In the face of Fortune 500s and corporations seen everywhere, smaller brands have trouble competing—and they certainly lack those massive budgets. That's why, says Jay Whitney, one of his food brands, Fresh Cravings, decided to sell its brand values in 2021 instead of its products alone.
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Whitney admits that "exceptionalism" keeps him up at night—the conundrum of how family-owned companies can deliver more than mediocrity and make a difference to their customers. After the pandemic hit, it was the perfect opportunity for Fresh Cravings to use its limited funds to connect to people and exhibit its values.
Thus, Salsabrate the Good was born: a project that takes out company money to help and highlight local nonprofit organizations. "These are people in your local hometown that saw a problem, decided to fix it, and created a nonprofit as their solution...We wanted to be part of a conversation around goodness and kindness," says Whitney in our latest podcast, who responded to young people's focus on social causes in marketing.
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Matt Snodgrass: Welcome to another episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. I am excited to welcome Jay Whitney, the chief marketing officer of FoodStory Brands, to the show.
Jay, how are you?
Jay Whitney: Awesome. Thank you so much, Matt, for having me on. I'm excited to connect with you today on what's going on in our world.
Matt: We're going to have a great conversation. We're going to talk about something called Salsabrate, which I am very excited about. Before we get to that, we have a couple of questions that we like to ask all of our guests. The first one I'm going to throw at you right now is what are you reading? It can be personal, it can be professional, it can be a Summertime beach romance novel if that's what's on your nightstand, whatever you have. What are you reading right now?
Jay: I'm reading a book right now called Taking the Lead by Dave Alpern. Dave is the president of Joe Gibbs Racing. He started out in the broom closet, and 30 years later he's the president. The book is really about his journey from the broom closet to the president's corner office and what he learned along the way from Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. Dave is a friend of mine, so it's really fun to read this.
Because part of my legacy and my career, NASCAR was a big part of it in the early decade of my career, so it's really a cool reflection for me to be able to look back and be reminded of some of the great stories. Also, if you want a good book that has tons of just great practical wisdom about leadership and how to be exceptional, I think this is a great book.
Best of all, just to share, the proceeds of this book benefit JD Gibbs Legacy Fund. JD was Joe Gibbs's son who passed away tragically a couple years ago. Dave wrote this book and is promoting it in order to raise funds for the JD Gibbs Legacy Fund.
Matt: Very cool. Do you find as you're reading it there are moments where you have a moment of I was there, or I know that person, or I was involved in that situation, are there any reminders there of things that you had done or worked on in your past life?
Jay: Yes, for sure. Probably every other page that I flip, I hear some story, whether I was directly involved or adjacent to it, or it happened at the racetrack during the weekend that I was there working with Coca-Cola. So, yes, it's a great walk down memory lane for me. Working in NASCAR for several years was really a bright spot of my career.
Matt: Really cool. I like that. That has to be a fun read then. It's called Talking the Lead by Dave Alpern, right?
Matt: Excellent. Question number two, what is your drink of choice right now as we're moving from summer to fall, what are you drinking?
Jay: It's called a margahito. It's a shameless plug, actually, because we own a brand called Cocktail Artist, which is elevated bar ingredients and nonalcoholic mixers. We actually partnered with a group of award-winning mixologists to develop this brand and this whole line. The margahito is my favorite mocktail, especially summer refresher. It's a bit of lime juice, simple syrup, and of course mint. Then a little pro tip, you can put in some mint leaves and it's just phenomenal. Very refreshing.
Matt: It sounds better than the last drink. I just did an interview earlier today and the guest told me anything you need to do can be done with coffee and bourbon. We talked about that and for the next five minutes I was thinking that he is mixing coffee and bourbon as his drink of choice. It was only after a few minutes of talking about this that he pointed out to me, no, those are two different drinks. I'm going on thinking, this is what he's doing every day is bourbon with his coffee? Good stuff.
Final question, what are you thinking about from a business and marketing standpoint, what's on your mind right now, what keeps you up at night?
Jay: Exceptionalism. It's kind of a big buzzword here at our company. How do we stand out? How do we break through? How do we quarter turn? How do we do it differently? When everybody is going left, how do we go right? As marketers, that's probably, for me anyway, the biggest fear I have, settling for mediocrity or getting too comfortable in a sea of sameness. It's very much what keeps me up at night.
We have multiple brands, so it's an ongoing thing to just constantly be thinking about how we can be exceptional. Whether it's our brand, whether it's our marketing strategy, whether it's our go-to-market strategy, it's just something that really drives us.
