October 16, 2021

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How Kettle & Fire Used Innovative Feedback Loops to Ignite Consumer Interest Both In-store and Online

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You’ve heard the term holistic medicine – but what about the term holistic commerce? It’s the commerce strategy of the future, and Kettle & Fire is nailing both.

Kettle & Fire specializes in bone broth, nutritious sippable wellness made from grass-fed beef that is especially popular with the Keto crowd.

Today, the brand has mastered omnichannel sales, catering to customers online, via subscription, and in nationwide retail chains like Whole Foods. It’s an elaborate strategy that grew one step at a time.

Vice President of Marketing Jack Meredith has been with the company since the very beginning. He credits the success of Kettle & Fire to a lot of hustling, a lot of cross-channel creativity, and dedication to following the lead of customers.

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Transitioning from ecommerce to retail

The original Kettle & Fire team members were digital pros. They had originally built the brand as a unique direct-to-consumer offering, and a slew of loyal followers proved that the product had staying power. A year or two in, they knew it was time to take the plunge into wholesale. The only problem? They had no experience in that arena. That didn’t stop them from making smart hires that enabled them to take the next big step forward.

“When we were founded, the founding team, we didn’t really have any wholesale experience or retail experience. We were mostly digital-focused online marketers. So at the beginning, we actually had no retail presence at all. Because we didn’t really know anyone in the industry. We didn’t know how to tackle it. So we initially grew the brand through e-commerce, through our direct to consumer business. And once we started gaining more customers and really creating this brand footprint, we felt like about a year and a half into it we were ready to jump into retail and wholesale. And from there, we essentially just tried to figure out as we kind of went through it.

So we brought on a consultant that had experience working with different brokers and distributors and that went OK. But we ultimately figured out that we needed someone full time to really manage everything. So we brought on our first sales hire who’s now our VP of sales. And that was a huge decision for us. It was a good decision because it allowed us to scale much faster, whereas if we tried to do it by ourselves, it would have been just a complete mess.

Jack Meredith, Vice President of Marketing, Kettle & Fire

Timing your retail debut

When brands make the move into wholesale, the process is like an American Idol audition. You move through several stages of the vetting process, but once you’re out, you’re out – there are no second chances. That’s why Jack credits Kettle & Fire’s success with waiting until they had healthy digital sales and an existing customer base. This allowed them to make a memorable impression on buyers and better positioned them to succeed in stores during their trial period.

“I think what it comes down to is that you have distribution and scale through wholesalers and retail partners. Like in our category we make bone broth and soups, and while we would love to continue to scale up our direct consumer business, and we’re doing so, we know that we’re going to be missing out a big piece of the pie if we don’t start getting into retail stores.”

“But at the same time, you don’t want to go in too prematurely. Because let’s say Whole Foods wants to take you and test you in a couple of their regions. If you do that, but you don’t really have your shit together, it can really get tough, just because if you don’t test well in these big box stores, then that’s kind of like your one shot. And you will get discontinued and it’ll be much harder and challenging to carve that path into retail.

So I think you have to be ready for it. And I think the way we approached it made a lot of sense. And if I had to do it all over again, I think we’d take the same route to where we built up our business online. We had a loyal customer base. We had all of our supply chain and operation stuff figured out to where we just felt like we were ready.

And also, I felt like once we started having those conversations, we had a lot of leverage going into them. Because retailers already knew about the brand, they knew what we were doing. Whereas if you’re like just a brand new brand diving into this, you don’t really have much leverage because you’re trying to just do everything you can to get sold in these stores. And so I think creating that hype and that demand can be a smart strategic move for sure.”

Taking the wholesale path less traveled

There’s a typical formula that most brands use to go wholesale. They include tactics like handing out samples and investing in visual displays. Kettle & Fire was already successful, but didn’t have money to burn. So they charted a new path that involved contacting members of the local wellness community, such as doctors and nutritionists who were likely to recommend their products. Then, they plied them with coupons to help ensure their probationary period in retail stores became permanent. While not a scalable tactic, it was one that served them well.

“So, you know, I guess the typical way to approach it is to do like a lot of in-store demos, a lot of coupons, very traditional marketing tactics, displays. But at the time, it’s not like we were flush with a bunch of cash and we didn’t have a massive budget, so we had to get a little more scrappy with it.

