PSFK sits down with Ocean Spray's Chief Global Innovation officer to learn about the brand's strategy pivot—and what all businesses should prepare for in a new normal

In Brief:

•To be ready for what comes after COVID-19, “Brands need to shift mindsets toward balancing profits with providing ‘values' and ‘doing good' for our consumers,” says Rizal Hamdallah, Ocean Spray‘s Chief Global Innovation Officer.

•The health and wellness-focused brand has already been making this move, launching its DTC brand Atoka in conjunction with the #FirstRespondersFirst initiative to provide support to healthcare workers across the country, and collaborating with innovation accelerator Plug and Play to support startups providing solutions to crisis challenges.

•In this interview with PSFK, Hamdallah shares why authenticity and a focus on healthy living will become the baseline for retail in a new normal, and why brands should focus on creating allies to develop breakthrough innovation.


What notable brand innovation have you seen so far during the COVID-19 crisis?

More than a specific innovation, I see a movement. A movement to embrace authenticity. To ensure that every action you take as a company, as a brand, or as a person is meaningful and impactful. Innovation is trending toward purpose more than ever before.

Second, I think companies who have a strong supply chain will win-over brand loyalty. Consumers are now more open to buy what is available, as long as they are receiving their desired functions and benefits, over choosing their favorite brands. The more brands can ensure their products are high quality, deliver on function, and are available, the more successful they will be.

Third, companies will continue to create healthier, and healthy-ish products as the norm. People are seeking more nutritious, accessible products than before, and this will apply for everyone and every company. Accessible health and wellness products are growing to be more expected than ever before. 

What else have you seen on the consumer side? How can brands best meet emerging consumer needs?

Again, consumers are human. Brands and companies need to elevate their game to provide products to people and to engage in a conversation with people. We need to be in touch with people’s “emotions” and bring people the “functions” they need. Consumers are seeking a brand or company that is real, authentic and empathetic. They want to know that those who can help are helping.

Consumers’ demand for purpose and impact was prevalent before COVID-19 and has only grown during the pandemic. COVID-19 has not just created a new normal for the time being, but also the “next normal;” the effects of the pandemic will continue to be seen throughout the future. Lives will be different in 2021, the consumer will continue to change whether brands like it or not. We have a pandemic, an election, climate events, and more—all in one year.

To be ready with the next normal, brands need to shift mindsets toward balancing profits with providing “values” and “doing good” for our consumers. The pandemic is bringing out the best of us as human beings. Transparency is elevated to a completely new level. In addition, the world is more open than before; brands should create allies to develop breakthrough innovation, together.

And, finally, accessibility. From a cultural perspective, “health” has become a new normal and “healthy” is expected and must be more accessible than ever before. Innovation is at a critical juncture for food companies because the pandemic has really shined a light on the importance of food to our national security. What consumers want and need most is empathy and access to nourishment. What food companies need to do is quickly adapt to the situation and make sure they are doing everything they can to keep grocery shelves stocked and families fed.

Tell us about Ocean Spray's innovation strategy during this time! 

As it comes to our innovation tactics, we have indeed innovated our innovation! With the current situation, we have had to rethink our approach to several new launches we had planned this Spring and Summer, and we are reframing everything with the idea of care first, people first, community first.

Now more than ever, we are asking how we can reach those who need nutrition most and making sure that each aspect of our new launches has an impactful social cause tied to it. For example, our new Atoka™ brand is working with #FirstRespondersFirst to nourish first responders across the country with herbal tonics and shots. Other new brands we have launched are supporting police officers and firefighters, as well as those in the hospitality industry. We are donating Brew to local hospitals to keep our healthcare professionals energetic and nourished. At a corporate level, Ocean Spray has donated over 100,000 meals to food banks in our farmer communities through Feeding America. In short, for us, the first and foremost is to make sure we are doing our small part to help.

How has being a health & wellness-focused brand affected your strategy? Has it potentially eased any transitions in the current climate?

The short answer is we are on the right track, and we are optimizing our go-to-market differently.

Our go-to-market strategy has shifted much of our focus to digital platforms and allowed us to focus on helping our consumer through this tough time. For example, our Atoka™ brand that was tested through our Lighthouse Incubator accelerator program last year has now launched with a Direct-to-Consumer online purchase option on http://www.atokawellness.com/, as people are looking for ways to expand their holistic health and wellness habits while at home. To my point above, though, we did not just launch the DTC because we want people to be able to have access to nourishment in their home; we launched the DTC with an impact tied to it—with support to #FirstRespondersFirst. We are donating Atoka herbal tonics and shots to healthcare workers across the country to try and do our part and take care of those who are taking care of us.

Tell us more about your virtual approach to continued product development. Were there any specific challenges? Some brands, for example, have had trouble with maintaining engagement when switching to channels that their main audience may not be proficient with or used to. If you encountered any hurdles, how did you overcome them?

We are trying to not see hurdles, but rather opportunities. We are leaning in on digital platforms to continue testing and launching our innovation. For example, we have launched our first supplement brand, Dabbly™, with a focus on skin health. While testing on a digital platform, the team continues to run concept testing online in the supplement space, and we are getting creative on finding ways to “sample” virtually. We are also leveraging technology to test a new CBD beverage to tackle mental health. The test is taking place in Colorado, and we are utilizing digital access and tactics to continue moving forward! 

We'd love to hear about how you're working with innovation accelerator Plug and Play to help support startups whose business are at risk during this period.

We very much feel for small startups who may be struggling to keep their companies going at this time. We partner with Plug and Play on a variety of projects, with a focus on solutions. Recently, the Plug and Play community has really come together to support small, innovative startups that have solutions to problems due to COVID-19 across the supply chain, the healthcare system, and more. We are proud to be a part of this network that is helping not only solve today’s problems but also help those minds who are trying to solve the problems.

For example, Plug and Play hosted a virtual “pitch summit” and “reverse pitch” summit to align different companies on proposed solutions and innovation to help combat COVID-19. We, and several other food companies, health companies, investors, and more, were able to hear young startups discuss their proposed solutions for a variety of issues that have arisen recently and contact them directly to support their work and collaborate.

As a farmer-owned cooperative, the importance of innovation is in our heritage. We have farmers that go as far back as 8 generations who have been creating their tools and processes to continue to harvest our superfruit in the face of climate change, recessions, and—you guessed it—pandemics. We drive forward.

More broadly, while things are of course very uncertain, what do you generally envision as the ‘next normal' for brands and retailers as we move forward?

The food and beverage industry has evolved, innovated and adapted during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumers understand how important a healthy diet is, especially during times of a health scare, and are looking to invest in their health. Consumers are becoming more proactive about their health, driving demand for products that help boost their immune system, such as products high in vitamins, minerals and other functional ingredients.

Additionally, the importance of hygiene, sanitation, and minimizing the risk of disease is a trend that will continue long term as consumers are increasingly recognizing the importance of adopting a prevention approach to disease and illness.

Finally, what key pieces of advice would you give to a brand uncertain about strategy during this time? What are the most important pillars to not only stay afloat, but also best serve consumers?

Stay true and authentic. Commit to a purpose that ties to your brand meaningfully. Do your part, no matter how small or how big. Tell your story from the heart. And remember, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Ask “what if”  questions for the “next normal,” and don’t be afraid to pivot. You are resilient. You are stronger than you know. Don’t be too scared to push forward, and don’t be too proud to ask for help. We are seeing the best of humanity come out during this crisis, and you are a part of that movement. Keep driving forward.

Ocean Spray