"The best marketing is when the customer doesn't know they're being marketed to" says RXBAR CMO, Victor Lee. His statement may ruffle some feathers but the truth is that great storytelling transcends marketing and becomes valuable entertainment. Listen now!
"The best marketing is when the customer doesn't know they're being marketed to" says RXBAR CMO, Victor Lee. His statement may ruffle some feathers but the truth is that great storytelling transcends marketing and becomes valuable entertainment. Episode 130 of Future Commerce covers lots of ground from the founder story of RXBAR to their broad category expansion in mass market and grocery, and how they have built tremendous brand affinity on a culture of honest, often blunt, simplicity and transparency.
Future Commerce has partnered with eTail to bring our listeners exclusive content and interviews. A huge thanks to the team at eTail for providing the show with such great content and material.
As always: We want to hear what our listeners think! Where you aks yourself if tomorrow this brand did not exist will anybody notice? And is that a good barometer of "did you do the right thing and did you resonate"? Did you make an impact? Did you have the all-important legacy? And does this matter?
Retail Tech is moving fast, but Future Commerce is moving faster.
Phillip: [00:00:07] Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about cutting edge and next generation commerce. I'm Phillip. And today, I'm joined by the Chief Marketing Officer of RXBAR, one of my favorite brands. Victor Lee is on the show here today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Victor: [00:00:21] Phil, thank you for having me.
Phillip: [00:00:22] And Victor, for people who may not know RXBAR or aren't familiar with you, could you tell us a little bit about the story of the brand and a little bit about yourself?
Victor: [00:00:30] Yeah, RXBAR is a whole real food protein bar, and we've been around a little over six years, so it's relatively new, although for the core users we've been part of their life for a long time. It was originally created in Chicago. There were two founders, and one of the founders was a very avid fitness expert. I say expert, meaning he participated in a lot of CrossFit. And if you think about the 2012 side, the funny thing about CrossFit, then as it was starting, it was hitting a massive scale. The joke was, how do you know somebody's CrossFits? Well, they'll tell you they CrossFit. So the founder was one of those guys. And being in that world and being a CrossFitter, they pay attention. The participants really pay attention to what they put in their body and their nutrition, and protein, especially, because they're so protein needed to participate in that type of fitness and sport. So in typical fashion, walks through an aisle after a workout and in a grocery store and looks for something to satiate the protein needs, and the protein energy bar and all these health bar category is blowing up. It's in the multibillion dollar global industry and every bar promises X, Y and Z more this, less that better this faster, more all this stuff. And being somebody who understood really nutrition and understood nutrition labels, his family was part of the food industry. He grabbed every bar and flipped it over. And he looked at the back and looked at the ingredients. He looked at the nutrition facts panel, everything that legally you have to disclose if you're making food. And he realized there was a lot of if I could say bullshit in the category because everything that was promised on one side wasn't delivered transparently on the backside. And he noticed in some cases he didn't want to put all those sugars in his body. And even worst case, he didn't even want to put the sugars that they were putting into the bars because they weren't natural sugars. They were actually added, meaning some kind of corn syrup or some kind of other syrup. He was reading some ingredients and realized, I can't even pronounce half the stuff. So why would I put something in my body I don't even know what it is? So in a typical entrepreneurs solution, problem solving needs an idea. Why can't I make a bar? And he just grabbed items literally off the shelf from the supermarket of stuff that he wants. What's a good protein source? Eggs. Some good texture, nuts. I need something to hold it all together and give it a little bit of sweetness, some kind of date or fruit or fig or something like that. Bought a lot of stuff. Goes home. Mother's house goes to his basement, red kitchen aid mixer, makes a bar. It really wasn't exactly in terms of success overnight. He went through hundreds of iterations in testing in terms of what worked and what didn't work. And his testing was simple. Make the bars, hit the streets, give it to his CrossFit buddies, see what they say. They like it, he keeps it. If they don't like it, he tweaks it. That's really how we came about today. And now we're more iconicly known for not only the product and what we make, but the packaging that we have.
Phillip: [00:03:56] Yes.
Victor: [00:03:56] Our mentality is the transparency of it. And that's how the package came about.
