3 things all insurgent brands must do

We all love to root for the underdog. It’s why the Rocky films have grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide. Rocky Balboa, one of the most beloved underdog movie characters of all time, beat Apollo Creed, Mr. T and that huge Russian dude, with a simple philosophy: Don’t play by their rules.

This “upstart” attitude holds true for insurgent food brands which are growing in numbers every day. These scrappy companies, often run by millennial entrepreneurs, are changing the rules of engagement. The insurgent doesn’t try and compete with the bigger marketing budgets, they win at the point of purchase with better designed packaging. They don’t compete at the mass production or distribution level, they win with the concept of craft and hand-made authenticity.

This insurgent thinking is the same strategy Skidmore focused on while re-branding and re-packaging Ellis Island Tea. We connected with this local Detroit brand after I interviewed the owner, Nailah Ellis-Brown, for my book Dare Mighty Things: A Field Guide for Millennial Entrepreneurs. As part of our discussion, I learned that she was gearing up to face off against the big national brands on the store shelves of big-box retailers. Skidmore jumped in to bring her brand into focus using insurgent strategies, instincts and attitudes.

Up and coming brands employ a very similar philosophy that I found to be true with millennial entrepreneurs, as well as the core values Skidmore uses to compete against our large, international agency rivals. We embrace change, look for the differences, not the similarities, and move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Simply put, insurgents think like millennials; and millennials like the very idea of insurgent brands. They both embrace and seek change. Speed and mobility beat size and scope. Authenticity and heritage beat focus groups and in-depth market analysis. These emerging brands are successful because today’s customers want change, and these brands are bringing it right to their doorstep in a way the new consumer respects.

Insurgent brands are not new. In fact, some of the largest brands today were emerging brands of yesterday. Apple, Zappos, Amazon and Facebook are all former up and comers. (And they risk the same fate of those brands they displaced as they move toward a safe, incumbent mentality.) But what is new is how this evolutionary marketing warfare has moved to the grocery aisle and the restaurant space.

Which is why Ellis Island Tea was perfectly poised to make some dramatic changes. The owner of this young brand understood that a major brand shift was critical and necessary for her to compete. She made it clear that there were no ground rules that would box Skidmore in. All ideas would be considered. We even got the green light to recommend changing the name of the product – a solution that is almost unheard of. But it was this type of mindset that was needed to compete against the large, mass market brands; and Ellis Island Tea was ready to scrap.

What exactly were the top three things we did for the Ellis brand to help them compete in the new market they were entering?

  1. Story
  2. Authentic brand
  3. Design

Story. The Ellis Family story was an amazing one, and needed to be shared. It included an immigrant coming to Ellis Island with a recipe in his head, and three generations passing down the recipe. This story needed to be told succinctly and directly on the packaging. Skidmore’s strategists conveyed the family story with just four words. Unhurried. Craft. Island. Tea. These four words promised to take the consumer on a getaway; transporting them to an easy-going, island state of mind where slow-brewed and hand-crafted tea has a natural relaxing and calming effect.

Brand. Our next mission was to play up the island heritagewith references and allusions to tropical luggage tags. We wanted to invite people to the islandsshowing them that this tea could transport the customer to an island getaway. Finally, we wanted to focus on the “craft” brewing imagehave customers reach for this tea on the shelf because they perceive it as hand-made; and create a connection between “hand-made” and the tea’s generationally-perfected “family recipe.”

Design. The Skidmore design team was tasked with bringing the story and brand to life on a very small piece of product real estate – the label of a 12oz. clear bottle. The first thing we did was change the shape of the label. Moving to an oval, allowed us to show more of the product and push further from the typical and traditional rectangular labels currently on the shelf. Using an image of a steam ship from yesteryear, along with a palette of relaxing colors like teal, rose and cream allowed the label to stand out by standing apart, while simultaneously leaning into the brand promise of unhurried craft and the ability to “transport” the consumer back in time.

Ultimately, these three steps allowed Ellis Island Tea the tremendous advantage of stepping outside of the competitor’s confinements and creating a single and own-able category of tropical teas. This work helped Nailah solidify distribution deals with national retailers that she would not have had access to with her previous brand approach.

Click here to learn more about how we helped Ellis Island Tea and other food brands, or better yet just give us a shout and we can tell you all about it.