Branding the unknown - first-to-market products


Rachel Simons

Co-founder @ Seed + Mill

Five Seed + Mill products stacked on top of each other showing the product packaging.

For most founders, the first question that comes to mind when branding a product is: "How do I make sure that my brand stands out in a marketplace flooded with competitors?" But what if you are branding a product that has no competition and is practically unheard-of by your target market?

Meet Rachel Simons, Lisa Mendelson, and Monica Molenaar. In 2016, these three female entrepreneurs co-founded Seed + Mill, a New York-based company devoted to delicious, healthy foods created from sesame seeds. However, delicacies like tahini and halva were largely foreign to New Yorkers, unless they had travelled to or had family roots in the Middle East.

Packed with natural and nutritious goodness, tahini or "tahina" is a paste made from toasted, ground, hulled sesame seeds. Well-loved for its culinary versatility, it can be served by itself or become the main ingredient in other dishes, such as baba ghanoush, hummus, and halva.

In Middle Eastern countries, it served on, in, beside, and over pretty much every food: mix it into yogurt, spread it on bread, dip veggies into it, use it as a salad dressing, drizzle it over crisp falafel balls, and more. However, despite its local superfood status, in the rest of the world, this healthy and mouth-watering delicacy is still quite rare. In fact, at the time of Seed + Mill's market entry, tahini was virtually unknown in New York.

"Over time, as awareness and demand grew, more competitors emerged, which is good for everyone in the space."

My first question to Rachel was how she and her co-founders went about branding an unknown food product. "The first question we faced was who should do our branding," Rachel recalls, "Should we choose a designer who is most like our target customers, unfamiliar with our product? Or should we go with a designer who knows the product well, but does not represent our typical customer? Like all hard decisions, both options had their clear advantages and downfalls. We tried both, but, in the end, it was an Israel-based designer who understood the attributes and long history of the seed that ended up creating Seed + Mill's successful brand."

Seed + Mill staff behind a table with their products looking excited with their arms in the air.

When you create demand for a product that isn't well known, chances are, there won't be many competitors in the market space. On the one hand, this allows you to be as innovative as you want when it comes to branding, and you don't have to worry about copying anyone else's idea. However, a lack of competitors usually hints to a lack of established demand for the product, which translates to a challenging journey introducing a new product to your target market.

According to Rachel, as more competitors entered the market, people became more familiar with the product and its health benefits, leading to an increase in sales. "Over time, as awareness and demand grew, more competitors emerged. Ultimately, this is good for everyone in the space."

In addition to more sales, Rachel explains that there are other added benefits of working in a relatively unknown market. "It brings those in the space together," she insisted, "We became friends promoting a common cause, not just competitors." She uses the example of Joyva, a tahini brand founded in 1907 by a Russian immigrant named Nathan Radutzky, who sells halva, a sweet sesame-seed based treat. Instead of competing for customers, Rachel banded together with Richard, Nathan's grandson who took over the family business. "Richard needed to re-position halva into a healthier space," Rachel explains, "and he has become one of my most trusted friends and advisors."

When branding a relatively unknown product, companies need to explore leveraging different platforms to spread the word.

Seed + Mill's first major step forward was setting up a store in Chelsea Market. The iconic culinary destination not only has nearly 20,000 visitors a day, but they also promote their stall-holders' brands on their social media platforms, giving the company an extra boost and increased visibility.

In 2017, Seed + Mill's brand was picking up traction. They began a partnership with Whole Foods, selling their tahini products both in stores and through their online platform. "We were discovered by a Whole Foods' buyer who was walking through Chelsea Market and tried one of our free samples," Rachel remembers, "Today, we sell to the whole North East Region, with our products on the shelves in more than 100 Whole Foods stores. Going wholesale is another great way to get brand recognition."

An image of the Chelsea Market.

"But ultimately, the real challenge isn't getting into Whole Foods," Rachel warns, "it's making sure that the end-consumer finds you on the shelf, checks out, and returns for more. Many brands think they've hit the jackpot once their products are on the shelves at Whole Foods, but that's where the real work begins. If you can't maintain a consistent sales velocity, which is the technical term for the rate at which real consumers are buying your products and coming back for more, then you won't stay on the shelves for very long!"

When budget isn't an issue, Rachel advises the following strategies to help ensure high sales and strong brand recognition:

  • Pay to have more visibility on the shelves.
  • Hire a merchandise and brokerage agency to go around to each of the stores, ensuring optimal product visibility, getting customer feedback, and handing out samples.
  • Field Marketing / Demo Tasting
  • Develop distinct brand messaging and visuals.

According to Rachel's experience, when you are trying to get customers to buy your products, you have to market to two types of buyers simultaneously:

  • The wholesale buyer choosing your product for their stores
  • The consumer who will choose your product, take it home, and hopefully tell everyone how tasty it is.

"In order to sell to these different types of buyers, you need to use different messaging methods," Rachel says, "Your brand must be distinctive, your story on point, and most importantly, your products must be delicious."

An image of a women pouring a drink into a glass.

Seed + Mill has educated the public about a relatively unknown food product, raising awareness of tahini's health benefits and delicious taste through their high quality products.  They have carved out a space for their artisanal halvas and versatile tahini pastes in several spaces:

  • The wholesale market via Whole Foods' stores and online platform
  • Their flagship food shop in Chelsea Market 
  • An online store on their own website

Are you thinking about starting a food brand? Reach out to Rachel at for more tips, advice, and connections.