So one thing that we did that I think helped in the early stages, and this definitely doesn’t scale at least the way that we approached it, was we knew that based on the data that we had for our customers online, that a lot of folks that were using our products, they had heard about us through a recommendation via like their doctor or their nutritionist who is like, hey, you have this problem, you should try bone broth. And so we thought about that a little bit. And we’re like, OK, I wonder if we could approach these different nutritionists and holistic doctors in these regions and basically say hey, we’re Kettle & Fire. You’re probably likely already recommending bone broth to your patients. But you should recommend ours because of X, Y, Z. Can we send you some samples and send you some paper coupons to hand out?

“We were able to see when we were doing like these big pushes and sending all these coupons out is that in these specific stores in these regions, we were seeing a little uptick in like our sales velocity. And so that was a hack that we did. It didn’t scale just because my approach to it was literally manually licking envelopes, stuffing coupons, and then dropping them in the UPS. So there’s probably a better way to do it. But I think of it as kind of a fun way that allowed us to think about how to approach retail differently than what conventional wisdom said to do.”

Translating digital expertise into retail success

Jack and his team wanted to find ways to mirror their digital success in the real world. They were already pursuing traditional strategies like eye-catching retail displays that stop shoppers in the aisle, just like a good digital ad stops people from scrolling. But then they hit the jackpot – they started participating in Instacart’s beta advertising service. This allowed Kettle & Fire to not just bridge the divide between the digital and physical shopping worlds, but to vault over it.

“About two years ago, we were kind of looking at what our strategy was going to be from a marketing standpoint. And like we were doing all the traditional stuff, like you said, displays and endcaps. And we still do that today. But what we were wanting to figure out was how can we leverage our online and digital expertise, and all our performance marketing chops, and kind of augment it to accomplishing the same thing in retail. And so we kind of went on like a big research dive into just figuring out what the options were. And we kind of came out of that with some interesting channels that we could potentially test in.

So at that time, Instacart was just starting to roll out their beta version of their advertising platform. And I think we were one of the first brands to do that. And what we found was working with these different apps and online websites that were attracting folks to order – it was like meal delivery, grocery delivery, all that – there’s a lot of similarities to what we were doing from a performance marketing standpoint on D2C: running Facebook ads, paid search. And so that was like a big, big win for us because like I said, it was easy for us to just take all of our knowledge and expertise and apply it to these channels.

And also, we had a lot of first-mover advantage…we could not only jump right in and start paying for ads and running campaigns, but we also had that attribution piece, which we hadn’t had in the past, which I think was critical.

“Because with retail, when you’re doing all these marketing activations in your efforts, it’s much harder to really drill down into what’s working and what’s not because it’s offline. But these apps and these levers that we were pulling allowed us to really connect the dots and make decisions based on the performance that we were seeing in real time.”

The value of A/B testing

Digital marketing is an investment, but it’s small potatoes compared to the cost and orchestration of physical marketing pieces like shelf talkers. In order to ensure those in-person advertising dollars were well spent, Jack and his team conducted A/B tests using their online audience, then used the frontrunner creative messages to print for in-store collateral.

“A lot of the messaging and creative testing that we do will take the results from that and kind of apply them to these of offline creatives that we have to build. So, one one thing that comes to mind was we were doing a shelf talker, which is like a little thing that sticks out on the shelf and says, like, hey, buy Kettle & Fire. You see them when you’re walking down the aisles. And this was like a big investment for us at the time. And we had to get it right. But like you said, you can’t like A/B test a shelf talker because it’s a physical item.

“So what we did was like a smoke test through our Facebook ads to where we had like a bunch of different headlines that we were thinking about using, different copy variations, imagery. And we ran that for a week to like, you know, a broad audience that we knew was more than likely a category buyer. And from that, it allowed us to understand, like, OK, we should go like this headline, this piece of copy, this visual where we weren’t like flying blind as we were jumping into that type of stuff.”

Getting into the head of wholesale buyers

When brands go wholesale, they need to shift their perspective on audience. The audience you want to impress first becomes not shoppers, but buyers – the gatekeepers of the wholesale retail world. Kettle & Fire knew their D2C customer base well, but they didn’t have a handle on the wholesale buyer mindset and competitive landscape. Getting data panels allowed them to both create strategy and identify opportunity.