Phillip: [00:04:00] Yeah. And I would say almost as it's iconic packaging at this point, if I may... It said the brand is fairly new as far as like historic prestige brands that we're all familiar with, and we'll talk a little bit about some of some of that, too, because you're you're part of a prestige company now. But talk to me a little bit about that. There's a voice and tone that's communicated on the packaging that I think is being honored by other brands no. Tell me a little bit about what the voice and tone is and how you approach your consumer.
Victor: [00:04:38] The thought process behind building the brand and building the company was, I don't want to say anti-establishment, but he saw a problem with the big food industry, and he saw a problem in the big manufacturing industry, because for a lot of those companies, success is really predicated on the reach and the scale. Can we make a lot fast? And what they decided to do with the company was not to do it that way. And they can make good, they can make healthy and nutritious, and they can also make it fast. And that's really what they wanted to build it off of. And more importantly, the tone of it was and we can actually make a good product and be honest about it and not give false promises. The clean label movement, which isn't a scientific term, it's a consumer term, is really can you produce a product where your label...where your product is made with the fewest ingredients possible and ingredients that are common? And one of the definitions is that ingredients that you can pronounce and you can just buy off a shelf and you would normally have in your pantry. That's really kind of a clean label area. And he really wanted to go into that. And one of the towns and mantras he held onto was just no B.S. line. And no B.S. can represent a lot of stuff. And it's been interpreted two ways. One is the aggressive shock value way that people call it, the no bullshit side. The other stuff is no bad stuff, because when you take a look at the packaging... We have 17 flavors right now. If you take a look at the packaging, the front of it, always contains 100% of the time will contain three core ingredients. And the three core ingredients is what makes the bulk of the bar. It's always egg whites. And the reason why we list egg whites versus it's a protein bar. Every bar is twelve grams of protein. Where we get the bulk of the protein from? Egg whites. And most people in the fitness area knows egg whites is a good source. It's a really strong source of protein, a healthy source of protein. And then we add nuts for texture. It provides a little bit of the protein, but some kind of form of nut, whether it's a cashew, hazelnut, a peanut, an almond or whatever, depending on taste and texture. And the last thing is dates, and the dates primary purpose is to bind the whole bar because there's a lot of things that go around. This is not a baked bar. It doesn't go to a cooking process. And so the dates bind, but it also provides natural sweetener. Now, the thought is if we list all that and tell people what you get, we hope, and that's the intention, you grab the bar, if you're a first time user, you grab the bar you like, "I don't know. This is too good to be true." Flip it over. When you flip it over, those are FDA stamp guidelines of what you need to list. You'll notice we're being transparent. And that's the tone. The tone has to be honest, transparent. We tell it like it is.
Phillip: [00:07:34] Radical transparency and no B.S. sort of as a almost like your mission statement.
Victor: [00:07:39] Yeah.
Phillip: [00:07:40] It's interesting because there was an ad campaign that ran not so long ago with Ice-T. Right? And it sort of hit on that mission. I read recently that you are also shifting that messaging a little bit to be a little bit broader. I know you're broadening Category 2. Tell us a little bit about what RXBAR is in 2019 when it's beyond just bars.
Victor: [00:08:02] Yes. One thing is about that campaign. The campaign did a great job, and I will never take anything away from that campaign. Obviously I wasn't here at that time. [00:08:12] But one of the reasons why I fell in love with the company was the product, was the brand, and was that campaign. And what the campaign did really, really well is it set the tone for who we are. And sometimes it's hard for brands to do that. In a matter of fact, in this day and age, a brand really can't dictate to consumers who they are. Consumers tell the brand who they are. But that allowed us to say this is how we're going to act. And that's where that no B.S. came from. And it did a great job in doing that. [00:08:41] What we're doing now in this year's campaign that we've just launched a couple of weeks ago is we're maintaining the tone, we're maintaining that voice of this is how we act, this is who we are, and this is what we speak to in terms of that no B.S. And no B.S. is never going away. I've done a lot of... I've had a lot of failures in my career. One of the things I will not do is take that away because that will be the epitome of a failure if I do that. That will stay forever. Now, what we've shifted to was focus really on the product. What makes the product live up to that transparency and the no B.S. So let's speak to the egg whites. Let's speak to the dates. Let's speak to the nuts. Let's speak to what it takes to go into that bar, the 12 grams of protein and what it does. And that's where we wanted the shift for, so the shift isn't so much it's a new company brand tagline. This shift is what makes that product special to you, not us. So that's really where they went into it. And then late last year, toward the end of the year we launched... Last year we launched two new product lines. That's an extension off our bar brand. One was a kids line...RXBAR Kids. And then the other one, which was a new form and format iteration, which is our nut butter line, and nut butters are growing.
