At the beginning of 2020, Dirt Kitchen Snacks started appearing on store shelves.
The dried vegetable and nut snack, created through the innovation and venture arm of Mondelez International, was developed through research into consumer trends. It reached store shelves in 15 Los Angeles stores for a pilot test in February.
"We had, I like to call it, three weeks of good data, and then a fourth week of a little bit questionable data," Katrina Borisjuk, brand director for Dirt Kitchen, told Food Dive. "And then the world turned upside down."
As coronavirus started to rapidly spread in the United States and widespread stay-at-home orders were issued, consumer behavior made a quick pivot. As people weren't grocery shopping quite the same as they were before, the retail test of Dirt Kitchen products became a lot less useful.
SnackFutures had to figure out how to sell the new and innovative product and get quality consumer feedback when the conventional ways of getting items to consumers were no longer effective.
"So much of what we do is about learning, and then doing and iterating and learning and doing again. I would say it's helped us in COVID, but it's also forced us to to make some shifts."
Head of innovation, SnackFutures
But Dirt Kitchen wasn't alone in this problem. Mondelez's SnackFutures was founded at the end of 2018 to help the company become a leader in the trendy snacking space with products consumers like that are both good for health and the environment. SnackFutures has invested in smaller companies and launched its own brands. All four of SnackFutures' portfolio brands — Dirt Kitchen, CaPao, Ruckus and Co. and NoCOé, which has only launched in France — planned to start or restart sales in stores at the beginning of 2020.
Brigette Wolf, head of innovation for SnackFutures, told Food Dive they considered pausing some of the launches. But the underlying philosophy of SnackFutures is to give consumers more well-being choices in snacks so they decided to move forward and make them available.
"So much of what we do is about learning, and then doing and iterating and learning and doing again," Wolf said. "I would say it's helped us in COVID, but it's also forced us to to make some shifts."
These shifts include tapping into personal networks around Mondelez, as well as the vendors the brands worked with. The SnackFutures offerings needed to successfully pivot their sales strategies. They needed to find influencers to help with marketing, especially because the way products generally gain exposure had changed.
Wolf and Borisjuk said they are pleasantly surprised with how their pivots are working out so far, and they have provided new strategies that SnackFutures can use even when society returns to pre-pandemic normal.
"How omnichannel can we get in light of this? [We are] being just smarter in how we talk to consumers and going back to what's really important now," Wolf said.
While consumers today are starting to refocus on things other than the coronavirus pandemic, when the virus first started spreading in the United States in March, that was the only thing on anyone's mind.
Wolf said that made it difficult to know what SnackFutures should do next. The products all had limited inventory and were just getting started. Financial viability was not an issue because the brands were all under the Mondelez umbrella, but there were many unexpected shifts that needed to be made.
One of those was taking the momentum and excitement the team had built for its new product lines and pressing pause.
"It seemed [like we were always asking], 'When are we ready to roll?' " Wolf said. "We've got a lot that we've created, so when do you put gas in something? ... I think for everything we were moving so fast in the beginning, and then it's like OK, let's take a breather. Let's start prioritizing within the portfolio."
Wolf said the mission of SnackFutures is buoyed by the pandemic. People are looking for ways to improve their health in what they eat, and the Mondelez arm is working to create snacks that taste good and are better for you. However, the products SnackFutures is making are premium. Pre-pandemic, consumers were spending more for higher quality and more sustainable products. But as the economy plunged into recession with skyrocketing levels of unemployment, would that trend go cold?
And as consumers were spending time at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, protests against systemic racial injustice began nationwide, making everyone — from ordinary people to corporations to food brands — pause and re-examine exactly what messages they were putting forth.
Wolf said SnackFutures was not working on any formalized advertising campaigns, and spent some time just observing consumer behavior. All of the brands reached out to social media, influencers and previous consumers of products, including CaPao, which launched for its first retail test last year.
Three months into the pandemic, it's still hard to tell exactly where messaging should be going and when. But Wolf and Borisjuk said they are learning a lot from data collected on their websites and through e-commerce. Where are new consumers coming from? How did they hear about SnackFutures brands? And what kinds of messages are they spreading to others?
"I think that's an opportunity for us to watch where the data is," Wolf said. "And there's so much monitoring of where the conversations are going and what people start buying that we can watch that and to see how consumers are reacting, and use the data that way to our advantage."
In Dirt Kitchen's case, the brand made a quick turn to e-commerce. The team built a site for online orders as a way to continue its entry into the market.
Borisjuk said the e-commerce site has done a lot to help the brand. SnackFutures' brands had dabbled in e-commerce previously, but they worked with bigger retailers like Amazon to get their products out. A website that SnackFutures designs, builds and operates itself doesn't necessarily have the exposure of Amazon, but it has a ton of valuable data that Dirt Kitchen owns and can use for product development and marketing purposes.