Matt: There are plenty of good companies and brands out there who make really good livings being mediocre and being just okay. Right? There's a lot of organizations that do that. What's pushing you guys to constantly look for being exceptional, for going above and beyond?
Jay: We are a family-owned company, so we've built these brands from scratch. We'll talk today about Fresh Cravings, our number one brand. We wake up every day and we're going up against Fortune 500, Fortune 100 companies, big food companies, so we have to constantly be more clever because we don't have the deep pockets and the budgets of these mega brands. It's just a constant little itch to figure out how can we do something with the amount of budget that we have to be clever and creative and connect with people on an emotional level.
Matt: You guys have grown pretty quickly and gotten pretty big, and it almost came out of nowhere. Do you still have that David versus Goliath mentality?
Jay: We do. We wake up every day and that's exactly how we go to market is this tenacity that we know we're starting behind the start line and we have to work extra hard to catch up and move forward. We'll talk about the transformational success of Fresh Cravings. It's a great example of stepping into a category and transforming it and revitalizing it.
Matt: Let's jump into that now. Give us the short version of the Fresh Cravings story. I find this fascinating.
Jay: Fresh Cravings was born out of a buyers need state. One of the things that we do is we're a brand incubator with speed to market as our key secret sauce; we're able to move quickly. When a buyer at a major national merchant has a need state, maybe it's a pain spot, maybe they want some whitespace innovation, what we do is move from conceptualization to commercialization quickly.
After we got an assignment from one of the largest merchants in the world that said, "We're struggling with refrigerated salsa. Can you help us?" Inside 30 days, we came back with Fresh Cravings, product architecture and recipes second to none that we double-blind taste-tested at universities, and this elevated quality at an affordable price for the salsa category. That's how we got our start, an assignment. We turned that assignment, which was a 900-store launch, into 20,000 stores today in the last five years, so we've grown extremely fast in this category.
Matt: That is fantastic growth. In less than five years, you said?
Jay: Yes. You think about salsa, salsa is ubiquitous, it's a $1.7 billion category in the United States. $1.3 billion of that is shelf-stable, so it's cooked salsa in jars over in dry groceries, center of store.
Matt: Can I just say that's garbage?
Jay: You can.
Matt: I do not like canned jarred salsa at all. Okay. Sorry. Carry on. I just had to give you my take on it.
Jay: And this is the sentiment of a lot of consumers today: "I want the real thing. I want the genuine article." So, what we did is we looked at deliberately merchandising the brand in fresh produce. That's where fruits and vegetables are, so we wanted to be as close as possible to the product architecture in a very authentic way. It's really important to state that in fresh salsa what tastes better is the efficacy of the vegetables. When you cook them or you pasteurize them, essentially it's a kill step that is taking all those nutrients and compressing them. We pride ourselves on a recipe that has fresh ingredients, fresh tomatoes, fresh onions, fresh cilantro, and it really does from a recipe perspective make a tremendous difference. Are you hungry yet?
Matt: I haven't had lunch and I'm just thinking about what I'm going to eat. Yes. So, this all started with salsa. What's the next step then, what happened?
Jay: We were talking about this $1.7 billion as the annual sales of salsa, but $400 million of that is refrigerated salsa. We have a huge universe of salsa eaters, 1.3 billion, that just like you may want to make the switch and convert from center of store to the perimeter. Once we built the halo effect around Fresh Cravings the brand and really elevated quality at an affordable price point as our mission, it really was natural to line extend into other fresh dip categories. We launched nationwide three SKUs of hummus. We are in both Kroger and Walmart soon with that line, as well as Safeway. We continue to proliferate category line extensions where it makes sense and where it ladders up into our brand DNA.
Matt: Let's talk about Salsabrate. This is the thing that I'm most excited about today. I've been chomping at the bit to get to this because this is really what I want to get into. You guys have Salsabrate the Good, it's a corporate social responsibility giveback campaign. Right? Tell us about Salsabrate the Good.
Jay: This one is near and dear to our hearts. It's a way that, as we looked at 2021, we were all sitting around trying to figure out what we do with our marketing budget this year. It felt tone-deaf to go out and just try to market and sell people salsa and hummus. It just didn't sit right with us. As I mentioned, we're family-owned, so we wanted to sell our values in 2021 instead of just our products.