Phillip: [00:09:58] Yeah.
Victor: [00:09:59] Tremendously. And there's a lot of truth to be told about certain nut butters, whether it's a peanut butter or an almond butter or whatsoever in terms of how a butter is made. So we wanted to maintain those guardrails in terms of the high expectations of how we make our products and develop a nut butter product under those same, and you'll see on the packaging, it is egg whites, and it is the the nuts, and is the same stuff in the manner which make it. And then most recently, a couple of weeks ago, we launched our latest product innovation, which is our RX Oats, and which is part of our RX AM line. So it's a breakfast line. It's everything you need before noon and our oats line, which maintains those same guardrails of real and simple ingredients that we can deliver.
Phillip: [00:10:46] I look at what modern consumer brands do right now, and their narrow category for a very long time. The one I think is probably iconic at this point is Allbirds. You have a number, a couple of silhouettes. And you can still get deep, deep penetration in a lot of areas. I think of you all the same way, but you're doing it in a different way. I think of where I buy your products, and its mass market grocery. That seems like it's really difficult to do when you're broadening category now. Tell me a little bit about is that a slippery slope? How do you approach that in a way... You have to pace it out, I'm sure. So from a CMO perspective, like how do you approach taking a product categorization widening and message it in a way that it doesn't really dilute the brand?
Victor: [00:11:38] You're absolutely right. It is a slippery slope. But if a product, brand, or company becomes afraid of a category because a category has been around for more than 100 years, like oats or breakfast cereal, in this case, hot breakfast cereal, then that category never innovates. And there are a couple of large players, and they're much larger than we are. And if we don't try it, then nobody else will or other people will, and you're always going to be running the same... It's almost like the definition of insanity to an extent. So as we look into categories, it's breaking into new categories, but it's also reinventing the category because what we did with the protein bar category is we we didn't reinvent, we disrupted it a little bit. [00:12:29] And I know there's a lot of overused words of disruption and innovation, but we were able to go into a category to really call out kind of what consumers need. And we always go back to what do they need, what are they looking for? [00:12:41] So in the case of the oats category, it's a heavy dominated and popular category. [00:12:48] Most companies would not enter into that because there are some massive power players. And that's scary for a lot of companies. But we maintain who we are, what our consumers want and understand do we deliver something that's a little bit different? And we do. And we deliver a good protein based oatmeal that can be made in multiple ways, whether it's microwave, hot water, or overnight oats, which is a growing trend in popularity now. And does the consumer see this as something that's beneficial to them? And we use our brand and our guidelines and how we develop the brand to help sell that point, because the best part about the truth is you never have to remember it. [00:13:33]
Phillip: [00:13:34] Yeah.
Victor: [00:13:34] And so we live by that.
Phillip: [00:13:36] That's good.
Victor: [00:13:36] And the best part of our truth is we use real, simple ingredients, stuff that if you opened up a typical pantry in somebody's home, you probably find all the ingredients we have that we put in our product. And that, we feel, can help innovate and iterate any category, whether it's a mainstay category or it's a new category, as long as you hold to how you make something.
Phillip: [00:14:05] This has been such a great conversation. I'm curious. You know, you have you yourself, Victor, have some pedigree. Just in the preshow, we were talking you in a former life where adjunct professor at Boston College. You come from Hasbro. This seems like an interesting evolution for you in your career in a consumer brand space. I'm curious, know what you see as the opportunity here in this category that allows you to take your career to that next level.
Victor: [00:14:38] Yeah, I think one of the things I like to live by, and I tell a lot of my staff or students or anybody that I encounter is, [00:14:48] I believe to do well in this marketing world or in my position here as a CMO, or any level, you can't treat your role or job as a role or a job. You have to be a fan of it. And I'm a fan of good marketing. I'm a fan of good messaging. I'm a fan of good consumer insights. I'm a fan of good consumer behavior. And when I'm not in my day to day work environment, I am so naturally curious about what other people are doing and why and the behaviors of such. Because if I'm not, then I'm not thinking about it the right way. [00:15:24] And then it's a one way street. And when I was a professor at Boston College, what I loved about that was there was a difference in terms of the students, and there were graduate students and undergraduate students, in how they perceive things because they see it in such a different light than what a professional, so to say marketer looks at it. Because in most cases, companies with their marketers they're screaming at consumers.
