanal, fermented food or drink brand spend their time and energy: making the product or selling it?
Both, say John Gray, owner of Bubbies pickles and TFA Advisory Board member, and Steve Rustad, his marketing partner. The two spoke at a TFA webinar “The Bubbies Pickles Story: Food Marketing Fundamentals.”
“You have two jobs if you’re a small businessman. One is making it, the other is selling it,” says Rustad, owner of Rustad Marketing. “If you’re prioritizing making it and putting selling in the back seat, you are not looking at one of the most important parts of your business.”
Marketing should never be considered a distraction — promoting the product needs to be as fundamental to a business plan as making it.
“I’ve seen very few people who can do marketing and making successfully. It is a different world. It takes two people,” Rustad adds.
Sharing Your Brand’s Story
How did Bubbies grow from a small, struggling brand to a financially successful category leader? Good marketing.
Gray, who has a background in finance, decided to purchase the Bubbies brand with his wife, Kathy, in the late 80s. A lawyer friend had recently taken the brand through bankruptcy, and John said he knew that helping the brand survive would “take every last dime we’ve got. And it did.”
His first step was partnering with Rustad and recreating the label. The original one featured Bubbies written in a bubble font script. It was difficult to read, and people confused “Bubbies” with “Bubbles.” And the image on the label of vegetables wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Gray and Rustad wanted to maintain the old-fashioned look, but in a way that would resonate with customers.
A picture of Kathy’s Jewish grandma Bubbe (Bubbe is the Yiddish word for grandmother) became the inspiration for the label image. She became the mascot, a Bubbe that stands for valuable cooking principles — keeping the kitchen the center of the home, the worth of a home cooked meal and, most important, creating great flavor.
Once the new label was introduced,, sales grew 40% the first three months.
“That’s the power (of a good label),” Gray says. “Your label is your face to the world. And you need to spend the right kind of money until it hurts to get it right because it’s probably the most important money you’ll ever spend.”
To market a product, you need to have a story, Rustad adds. The dream to always ferment vegetables is not a story. “What makes your product unique?”
Bubbies used their quirkiness as a selling point, a strategy Rustad recommends for new, artisanal brands. Don’t look to major consumer packaged good brands for guidance on how to market a maker business. “Your quirkiness is your advantage when you’re a maker,” he says.
Marketing Fermented Products
But how do you market a fermented food or drink, with its own unique qualities?
First, Gray advises, do not become an authority on health food.
“We don’t talk about probiotics at all,” he says. “We make no health claims, we’re very careful about it. One of the reasons I got involved with and wanted to get The Fermentation Association started is because the FDA refuses to deal with what natural is and what it means.”
“If you’re going to talk about your probiotics, you better be legally sure that what the consumer is getting when they crack open the jar is what you are promising them, not just what you made originally,” Gray adds. “As a result, we completely stay away from any claims about health, probiotics or anything else because you can’t prove it.”
Though Bubbies includes all-natural ingredients (cucumber, artesian well water and spices) without sugar or preservatives, Bubbies doesn’t put “natural” on the label, either. Rustad notes, when you try to put “natural” on a product label, it becomes contentious, turning your product into “a magnet for people to sue you.”
The health food is a regulated industry. “As soon as you make any health claims, you’re in bed with the Food and Drug Administration. You really don’t want to do that. So when you talk about your food attributes, you need to be careful that you’re not talking about medicine. Your customers may say your food cures cancer, but you can’t say that.”
Some uninformed customers still consider fermented goods dangerous. Don’t waste time marketing to the uninformed.“It’s very expensive when you have to educate,” Gray advises.
Bubbies in the early years ran into a related problem. Because their pickles and sauerkraut are naturally fermented, the brine is cloudy – a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Bubbies was unsure how to educate those that thought this cloudiness was a problem. So they made it an attribute of the product, a positive, and, printed “Shake Until Cloudy” on all jars.
Focus on the taste. “If something tastes good, people will put up with a lot of appearance issues,” Rustad says. And taste better than the competition. Bubbies pickles re-launched at a time when big food brands were switching from naturally fermented pickles to processed, shelf-stable varieties.
“By having a naturally fermented pickle, we had a product that was very basic, had no additives other than the spices and was perceived as healthful,” says Rustad . “And tasted delicious.”
Fermented food and drink are difficult to scale, labor intensive and have unique production processes with different liabilities. But people are willing to pay a higher price for an artisanal, fermented product.
“Your market for this product is conditioned to pay a premium for what they perceive to be a superior product. People expect to pay more, ” Rustad says, comparing it to the organic food industry.
Focus on Customers
“Part of that premium should be used for marketing,” he continues. “You need to invest in marketing. And marketing is an investment because you’re buying awareness, you’re buying the tool to establish relevance and hopefully your marketing is provoking trial, action, relationship, social media engagement.”
Bubbies — a certified kosher product — advertised their product in the Jewish press in Los Angeles County in the early days. They knew it was their target audience, and they couldn’t afford advertising in a mass market publication.
Customer rapport has been vital to Bubbies success. Over the years, retailers have replaced Bubbies with different private labels — twice at Safeway and, more recently, at Sprouts. Customers are the first to call and complain to the store’s buyers.
“That happens because of the relationship you have with your customer. Outreach is key. We respond to every single outreach from any customer, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, email,” Gray says. “How do you relate? People want real stuff. They want real, authentic food, ingredients they can pronounce, that they know what they are.”