We started kicking around this idea of what if we gave away a quarter of a million dollars and we built it into a platform that we could uplift local grassroots nonprofits. These are people in your local hometown that saw a problem, decided to fix it, and created a nonprofit as their solution. Those are the people we wanted to highlight and celebrate.
We said let's take $250,000, we'll do 50 nonprofits across the US, and every Thursday on our social pages we will not only give them $5,000, but we'll tell their story. A big part of this, you may recall coming into this year there was a lot of tension for a lot of reasons. We wanted to be part of a conversation around goodness and kindness. That became the impetus for Salsabrate the Good. We launched it back in February. We've now done 30 nonprofits, $150,000. If you go to our social pages, for every Thursday the last 30 weeks you'll see a different episode and story about these nonprofits.
Matt: How did you decide to go with small community nonprofits versus a bigger more well-known charity or something like that? What was the decision-making process that got you to be thinking about smaller community minded endeavors?
Jay: I'm going to tie this right back into our conversation at the top. We are a smaller boutique brand and we go up against the big food brands. To be like-minded and share alignment with smaller nonprofits that are trying so hard to raise money, to get their message out, to tell their story, we thought what better way for us as we move forward to really make that a key partnership opportunity with empowering these local nonprofit founders.
Matt: I like that you're talking about it in terms of a partnership. Rather than just saying we made a donation or we gave X this much money, you're partnering with them, you're taking the time to tell their story. I watched a couple of the videos you put out. I just watched one this morning about soccer. You're taking the time to get to know these nonprofits, and they're invested as much as you are. I think that really says a lot to your brand, what you believe in, and how to get buy-in, for lack of a better term. Right?
Jay: Yes. At the end of the day, this is a purpose-driven platform. It's very much about expressing our values, but ultimately the bonus or the benefit is that… We all talk about impressions in marketing, how many impressions did we create, how much reach did we get. When the impression is an impression where you're striking an emotional chord with someone, you're doing something in their local community as a national brand, we are a national brand, but we are acting in these local markets in a way that can connect with people on a much more meaningful and emotional level than a normal salsa ad that we might run on social media.
Matt: How do you pick which nonprofits? Is there an application process? Do you guys have some in mind that you started with? How does one avail themselves of this amazing opportunity?
Jay: It's funny you asked that. In the beginning, it was a little intimidating. How are we going to find 50 nonprofits that fit the bill and really are in line with what our guidelines are? We hand-selected the first few just through our own internal research and employees in the company sharing different things that they had seen.
Once we started to really promote it, people go to our website at FreshCravings.com and there's a Salsabrate the Good section. Nonprofits can go there and fill out a quick little simple application. Then it gets on our Tuesday morning calls, and we talk through these different nonprofits that have applied. You can either apply yourself or someone can nominate you. It's been a huge blessing because we haven't had to work very hard to find a lot of great causes.
Matt: That's really exciting. You said this $250,000 that you decided to use as part of this giving back campaign was pulled out of your marketing budget, right?
Jay: Yes. We literally took a line item and repurposed it and retitled it Salsabrate the Good. Here's the thing. We are a family-owned brand, we don't have the kind of budgets that big CPG food has. Not only did we have to commit the donations, but we had to commit to go hire a producer.
We didn't have anybody on staff that could produce episodes, so we went out and hired a great producer who films and interviews these folks in their hometowns, and these great videos that you see. His name is Todd Hoyer, he puts all of those together for us. It was a bigger commitment than just the donations themselves.
Matt: That's what I was thinking about this morning as I was watching a couple of those. I didn't realize at the time that you were doing 50 of these. I thought this is enough to keep a small team busy for a year, because you have the interviews, you have the editing, you have the filming, then you have the traveling around, the marketing and posting on the website that comes with all of that. This is not just we're going to earmark this chunk of money and do it. There's a lot more that goes into it on the back end.
Jay: Yes. It's a lot of blocking and tackling when you're dealing with 50 of these. Now we have such a great team and they're very seasoned at the checklist, so to speak, making sure that every single week we follow a protocol so that we don't miss. And we've not missed once in 30 straight weeks of posting the episode, the donation, and the story. We're very proud of that. It was a big undertaking, but we felt so passionately around the purpose of it that it feels like a labor of love.
It has been an enormous amount of fun meeting with these nonprofit founders. They constantly are inspiring us before we cut videos and tell their stories in our interactions with them, and like you said earlier, partnerships. We've already done five or six things outside of Salsabrate with some of these folks that we've been fortunate to partner with. It's really an uplifting platform for us in that regard.
