CXO Series: Thirst for Improvement

April Siler, senior vp of marketing & global development at natural foods brand Califia Farms

April Siler, senior vice president of marketing and global development at Califia Farms, dreams big, achieves on a grand scale and then leverages knowledge and skills gained to evolve. Her professional career started with an achievement so aspirational that it often falls into the category of dream rather than goal. “I had a basketball career,” Siler recalls. “I played professionally for a couple of years, and that gave me a commitment to understanding what a person eats and drinks has an effect on their physical and mental performance.”  

Siler has taken that commitment to the connection between healthy food and beverage and physical and mental health in addition to a mastery of team dynamics to become an innovator and business leader in the food and beverage industry. “I invented this no added sugar chia pudding, called Chia Pod, that could deliver a healthy meal, such as breakfast, on the go,” Siler recalls. “It felt amazing to be innovative, and this moment became a key point in my career.april  

“Then I connected with Greg [Steltenpohl], our CEO at Califia,” she adds. “I saw all that Greg has put into these products, this company and this brand.” Siler also saw a huge opportunity to build on her passion to help small brands change how people eat, and she shared a commitment with Califia’s CEO  to leverage innovation to deliver healthy food to consumers in a way that is convenient, authentic and style-forward.  

“Our CEO has this 40-year history of innovating in the food industry,” she says. “He’s developed trends ahead of the curve. During his days at Odwalla, he invented what I believe is the first green smoothie to be commercialized. So when I met Greg, I really connected with him with our shared understanding of consumer trends and my alignment with his vision for the brand. I knew that I could use my background in consumer insights to help him take his product ideas and translate those to have a really deep meaning to consumers. I think we did that with the probiotics launch.”  

History of innovation  

The Califia Culture Blend  launch was announced in February of this year. The product line contains 10 billion, live active probiotic colony forming units including BB-12, which the company says delivers efficacy for digestive and immune health. The cultures grow as part of the almond and coconut base, delivering probiotics as part of the whole food, versus being fortified and added at the end of fermentation. “At Califia, we’ve set the gold standard for nut milks and creamers, and were able to create an almond and coconut based Yogurt Drink that delivers 10 billion live, active probiotics that are truly great tasting,” says Steltenpohl, “Until now, there hasn’t been a non-dairy yogurt that delivers the delicious taste and creamy texture people want.”  

Siler points out that the dairy-free yogurts are only the latest in Califia’s history of innovation. The company was making plant-based “holiday” nog in 2013, rolled out premium almond milk coffee cream to Whole Foods Markets in 2015 and developed a no-sugar, low-calorie vegan alternative to half and half in 2016 in addition to launching what the company says is the first, dairy-free Nitro Cold Brew latte.  

Modern approach to the natural market  

This innovation is not only in new product launches but also in the depth of testing and iteration in the product development in addition to Califia’s approach to package design. “For example, in our latest product development, we had 126 iterations on the formula to make sure what we are bringing to market is genuinely something different and something better than what’s already available,” Siler says. “Our mantra is ‘something different, something better,’ This is a commitment that is visually conveyed by our packaging because our package designs have cues that tell shoppers that this is a company that’s really put a lot of thought into its products.”  

Siler, whose background includes consumer insights and trends work for packaging company Visy, adds, “Consumers see the care that has gone into crafting our packages, and they understand that care goes into all of our product development and that there are good people behind these products that are thinking of their needs.” For example, Califia’s distinctive nut-milk bottle features a design that works well for hands big and small and for multi-tasking consumers.  

creamer“You might be grabbing this out of the fridge and you’ve got a baby on your hip or you’ve got your coffee in one hand, you can easily tuck the bottle under your arm if you need to because of the bottle shape,” Siler says. The bottle cap is also oversized so it works as well for men’s hands, which tend to be larger, as it does for women’s.

“Our brand understands that the millennial consumer market is the first generation ever where there’s no difference between the male and the female in the role of bringing food into the home,” she explains. “So we think a lot about how to design our packaging and communicate to our consumers in a gender-neutral way. It’s working. Our plant milk is really deeply penetrated in the 32-year-old male market, which is one of our target segments.  

“I first came across evidence of the shifting shopping trend in an Obama administration report written on gender behaviors and really understanding millennials and their attitudes to work,” Siler says. “I had already been questioning the industry-wide held belief that mom still does all the shopping.”