"We're able to get great insights on consumer target, messaging, copy and imagery," she said. "What's driving the best conversion to purchase? Being able to play with different iterations of that. Product comparisons. Which products are doing better than others? Pricing. And being able to literally make decisions on a week-by-week basis and tweak things and and see the data and what's performing best. It's just a phenomenal decision making tool for the business."
Moving to e-commerce also made it possible for the brand to move to national distribution much faster, but still have a more limited rollout. SnackFutures knows which products in the Dirt Kitchen line are the most popular, and they're also constantly getting direct consumer feedback.
Borisjuk said the data validates the product launch and Dirt Kitchen's approach.
"Consumers really do want convenient, enjoyable vegetable snacks, even when they're stuck at home through the beginning stages of COVID, and especially now that folks are venturing out and about more," Borisjuk said. "We knew it was a great solution ... and have continued to get learnings that convince us that our hypothesis was good that people are looking for ways to get more vegetables in their diet."
Other SnackFutures brands had to make big changes quickly. Ruckus and Co. is a brand of frozen smoothies for kids that SnackFutures first got into a few stores early this year. The smoothie, which is made of healthier ingredients and positioned as the type of snack that empowers kids to choose for themselves, is designed to be pulled out of the freezer in the morning and packed in a lunchbox. When it's time for lunch, the smoothie should be completely thawed.
However, as schools nationwide moved instruction online this spring, the targeted use for Ruckus and Co. quickly evaporated.
Wolf said the brand is now focusing on the empowerment angle — something that was part of Ruckus and Co. from the beginning, but not quite as prominent as its easy lunchbox angle. Giving kids a snacking choice that both they and their parents would want is what underlies the brand, she said.
Our goal "is giving parents both a little bit of peace of mind, as well as kids being able to choose something that they want," she said. "And so it may not be the school environment that we planned for but it's definitely there for at-home snacking."
"Everyone talks about e-com[merce] and it's always been there and it's kind of a nice-to-have. COVID forced the acceleration of this for everyone, and I think going forward, any new brand we do, it's always gonna be a multi-channel one."
Head of innovation, SnackFutures
CaPao, made from parts of cacao fruit that would ordinarily get discarded, launched last year. The brand had finished its test run, and SnackFutures was working to revamp it with things it leaned from the first release. As the pandemic hit, Wolf said, they slowed production of the new set of products and spent time building an e-commerce site. This month, the platform is live and products are back in some stores in the test market.
NoCOé, the French cracker brand, also needed a significant pivot. The brand bills itself as the first carbon-neutral snack, and was targeted at millennials who liked to get together to eat aperitifs and talk about current events. But how can a brand that's built for cocktail parties grow when there are no cocktail parties?
Wolf said they've tried to affiliate NoCOé with the Zoom cocktail party trend while working on e-commerce for the brand from the beginning.
"This was really doubling down on where can we reinforce e-com[merce]. How do we talk to influencers and use social media to get to those social aperitifs?" she said.
Beyond the pandemic
While everyone is looking forward to the end of the pandemic, SnackFutures will take some of the strategies it adopted and apply them to new brands it launches in the future.
"Everyone talks about e-com[merce] and it's always been there and it's kind of a nice-to-have," Wolf said. "COVID forced the acceleration of this for everyone, and I think going forward, any new brand we do, it's always gonna be a multi-channel one."
Not only does a brand-owned e-commerce site yield data that's incredibly useful, but it also produces information that can be used to convince a retailer to give a product shelf space, she said. As consumers are looking for new items in the grocery store, hard data about consumers, their interests and their behavior is very helpful for brands to convince stores to carry their items.
SnackFutures worked with everyone involved with the brands — from suppliers to distributors to other external partners — in order to complete products and get them in front of consumers. This teamwork allowed for more input and greater creativity, which Borisjuk said was an asset that they hadn't tapped into much previously.
The pandemic also forced the SnackFutures brands to reinvent themselves, much as startups need to do in order to thrive. Wolf and Borisjuk are both Big Food veterans, each working at Mondelez and its precursor Kraft Foods on some of those companies' largest brands for more than a decade.
"When you have to do something, it's not so difficult all of a sudden," Wolf said. "All those things that became issues in the past, of why someone would say no, for a myriad of reasons, you just start realizing. You figure out how. And it may not be perfect. ...The learning is more critical than every 'launch.' "
Wolf said seeing the SnackFutures team pivot to deal with the pandemic's challenges was satisfying on a personal and team level. It also shows how Mondelez as a bigger company can quickly flex and make changes to grow with the times.
The pandemic has brought new lessons to SnackFutures about consumers, too, Wolf said.
"The marketplace is willing to be tolerant and patient with you as you learn, as long as you're listening and trying," she said. "So it's fun to be the pioneers."