“We’ve always tried to have this feedback loop going with our direct to consumer base to where we were surveying them, jumping on calls and doing customer interviews. And so we had this pretty good picture of who our online consumer was, why they’re buying, demographics, and all that. But where we saw a gap was that we didn’t really know what the category buyer was, and what drove them to purchase and really drove them to decide what brand to buy on the shelf. Because we only had our Shopify customer base.”

So we needed that insight. So what we did was we partnered with a group that ran like an attitude and usage study for us. And what that means is basically they have all these data panels to where they will survey buyers in your category and they’ll collect all the feedback, set up all the questions and everything, and then they’ll send you a deck and go go over it with you. And what that deck shows is what’s going on within your category, not only from a competitive standpoint, but also what’s driving these customers to purchase. What are like the benefits or the call outs that we should consider on our packaging…I think if you were to ask me three years ago where I saw the bone broth category Kettle & Fire, I would have made the very wrong statement that we like, we’re number one. We’ve hit the ceiling. We’re the best.

But when you have these data panels and you’re able to access this type of information, for us it really allowed us to see OK. We think we’re hot shit. But there’s still all this white space opportunity out there that we wouldn’t have been aware of if we really didn’t sink our teeth into it. And so I think it’s just helpful for just really setting the strategy and figuring out where you’re going to go directionally from a marketing standpoint.”

Prioritizing customer feedback loops

If you want to be a genius trend predictor à la Steve Jobs, you need to realize that genius doesn’t come from within. It comes from talking to your customers, and coming to understand what they want their own future to look like. Kettle & Fire ensures that they always have a direct line of communication with their customers, in order to keep that valuable feedback flowing.

“I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you know everything about your industry and the space that you’re in. Like, I think we all want to be like the Steve Jobs of consumer goods and be able to predict everything. And I do think there’s something to that. Like you want to be on the cutting edge of innovation and understanding truly what’s going to be happening a year or two years from now. But at the same time, having that feedback loop just makes things ten times easier.

“Like when we launched our Keto soups two years ago, a lot of the positioning of messaging was built from what our customers were saying. So we asked folks if you could wave a magic wand, what would make your life 10 times easier on Keto? And the common thing that kept on coming up was, ‘I’m just so sick of eating the same foods over and over again. And a lot of the stuff just doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t make me feel good. I know physically I feel good, but this is just boring.’ So we wouldn’t have identified that if we didn’t have that loop going. And so I think it’s always incredibly helpful to always be very close to the customers and hearing what they say and what they want.”

Purchasing worlds colliding

It’s an interesting time to be in the commerce world. Not only are omnichannel tactics now within reach, but commerce is merging and changing like never before. Jack sees an even greater convergence of online and physical purchasing options on the horizon, as online companies start to leverage the convenience of physical outposts to fulfill consumer demand.

“I think you’re kind of starting to see this convergence between like retail, direct to consumer, meal kits, ghost kitchens, and I just feel like those are all starting to like mesh together. Whereas right now, they’re fairly separate still. But you’re starting to see that connection become stronger with the online platforms and Instacart and all that.”

“But I wonder if at some point Amazon, since they own Whole Foods, is going to figure out how to offer a subscription product in the retail aisle, to where you could go on your Instacart app and, you know, buy bone broth but get it delivered on a monthly standpoint. Like you think about it, you know, the Whole Foods down the street is much closer to me than like our distribution center. So from a shipping and delivery standpoint, I mean, that’s going to be much quicker. So I think there’s some interesting stuff there. And like the ghost kitchen space is really intriguing to me. I know it’s not like wholesale retail, but it just seems like there’s a lot of cool stuff going on there.”

Channel your inner cockroach

Starting a company is hard, and growing successfully is even harder. To survive growing pains, you need to develop a thick skin – or maybe even a thick shell. When asked what “resilience” means to him, Jack says it’s being like a cockroach: impervious to setbacks and impossible to kill. As Kettle & Fire learned firsthand, sometimes you need that level of determination to succeed in the face of challenges.

“I think it means to be a cockroach. Like it’s just really hard to kill you off and to you know, have you close down the business and give up.”

“Like I look back at our timeline of Kettle & Fire. There’s a lot of different points in the business to where we could have just given up. You know, it was just challenge after challenge after challenge. And we didn’t really have a good framework to figure out a solution at the time. But I think because we were cockroaches and we were resilient, we just continued to kind of push through that resistance and figure shit out. And so, yeah, that’s how I would define it. Yeah. Be a cockroach.”

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