RXBAR Chief Marketing Officer Lindsay Levin has deep experience in CPG marketing. First, at “catalyst” brand Quaker and now for the fast-growing RXBAR.
We invited her on the Brand Lab Series™ to help executives and entrepreneurs think about breaking through industries, customer experience, and brand culture.
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Today’s guest is Lindsay Levin. She’s the chief marketing officer of RXBAR, one of Chicago, and the country’s, fastest growing CPG brands. RXBAR just announced three new flavors and some other cool things coming up with the bars.
So, tell us a little about yourself and how did you get to RXBAR.
Yeah. I’ve been at RXBAR for about a year and half now and before that I had career in brand management at Pepsi Co. And had an awesome time there. I worked on Quaker which is such a legacy brand, has so much trust and heritage and worked both domestically and globally. But before that was in grad school and before that had a different life. So, it was really fun to kinda jump ship from one of the bigger CPGs to a really fast growing startup at the time. Now we’re not in that startup boat anymore.
So, talk a little bit about the challenges of the CPG industry from a marketing perspective and how you guys found such success breaking through that market.
Yeah. I can’t, to be honest, take any credit for it. So, when I joined the company a little over a year and a half ago, the product had been around already for about two years but it only recently rebranded into the packaging that you see today and the folks that founded the company, our CEO, our CFO, along with the other people that were there were really brilliant in terms of how they thought about positioning and the product and what would really breakthrough for consumers. It’s been my job over the last year and a half, just to continue that and figure out how do we move really from a product to a brand. But to answer your question, I think one of the reasons that it really breaks through and resonates is because it’s just clean and simple. Consumers are overloaded with messages today, that are telling them that this will help them run faster, lose weight, be smarter, be quicker, whatever it is, with a ton of cues and claims and I think there’s a yearning for simplicity, a yearning for not being over-marketed to and consumers love that we just put exactly what’s upfront and real about our product on the package and don’t try to really over-market to them.
Talk a little bit also about this elegant packaging design. And by the way, I love the fact that it says, “No ‘BS’” on the front.
Yeah, again, I was lucky to be able to walk in, to inherit it. So, I’m so thankful for that. The packaging was really about forcing the conversation up front with the consumer about what the product was all about. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of our old packaging from before the change, but it was more traditional. It had huge blueberries on the front, a giant logo, and on the back it said, “Three egg whites, four almonds, two dates” as a little equation in terms of what was in the bar. And the team at the time found that every time they went to go explain the product to consumers, they keep turning around to the back and showing them the little equation. And so, when they worked on re-branding really, to help bring the product more to traditional retail, the team was brilliant about deciding to really put that up front and force that conversation and be real and up front with the consumer so they don’t even have to turn the package over. So that’s a little bit about where the package came from.
Well, you also mentioned something earlier that I’m really curious to learn a little bit more about and that is, kinda this idea of pivoting from what’s a great product, to actually building out a brand. What impresses me about RXBAR is I see that you guys are really building a brand beyond just the products that are sitting in front of us. So, talk a little bit about what that’s like.
I think when I came in and saw this awesome package that was there, it was almost a beautiful puzzle because it’s so simple and so elegant or sophisticated, to your point. How do you then create a whole brand world around that? And at the time, we had a pretty small marketing team. We’ve grown now and we have a more sizeable team but none of the team could really articulate what the brand was about. And what that world was that it sat in. So, what should the website look like? What should our social look like? How do we talk to consumers? What is our voice as a brand? And we kind of struggled for a while. We had this awesome package and we would put in all these different situations, and it just didn’t feel right. And so, we took a while to go back and think about, “Where do we come from? So, what were our roots? What was our culture like as a company?” And a lot of our culture stems from the leadership style and personality of our CEO and “What are we really trying to do that’s different than a lot other brands?”
