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Focus on branding delivers revenue increases and zealots for small health food company

by | Aug 10, 2010 | Branding | 0 comments

Although they compete with giant CPG companies, the marketers at Annie’s Homegrown don’t have a TV, radio, or print ad budget. Instead, over the past 12 months, they’ve focused efforts on the Web for — brand building. (That’s right, not direct response.) It worked, revenues are up 25% and Wal-Mart is about to start carrying Annie’s.
Here’s what the Web team did:
Organic shelf-stable foods are one of the hottest categories in supermarkets these days — industry sales are growing by 20% per year.
Naturally (pun intended) this is thrilling for the folks at Annie’s Homegrown. The brand’s been beloved in the organic world for years, but more recently has made significant headways in mainstream supermarket chains.
But, bigger CPGs and supermarket house brands are also hopping on the organic bandwagon these days. Suddenly Annie’s marketing team were outgunned in terms of staff and budget in the very market they pioneered.
“Our brand is invaluable,” says Annie’s Web Marketing Manager Mark Berger. “We’re basically just macaroni makers, but with the brand we’re really so much more than that. That’s what people identify with.”
Although only 1% of Annie’s sales are direct ecommerce from the site (mainly to bulk buyers such as day care centers), the team decided to invest significant energy to revving up the brand’s Web presence over the past 12 months. However, the purpose was not to increase ecommerce sales.
Instead Berger’s online goal was almost entirely brand building. Could he use the site to grow a community of consumer excitement for a brand that was suddenly under heavy competition from me-too products on supermarket shelves?
Annies’ site was pretty old and dated looking (the background color for all pages is purple and the home page is dominated by one static image with no updatable content.)
However, when Berger considered his goals, he decided to spend his energy first on adding more interactivity and community-building functionality to the site rather than spinning his wheels in a full graphic redesign. After all, as long as the URL worked, the logos were correct and brand mascot Bernie the Rabbit were represented, it was working.
So he and his team focused on adding loads of interactive functions designed to hook into the passion consumers felt for the brand and the “green” causes it espouses, including: 
#1. Guestbook — an old fashioned idea yes, but Berger decided it was worth giving consumers the opportunity to post comments visibly online because shared enthusiasm brings a community together.
#2. Free stuff — the site features two different free areas, both supporting the brands’ values. One is for causes (such as homeless shelters) to submit requests for free cases of food.   The other is “free loot” for consumers themselves. Consumers pay a token fee of $1 shipping and handling via Paypal to receive their choice of bumper stickers, pins, or fridge magnets. Each is branded with a logo, but many also carry cause-related messages such as “Be Green. Help the Earth Live.”
#3. Kids stuff — everything from coloring pages to print out and color in, kid-friendly recipes, to reviews of best new kids books with natural themes.
#4. Bernie’s Blog — ostensibly written by brand mascot Bernie the Rabbit, the blog features short articles and news notes on organic food, healthier living, and a healthier earth.
Our cause marketing person Kathryn Keslosky writes it. She’s a recent grad of Villanova and she’s had a passion for environmental issues and political action since she was a student. I feel the blog world likes the activism and passion in it.”
Key — prior to starting the blog, the team met to carefully discuss what Bernie’s attitude would be. Instead of writing negative or critical articles, the team decided Kathryn would focus on the positive. Example – links to articles on sustainable agriculture, instead of articles on how mainstream farming hurts the land.
#5. Newsletter opt-in — Last but not least the team posted opt-in offers all over the site. Key for the brand, the opt-in is double (confirmed) only.
Plus each newsletter continues that feeling of community by featuring profiles and photos of the actual organic farmers whose produce goes into Annies’ products. Real-life customers are also profiled, talking about their lives and not incidentally the role the brand plays in them.
Over the past year, Annie’s offline retail sales rose by 25% (that’s five points above average for their category), and online sales rose by 45%.
Proving that getting double opt-ins and producing strong content is worth the extra work, Annie’s email newsletter gets *double* the industry average response rate with an open rate in the high 40s and clickthroughs in the high 20s.
The most popular sections of the site are Bernies’ Blog and the free loot. “We get hundreds of requests per month. Not many people give away free stuff on their site.” 
In the past 11 months almost 200 consumers have signed the site guestbook, most with heartfelt testimonials about the role Annie’s products play in their lives.
Here’s a typical guestbook note:
“Thanks, Bernie (and Annie) for making a “subculture” of health food and sustainable food production so accessible! Not too mention the tastiness of all of your products- my husband was won over the first time he ate your Deluxe Mac and Cheese (when we were first dating and he was adjusting to being in love with a “granolahead”) and now won’t settle for anything else. Not too mention your Cheddar Bunnies which have inspired the favorite activity of the children that I teach art to. After trying the Cheddar Bunnies in class one day, they all started hopping around like Bernie (much to the chagrin of the music school downstairs!!) Keep it up and thanks so much!”
from V in Washington DC
Plus, now the site’s started to get traction in the blog community as parents blogging about their lives mention and hotlink to Annie’s in posts. (In fact, we counted six hotlinked posts on personal blogs in the past week alone.)
Next, Berger is planning to revamp the overall design of the Annie’s site, especially the home page, hoping to keep the brand appeal while bringing it into the new millennium.