While Kodiak Cakes has built its reputation on its signature whole grain pancakes and waffle mixes, its new CEO Valerie Oswalt faces a tough challenge: convincing consumers there’s more to the brand.
Oswalt, only two months into the job after taking over in mid-November from Kodiak co-founder and CEO Joel Clark, said the company has strong brand awareness among consumers in flapjacks and waffle mixes. But a key part of the company’s plan for growth is built on developing its presence in the $47 billion breakfast category where its other core offerings of oatmeal, frozen waffles, and to a lesser extent, granola bars, garner far less recognition in the marketplace.
“What we’re finding is one of our biggest opportunities is the cross-category purchase because so many consumers still don’t know we’re in multiple categories,” Oswalt said. “With the repeat rates we have and the brand loyalty we have, we know it’s just about driving brand awareness to consumers.”
Oswalt is no stranger to the food space, having served as president of Campbell Soup’s $4 billion snacks portfolio including brands such as Goldfish, Milano, Pepperidge Farm and Snyder’s of Hanover. She also previously had stints at Kraft Foods and Mondelēz International, where she was president of its North American confections business. Her CPG experience gives Oswalt direct insight into the types of companies Kodiak is going up against.
“We're going to continue to do a lot of what we've been successful at,” she said. “[Breakfast] is incredibly competitive, right? I mean, we're going up against Quaker, you got General Mills, Kellogg’s. Those are big businesses, big companies with a lot of resources and a lot of history in these categories.”
‘The Kodiak effect’
Kodiak traces its roots to the early 1980s when a family pancake recipe was packaged in brown paper lunch sacks and sold from the back of a red wagon on a street in Salt Lake City.
Today, Kodiak has significantly expanded its product offerings by adding frozen waffles, oatmeal, baking mixes and a variety of snack products such as cakes and brownies. Kodiak, which was purchased by private equity firm L Catterton for an undisclosed amount in 2021, has thrived during the pandemic offering convenience and simple, healthy formulas.
Since taking over, Oswalt has been tasked with growing brand awareness currently at 31%, increasing repeat purchases and expanding product distribution of its four main products.
Kodiak is spending more on advertising and partnerships with athletes and actors like Zac Efron and NFL players Joe Burrow, Travis Kelce — many of whom are investors in the business.
The company is also planning a marketing campaign that speaks to the breadth of the categories Kodiak plays in, targeted especially at millennial moms. It’s also prioritizing boosting the brand’s penetration beyond retail into away-from-home channels such as restaurants, college campuses and foodservice outlets.
“I call it the Kodiak effect, the ability to go in, take sleepy categories, drive incredible growth that's been sustained now.”
CEO, Kodiak Cakes
Despite what the company sees as this untapped opportunity, Kodiak has rapidly grown into a major player in the breakfast category.
In both pancakes and frozen offerings, Kodiak is bringing in new consumers to their respective categories — evidence the company said shows its differential product has carved out a niche with consumers who desire better-for-you options amid a sea of indulgent and nostalgic choices. In pancakes, for example, the company said nearly half of Kodiak’s new consumers did not previously purchase products in the category.
“I call it the Kodiak effect, the ability to go in, take sleepy categories, drive incredible growth that's been sustained now,” Oswalt said. “I'm really optimistic and the growth is going to continue and as we get scale, it's going to allow us to invest differently in the business and that's a big part of why I'm here is to help us now take us into that next chapter of growth.”
Its household penetration has soared five-fold from 2018 to more than 15% this year, according to the company. Revenue during the last year jumped more than 30% to nearly $500 million, and it now is the No. 2 largest branded player for oatmeal, frozen offerings and pancakes and waffles as determined by retail sales — in some cases beating big brands such as PepsiCo’s Pearl Milling Company (formerly Aunt Jemima) and General Mills’ Bisquick at large retailers.
“We’re driving a different value equation for the category,” Oswalt said. “You’re providing functional benefits that also taste good. Consumers are willing to pay more for that.”
It’s proven to be valuable as inflation has increased consumer costs for everything from clothing and medical care to transportation and food. Even as some consumers trade down to lower-cost offerings, premium items like those sold by Kodiak have managed to rebuff the downturn. Consumers have shown a penchant for purchasing premium offerings that offer something unique and valuable even if they cost a bit more.
“We have data that shows that even when the category was contracting, in some cases, we were actually continuing to grow, even post-COVID, so there's a stickiness to the product ... even during challenging times,” Oswalt said. “We’re premiumizing a typically commoditized category.”