And a lot of brands, in a great way, are what I call catalyst brands. So, this is more of the kinda traditional marketing. I used to work at Quaker, and I adore that brand, but we would talk about how when you wake up in the morning and you have a bowl of oatmeal, it sets you up so that you can do more of what matters later in the day. And that first start, that getting that right start was really the jump start for the rest of how you’d behave. If you think about wonderful brands like Red Bull. They are about giving you super powers, right? They give you wings and they have an amazing marketing campaign that’s fully experiential around all of that. We kinda took a step back and said, “We’re not a catalyst brand.” What we do is create the facts and put them really up front, and let the consumer make the choice. Our consumers really are our influencers, they get the brand and we put the power in their hands. So, they talk about how it works for them, and we are all about being stripped back and reductive. Our voice is “radically candid”, is the term that we use. It’s a bit raw. It’s not over marketing or over authoritative. Our photography, if you go on our website, is really stripped back. Our ingredients are kind of like, real and raw, not like a perfect typical food style shot.
We let our consumers do the talking for us, and so they’re the ones that talk about what the product does for them and how it fits into their life and we have a very, what I call “self aware confident brand” which really stems a lot from the personality of our CEO and the culture that we have in the organization. But we really try to take a step back and talk about, “What are the building blocks of our brand?” And “What are consumers looking for today?” Which is transparency, and that’s why we kind of have this reductive, I would say, brand world now that our bar sits in that really resonates with consumers.
Well, I’m even more of a fan now after hearing that answer, because I’m a big believer that a brand is just beyond the marketing, the communication, in your case, the packaging. So, it sounds really exciting how you’ve kinda built this internal culture that you recognize the power that consumers have over all brands today, whether they’re CPG or not. As you kinda made that pivot and you kinda described the back story of how you then really tried to create a broader brand, talk a little bit about, if you could, how do you then kind of reinforce that, if you will, internally, at RXBAR? So, I know you guys have grown a lot. I’m sure that means you have new employees coming on. You said the marketing team’s grown. How do you ensure that the brand kinda transcends the organization to continue to provide this, not just amazing bar but great overall experience?
That’s a great question. And I think one that really stems from the top. Our CEO Peter Rahal is in a good way obsessed with culture and obsessed with building the organization. And every new hire goes through two weeks of our customer service training. So, they actually are on the phones, talking to our customers, getting to know them, answering their emails, no matter if they’re a vice president, or if they’re an intern. Which is amazing because it kind of strips everybody back to their core, enables them to get to know our consumer on a really close level. Everyone goes out and does a demo. Everyone goes out and does an emotional intelligence training with our CEO. So, there’s a huge emphasis I would say on self-awareness, and really stripping back who you are, which is exactly what our brand is about. And it’s amazing how strong that idea of radical candor, of being really upfront, is not just part of our package, and our product, and our ingredients, and where we could even go in innovation, but with our culture as well. And I think that’s what makes it even stronger, is that it’s not just a ploy or a marketing tactic for a protein bar. It’s how we work, which is really amazing.
Yeah. And that’s awesome to hear, because a big part of what I do is in the area of customer experience. And I always say that you’ll never have good customer experience if you don’t have engaged employees and you don’t advocate for your employees. We’ve worked with some really really big brands, and it’s amazing how so many people really never get a touch point with customers. So, they don’t really understand how he or she is using their products or services, or any of that. I love the fact that you’re kind of putting people right out of the gate on the front lines, that says a lot about your culture. That’s awesome. Can you talk a little bit about, on the personal side, though, some of the pressures of being a CMO in what’s a pretty fast-growing business?