Matt: From a logistics standpoint, I'm sure you had a plan coming into it. We're starting this in February, here's what each week is going to look like, here are the tasks to get checked off to make sure we can have this fulfilled and ready to go for the following week. Did you find that once you started doing the doing that plans changed, or were you guys pretty accurate in how you had assessed and blocked this out?
Jay: Can we pause it for a second?
Matt: We absolutely can pause, yes.
Jay: Okay. I was trying to find real quick my list of some of our great nonprofits and I missed part of that question. Do you mind just giving me a quick refresher on what that was?
Matt: No problem. I'm glad you brought that up. Do we want to mention a couple of those as we go throughout?
Jay: Yes. I want to talk about a few of them. I also want to talk about, you'd be astonished how many kids. More than half of the folks that we've partnered with are under the age of 25 as nonprofit CEOs. I would love to just share what kind of causes we're picking and what kind of people we're partnering with.
Matt: Let's do that now and then I'll ask my logistics question. The question was just I'm curious, I know you guys had this planned out when you started this, was this an instance of best laid plans of mice and men, everything is totally different than we thought it was, or did it stick pretty close to what you had mapped out in terms of tasks and responsibilities? I'm just wondering from a logistic standpoint, but let's talk about some of them. That was our timeout, we're going to time back in here.
Jay, tell me a little bit about some of the organizations that you're working with that have been recipients of these generous weekly gifts. I'd love to know a little bit more about who you're working with.
Jay: Let's start with the causes themselves. We really struggled in the beginning around what causes would we support. We've mentioned nonprofit, grassroots, local, sort of the unsung community heroes. That's one box that was really important to us to tick. Then we started getting into we're a food brand, so everything we do needs to be food-based. That just didn't feel right. For what we were trying to accomplish, this is about goodness.
Matt: Were you thinking things like food pantries and soup kitchens and that sort of thing?
Jay: Yes, exactly. We wrestled quite a bit amongst the team here over this exact dilemma of conscience. Do we stick to only what we are connected to or do we make it agnostic and go across multiple causes with the common denominator being someone in their local market decided to make a difference and they are doing something in their community? We've covered causes all the way from suicide prevention to veterans to food pantries to food technology, giving technology to underserved youth, and it's just been a tremendous array of causes that in the sum total makes Salsabrate the Good really special.
Matt: Are there any specific ones you want to shout out to? I'd love to know.
Jay: I do. One of the things we've had the most fun with in doing this was sort of a surprise. We didn't expect this. Almost half of the people that we have featured have been under the age of 25. These are nonprofit CEOs that founded a cause in their local city, and they're kids.
Jay: Morgan's Lemonaid Stand, Khloe Kares out in Los Angeles, Project I Am over in Chicago, My Ascension with the folks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It's just one after another of these kids, and that just really captivated our hearts. We did not expect that to be a big part of this platform, but it has been a tremendous blessing to support those young folks, and it gives us a lot of hope for the future.
Matt: That's really exciting. I remember what I was doing when I was 24 and 25, and it was not leading a nonprofit, that's for sure. That's really impressive.
Jay: Yes. Jahkil Jackson launched Project I Am at the age of 8.
Matt: Oh my gosh.
Jay: It's really a beautiful story. He was with his parents in Chicago, and he noticed homeless people and started asking his parents questions, "Why don't they have a home? Why don't they have food? Why don't they have clothes and shoes?" It just was something that he went back to his parents a day later and said, "I want to support the homeless in Chicago." His parents said, "Okay. Sure. Let's do that." In the beginning, they started making what he called blessing bags. These are just bags with toothpaste, toothbrush, some bare essentials, water, hydration, food. He would just go around in Chicago with his parents and hand these blessing bags out to people.
Today they've turned this into an international youth movement where he and several other young people partner to do the exact same work in their communities. It's phenomenal to think that at age 8 he started a charity. If you think about what you and I were probably doing at age 8, pretty far from it.
Matt: It was not that. He's an old hat at this, he's been around two decades nearly.
Jay: Well, he's actually 14, so he's been doing it for six years.
Matt: Okay. He's on the very young end then. I thought he was a 25-year-old.
Jay: It's been really special to partner with these young folks.
Matt: Good for him. Here's a two-parter for you, because I want to dig into this a little bit in our last couple of minutes. For starters, where did the inspiration for this come from? Was it from the owners of your company, did it come from the marketing team, was it a suggestion in a suggestion box by an employee, how did you guys land on this?
