For most founders, the first question that comes to mind when branding a product is "how to make my brand stand out in the marketplace filled with competitors." Now consider branding a product that not only lacks competition but is also practically unheard-of?
Meet three female entrepreneurs Rachel Simons, Lisa Mendelson, and Monica Molenaar, who co-founded Seed + Mill in 2016 –to sell tahini and halva to uninitiated New Yorkers who, unless they had traveled through the Middle East, would not have heard of the superfood made from sesame seeds.
Tahini or "tahina" is a paste made from toasted ground hulled sesame packed full of nutritious goodness. Its versatility means that 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's served on, in, beside and over anything - yogurt, toast, veggies, hummus, drizzled over crisp falafel balls, and the mouth-watering list goes on. But step out of the Middle East, and this delicious, nutritious and versatile sesame seed paste is less well known and at the time of their market entry almost unknown in New York.
"Over time, as awareness and demand grew, more competitors emerged, which is good for everyone in the space."
So I asked Rachel how she and her co-founders went about branding an unknown food product?
"One of the first questions we faced when branding our little-known product was who should we choose to do the branding? Do we choose a designer who is most like our target customers, which in our case meant someone who has never heard of or tasted the product? Or do we choose a designer who knows the product but is not our typical customer? Both options had their advantages and downfalls. We tried both, but, in the end, it was a designer who was based in Israel and understood the attributes and the very long history of the seed that ended up creating Seed+Mill's brand."
When you start to create demand for a product that isn't very well known, chances are there won't be many competitors in your market space. On the one hand, this is great, as you can be as innovative as you want when branding the product and don't have to worry about copying anyone else's idea. But if there aren't competitors, there isn't an established demand for the product, and it's a challenging journey that lays ahead of you. Rachel tells me that "over time, as awareness and demand grew, more competitors emerged, which is good for everyone in the space."
Rachel tells me that as more competitors entered the market, the more people began to hear about the health benefits and the product itself, and sales grew. She also reflects on the positive side of being in a relatively unknown market, "It brings those in the space together; we became friends promoting a common cause, not just competitors. One example she gave is of Tahini brand Joyva - "The house that sesame built" it was started in 1907 by a Russian immigrant named Nathan Radutzky who wanted to create a company producing and selling the sweet sesame-seed based halvah. One wouldn't assume that Rachel and Richard, Nathan's grandson, would band together, but, as Rachel says, "Richard needed to re-position their halva into a healthier space, and he has become one of my most trusted friends and advisors."
When branding a relatively unknown product, one needs to explore leveraging different platforms to spread the word.
Chelsea market proved to be a hugely beneficial step for Seed + Mill, Pre Covid19 – the market had nearly 20,000 visitors a day, and they continuously promote their stall-holders brands on their social media platforms – giving the company an extra boost.
In 2017 Seed + Mill's brand was getting traction; they began their partnership with Whole Foods selling their tahini products through their shops and online platform. Rachel tells the story, "We were discovered by a Whole Foods buyer who was walking through Chelsea Market and happened to come across us, handing out free samples. We now sell to the whole North East Region – over 100 Whole Foods Stores," and as Rachel says, "Going wholesale is another great way to get brand recognition."
If budget wasn't an issue, Rachel advises the following to help ensure high sales and strong brand recognition:
"Ultimately - the real challenge isn't getting into Whole Foods; 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 big time 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), you won't stay on the shelves for very long!"
Rachel explains, "When you are working on getting customers to buy your products, you have to market to two types of buyers:
Different messaging methods are needed to sell to both "buyers," and of course, your brand must be distinctive, your story on point, and most importantly, your products must be delicious."
Seed + Mill has taken a relatively unknown food product and helped raise awareness of tahini's health benefits and its appeal through their products. They have carved out a space for their deliciously moreish artisanal halvas and their versatile tahini pastes in:
Are you thinking about starting a food brand? – Rachel would be happy for anyone to reach out to her. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org