I think it’s been a huge transition for me. So, when I started the company it was seven employees, I think now we’re at 54. And during that time, we’ve grown the marketing department, and every department really, exponentially. I felt a lot of I would say, internal pressure-I was really really supported by my team, and by our CEO-but to be frank, not to mess up this brand. It was clearly already working when I came in, they’d just rebranded about two months before I started. And we were about to make our transition into retail. And so I think a lot about this role for me, one, it’s truly become part of the fabric of who I am. I adore the brand, I adore the company, I adore the people that I work with. And I was always really ambitious, had a strong career. But this is really part of me. But it gave me the opportunity, and it continues to give me the opportunity, to work on three things I would say. One is around building the brand, which we talked a little bit about. And to move from a product to a brand. What does that look like? And how do you create this world and this experience and really tap into what’s true and core about your product or your brand? The second was around a transforming business model. And so, when I came in, the company was primarily e-commerce, and had just started their pivot into retail. So, you mentioned Whole Foods. We were getting into one region of Whole Foods, into Wegmans which is an amazing partner. And we were testing the waters in retail to see how that did, and it did really well which is awesome. And we’ve been expanding since then. And then the third is around helping to build a company and a culture in our organization. Which really isn’t an experience I had had at all before. And that’s probably been one of the most rewarding and challenging in thinking about. “How do I build a team? How do we partner with the other functions? What are the other capabilities that we need? What are the problems that we’re having? How do you deal with issues with employees?” Some of those softer skills in terms of leadership that I studied in grad school but really didn’t hit home until I had the opportunity to help partner and build this amazing company that the founder started, has been incredible. And so that transition was hard. I put a lot of pressure on myself for sure those first six months. And I was learning e-commerce, and I was learning all these new areas that I had never dabbled in before. And I was reading like crazy. And at the same time, my son, when I started my son was about 10 months old. And so, there was a lot of changes there too, personally. But it’s literally the best career decision, life decision, outside of finding my husband and having a wonderful child that I’ve made. It’s truly been transformational for me.
So, I wanna ask another question about kind of pivoting from a catalyst brand like Quaker to RXBAR. We see a lot of really big brands today trying to pivot and be more agile, or be more adaptable in terms of either how they approach business or customers. Was it a challenge to go to RXBAR? Obviously, I didn’t realize the company was still that small when you started. You must have had a lot more resources at Quaker. So, talk about that experience if you would, of going from all these resources, catalyst brand, then to here.
At PepsiCo we had amazing resources. And if we were running a new trial campaign, I would call the marketing activation team, and they would come back to me with FSIs and coupons and I would approve the budget and the creative, let’s say. Here, we had never done anything like that before, so I was literally googling coupon companies, and trying to figure out what a clearing house is, and what I need to do. And so, I gained this awesome, on the ground experience. Peter uses the term “Ear popping” a lot which means moving high up in terms of thinking about strategy, long-term innovation, building a company, marketing strategy, all the way down to calling coupon companies and approving an email, so he calls it “Ear popping”, because you’re constantly moving up and down. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn. I never felt resource constrained, I felt excited about all of the opportunities and the learning that I had, and the product continued to do so well that we’ve been able to support it in a way that we feel really comfortable with, but I think it forces you to be creative and to learn, which is a blessing in disguise.
Yes, so along the lines of another challenge that I think makes your overall category unique is in many ways you have your B2B retail channels which you just alluded to, and then you also have your consumer channel. Talk about some of the nuances of marketing in CPG as a CMO.
Yeah, I think it’s been one of the areas that I’ve learned the most about because I was so used to marketing through traditional grocery retail, and when I came in, as I said, we were an e-commerce business so we sold direct to consumers and had this amazing, loyal consumer base. And then direct to businesses that were all in these great on-brand channels; cross fit gyms, yoga studios, juice bars, coffee shops, you mentioned protein bar and Freshii. Those are amazing, on-brand channels that are sometimes hard to break into, but because the business was built through this direct way, the two co-founders used to “go knock door-to-door at cross fit gyms” to try to get the product in. It really served, one as an awesome channel for having direct relationships with both consumers and businesses, and two, as really profitable channels. Millennials are looking for convenience and they’re not afraid of trying food and products online.