Siler says challenging industry beliefs and norms is one way that ascending brands such as Califia are able to win in the marketplace. When she was working squarely in the research and analysis space in the packaging industry, Siler recalls the strength of the belief in mom as the primary shopper was so strong that leading marketing and design execs for long-established brands would outright reject any data pointing to the contrary.  

Authenticity inside and out  

Brands in the naturals industry might be more equipped to challenge norms because they underwent a sea change in market approach in their not-too-far-off history.  “In the U.S. about 10 years ago,” Siler explains, “health foods brands’ had to use very specific category language to communicate their authenticity, including brown and green natural color cues. It’s the way consumers identified products as part of the naturals market. As consumers evolved, they started looking deeper than these category cues for evidence of authenticity. They started reading the ingredients and learning about the companies that make the products and their [social responsibility] commitments.”  

Brands now have tools such as the Internet to help these consumers learn brand and product stories; the most-forward thinking brands realized that they could start communicating differently on pack. “Now, brands can have a very good aesthetic on shelf and still communicate the natural benefits of their products,” Siler explains. “The natural consumer now expect brands to be innovating and expect them to have a modern approach. Shoppers who have never seen Califia before can immediately tell from our package design and its elegant thoughtfulness that we are a company that takes both an innovative and artisanal approach.  

“Our almond milk is very much made the artisanal way,” Siler says. “We take whole blanched almonds and then we grind them and soak them in water. The result is a taste profile and texture that is most closely related to almond milk at home versus some of the commodity carton varieties of almond milk made from a reconstituted paste that’s been processed at ultra-high temperatures.  

“This extends to other categories such as our coffee products,” she adds. “We’re direct trade sourcing our own coffee beans so we can deliver the best taste profile. We have a GM for coffee, who is focused on sourcing the best coffee beans. As part of that commitment to coffee, we’re even opening our own roasting plant in downtown L.A. in July. So we’re not only sourcing our own coffee beans, we’re roasting our own coffee beans and controlling that roasting process. We also own our own beverage plant, so we’re able to execute the whole cold brewing process ourselves in-house and manage the quality of the coffee at every step of the way.  

“It’s the same for our probiotic yogurt,” Siler says. “You see the claim ‘probiotic’ on lots of different things, including snack foods like corn chips. Quite often, those products are using a probiotic powder that’s added at the end of the production process. But we wanted to create products with the highest efficacy for gut health, immunity and overall digestive benefit, so we batch ferment the culture so it’s actually breeding the live bacteria in our yogurt. It takes a lot more expertise and work to create products this way but we view it as absolutely critical.”  

Engagement beyond the shelf  

Packaging along with Califia’s Web presence helps tell the story of authenticity, but the company is also taking a purer approach to storytelling as a marketing device. “We just started publishing a magazine to communicate to the deeper segment of the coffee culture,” Siler says.cold brew  

Califia also has an engagement program that interacts with prospective brand fans across its product categories. “We go to more than 200 events per year,” Siler explains. “Getting in front of consumers and getting products in their hands has been key to our success and growth.”  

Careful monitoring of its marketing investments is also important. “For a brand like us, that’s growing very quickly, the absolute trackability associated with digital marketing is so important,” Siler says. “Thanks to this capability, I’ve seen marketing programs measure progress on a monthly basis go to daily measurement. At Califia, we have daily monitoring of our digital programs and we can get behind what is working quickly. Digital is a success for us because we’re able to get solid data and implement changes so quickly.”  

More is better  

“We’re also working with our customers on shopper marketing,” she adds. “One of our goals is to bring new consumers into our customers’ stores, so we cross promote and continually try to bring new product innovations to our customers. A key insight from our shopper marketing programs is that offering multiple products reinforces loyalty to the Califia brand and sells more products for our customers. A consumer who likes one Califia product will come back and try two to three other products. Our data has shown that if we increase our offerings at a customer site from three to six, we have no cannibalization. Actually, all products sales rise together because we develop a brand block in that space.”  

Time will tell if this trend holds as the overall vegan food and beverage market continues to grow. Data from Nielsen, which was commissioned and released by the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute, shows overall growth in plant-based foods was 8.1% from 2016 to 2017. This data also showed that plant-based dairy alternatives are a fast-growing category, with 20% growth, topping $700 million in sales in 2016. In this period, growth in the plant-based milk category outpaced relative losses in cow milk sales.  

“I think more people are making this transition, and they’re just not going back,” Siler says. “It’s really exciting for us, for me, to be part of people’s discovery of linking what they put into their body to their mental state and their emotional state as well.”