Jay: It came up in a brainstorm session that we were having, a roundtable if you will, starting to contemplate what do we do, how do we market in the midst of a pandemic was sort of the topic of discussion. In a great meeting when creatives are talking and marketing folks are talking, there's always that build where one person starts a domino and says, "What if we were to repurpose those dollars for something great? What if we called Salsabrate? What if we did this?" It just kept building into this masterpiece concept that we all went, "Yes, that's it." That's exactly what Salsabrate the Good is.
Then it was me making a phone call to our CEO Mike Parker, who is just a tremendous owner and founder of both Next Phase Enterprises and FoodStory Brands, which is the company I'm in. I called and asked his permission to go do this and he said, "Absolutely. What do you need?" You know how those things go in life. When you know you have the right team, the right idea, the right support, and things just work out very seamlessly, then you're probably doing the right thing.
Matt: That might make my next question more difficult, because you had a pretty easy task of it. What I wanted to ask is how do we convince the C-suite that this is something that we need to get into from a corporate and social responsibility standpoint, especially for organizations that haven't really been doing much of this? I guess for lack of a better term, how do you sell this internally?
Jay: It's important that you connect ownership to the business side of it. We started with a lot of data that a lot of younger generations are really focused on cause-related initiatives and have a passion for supporting brands that support causes. When you have that kind of fact-based data point to lead you into this, then it's a matter of positioning the right platform and the right mission that will create the business results.
The business results, we just won an award, by the way. The Impact Award for Excellence in Philanthropic Innovation, which we did not even know existed before we started doing this, by the folks at Progressive Grocer. The goosebumps that we had as a collective organization when we read the list of people that got awards – Kroger, Publix, Hello Fresh, Hormel, Fresh Cravings – it's just so powerful, the connectivity to a result like that.
Then it was also about from a metric standpoint how do we use this as a way, we're not selling salsa, we're selling our values, but maybe we make the right impression with someone and they go, "I really like what this family-owned brand is up to. I'm going to go buy their salsa," and can we show in the aggregate a continuation of growth in our social platforms, our digital metrics, our sales metrics? It is an ongoing process to show the ownership of the company this is why it's working and why it matters.
Matt: This really screams to me as this is something long term. A lot of CMOs are facing CEOs who say, "I want to see results on my marketing dollars. I want to see a definitive ROI in 90 days," sometimes even in as short as 30 days. To me, that seems shortsighted because that doesn't really take into account long term growth of the organization. This to me feels like a very long term commitment. You guys are doing good for the sake of doing good, but also to really help grow the brand and to be a positive and lasting force for change.
Jay: Absolutely. In fact, we've already started contemplating what we call Salsabrate the Good 2.0, for now, about how we continue this into the brand's future. Definitely next year we have a new campaign that's going to be an offshoot of this.
It probably won't be 50 charities, because of the amount of logistics that you were alluding to earlier. We're probably going to support less causes, but with bigger donations, higher impact, and broader storytelling, and just continue this. We see what a benefit it is to those that we're supporting as well as, to your point, to our own brand and what our mission is. So, why not keep going and do it even better?
Matt: Jay, thank you so much for your time today. What a great conversation.
Jay: Thank you. It was really fun to be on, Matt. Thanks for what you guys are doing.
Matt: I should say thanks for what you guys are doing. This is a huge impact in 50 different places around the country. That's phenomenal. Jay Whitney is the CMO of FoodStory Brands based in Arizona. Jay, thanks so much.
Jay: Thank you.
Matt: Folks, I have one favor to ask of you. If you liked what you heard today, if you found something useful, do me a favor, share this podcast with one friend. Send them an email, send them a text message, or if you're listening to us on your phone, give them a call, tell them that you liked the Marketing Smarts Podcast. You'll look like a hero for giving them something great to listen to, they'll have a new podcast for their ears, and they'll learn a lot about marketing along the way.
Thanks, everyone. Until next time.
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Published on November 18, 2021
Jay Whitney, CMO of FoodStory Brands, an Arizona-based, family-owned CPG company which thoughtfully curates disruptive speed-to-market food and beverage brand innovations. He oversees marketing strategy for its national brands, including Fresh Cravings, Cocktail Artist, and more. Previously, Jay worked with such global brands as Coca-Cola, NASCAR, and the Olympics, and he was part of the instrumental team which brought the Panthers NFL franchise to North Carolina. Jay graduated from Presbyterian College, where he played basketball, and he currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona with his family, where they lead an active lifestyle enjoying desert hikes, trail rides, and skiing.
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