I think one of the things that we’re really thinking about now is, how do you market across all of those channels, to your point? How do we really engage the awesome customer base that we have, that’s at our fingertips, who love our product, who are our best marketing tools really? People hear about RXBAR because their friend told them, I’m sure you’ve told tons of people about it. It’s really, how do we harness their energy while building some of that more mass awareness that you need when you’re on the shelves in more traditional grocery stores? And what’s the balance between those two? That’s a big puzzle that we are working through right now as we’re scaling up more traditional distribution. But it’s fun, we’re also building a field marketing team which enables us to really have that on the ground presence with consumers and how do you connect that to the direct engagement that we have online to the mass awareness that we need to build. It’s an awesome marketing challenge.
Yeah, well, I can see your enthusiasm which is great. In your time there, were there any bumps where you had to overcome something that you didn’t maybe see? Or has it all been smooth sailing?
No, of course not. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. There were some bumps that we hit with the marketing team before we really articulated our brand strategy, where the team didn’t know really what core essence we are about, so we had a lot of debate over that for a long time. I think there’s been some bumps in trying to figure out how to best collaborate across functions. So, when you’re growing so quickly, and hiring, and we’re constantly brainstorming, we hit bumps in a good way. So, we talk a lot about the four phases of team development where there’s forming, storming, norming, and performing. Well, when you’re constantly hiring and bringing in new people, you’re always in that storming mode and figuring out who does what, and how, and how do we work together, And we’re made up of a team across all our functions of awesome, awesome people, so it’s not a problem, it’s just a growth opportunity. You really learn when you have bumps in the road and you are challenged. We talk a lot about getting outside of your comfort zone, and if things are easy, you’re never outside of your comfort zone, and that’s where, as Peter says, “The magic happens,” and so we welcome those challenges.
Well, it’s amazing to hear so much about the culture of RXBAR because I think that’s really such a key point of any brand and I don’t think that’s one of those “Fake it till you make it” kind of things. I think consumers are just too savvy today, or to your earlier point, the world is too cluttered, attention spans are too short, competition is too fierce. So, you’ve really shed some fascinating light on your journey at RXBAR, both from a brand perspective, a CMO perspective. I’d love to talk to you all day and open one of these RXBARs that are sitting in front of us. So, as we wrap up, what’s next for RXBAR?
I’m glad you asked. So, we just launched three new flavors which are mixed berry, peanut butter chocolate, and chocolate chip and they’re so good. Internally we call mixed berry the Pink Panther because it’s bright, bright pink. You can’t miss it. And the peanut butter chocolate, I swear tastes like a Reese’s, but there’s no BS in it. It’s so good. And then we’re gonna be launching our kids line, which I’m really, really excited about. There’s a ton of adult bars out there, and there’s awesome bars that are not RXBARs. But there really aren’t that many options for kids, and we believe that parents wanna give their kids the same kind of nutrition and clean label that they eat themselves. And there really aren’t that many products out there that satisfy that. It’s great. It has seven grams of protein. The packaging is really cute. No added sugar, and it’s really delicious. And kids love them. We were seeing behavior where parents were giving their kids RXBARs, because they felt so good about that kind of snack. But the bars were too big, or not the right flavor profile necessarily for kids, and so these are awesome. We have berry blast, apple cinnamon raisin and chocolate chip coming out. We really think we’re gonna help elevate kids snacking, and bring a delicious, nutritious snack that doesn’t exist right now for kids.
Well, as a parent of two, I am super excited about that because unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of fellow marketers that have done a disservice by the way they have marketed certain products that you find in the grocery. As I always joke, just because it says natural, doesn’t mean that it is, which is why I’ve always loved this notion of you having your ingredients right up front. It’s no BS.
No bad stuff for kids is what we’re calling it.
Lindsay I’m so excited to have the chance to finally meet you. I can’t wait to try the new flavors, and I’m eager to get the kids bar. Now, will those go right into retail channels as well? Or will those be e-commerce or is that to be determined?
They’ll first launch on e-commerce, and then they’ll be launching a few weeks later in a mass retailer.
Tags: CPG, Brand and Marketing, Customer Experience
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