Phillip: [00:15:52] Sure.
Victor: [00:15:52] [00:15:52]And sometimes they locked themselves in their four walls, and they believe "I know what's best because I'm going to develop a 60 page PowerPoint, and I'm going to have all these charts and graphs and do everything. And I know what's best." And one of two things why I thought being a professor was great was, one you get a perspective. And two, it was really more for the academia industry is that I brought, I like to think I brought, a level of I know it feels like to be in front of that board. [00:16:21] I know what it was like to be part of that executive team in that group when you're staring down the barrel of an earnings season, when you're staring down the barrel of a launch, when you're staring down the pressures of supply chain distribution and sales that you can't feel from a Harvard Business School case study. And I wanted to provide that realness to students. And I told them, "I'm going to treat you like you're a member of my staff." [00:16:46] A good former colleague and a mentor of mine told me this once. He said, "Typically, school rewards you for being right. But life and your career rewards you for taking risks." And I don't want students thinking if I memorize it, then I win because that doesn't preparing for the risks and failures they're going to encounter when they're in the room. So that helped me a lot. And even my time at Hasbro, which was a great time at Hasbro was to understand the shift in how content can really shape a brand and how consumers really consume stuff. And there's the multiple studies. I think Microsoft did one. CNN or Time magazine did one. People's memories now... The average attention span of a human being is less than a goldfish. And so it's sad to an extent, but the reality is we're overloaded with messages. And if I can't tell you something in three seconds, I lose. And YouTube says I can't tell you in six seconds we lose. So that I'm a fan of. And that I'm fascinated with the psychology of it all. [00:17:53]
Phillip: [00:17:54] It's interesting how that actually relates back to your current role in the products is that you don't have to flip over to the back of the label to get that three second what's in this? I find that really fascinating. You mentioned something just there about story and sort of using story to backup a product, that it's more than just the fulfilling a need or a desire to have the thing. How does story play into what you're doing at RXBAR now?
Victor: [00:18:26] [00:18:26]I think storytelling, especially in this marketing world or brand consumer world, is one of those overused and misunderstood type of words because everybody says, "I want to tell a story." But then when it comes down to the creative execution of it, sometimes it's not a story. And sometimes it's an ad. [00:18:46] I was given a little flack recently by somebody who I didn't know when there was a quote where I said, "Sometimes the best marketing is when the person receiving it didn't know they were being marketed to." And it was taken out of context because the reality of that is, is [00:19:03] that if you tell a good story, and you're honest and forthright about it, and you're not trying to sell something that's not marketing. That is telling a story. We've sat here already now and we've story told each other. If you think about a child, a baby, their first exposure into imagination is their parent telling them a story. It's the bedtime stories. They're exposed to stories. Now where it splits and the road is how the story is told. If you're telling a story with the goal of "I'm going to sell you something and here a four tires. Buy them, because if you don't the winner is gonna be tough." That's not a story. That's an ad. [00:19:46]
Phillip: [00:19:47] Yeah.
Victor: [00:19:47] And so how story plays into our RXBAR is really the transparency, as I keep talking about, of the type of company we are and the values we have because we believe that we're trying to solve for something that the consumer looks for. We believe that we make a product that we're willing to share with the world. Like, why do we use the egg whites? How do we use the nuts for texture? How do we use the dates? And what's the story behind that? What's the story of how a bar is made? Why a story about if suddenly you're you're going on a massive road trip, why would you bring this over the other? [00:20:24] I want to hear your story. I shouldn't tell you, because if I have to, as a company, as a brand, tell you that if you're going to go on a long drive or even a fly cross cross-country, you should take our bars, because sometimes fast food or this or that or whatever it is isn't good enough for you... I'm not telling you a story. Now if you told me a story of why you used us and why it was more beneficial for your trip, that's a story, right? And those stories need to be told. And that's what we tried to tell. That's how I look at it when I think about what storytelling means. [00:20:56]
Phillip: [00:20:59] That's really powerful. I had somebody on who you know, everybody has a podcast now. Everybody also has a newsletter. So I'll have to subscribe to yours. I'm sure you have one, too. There is someone who I respect greatly. Her name is Emily Singer. She has a newsletter called Chips and Dips, and she talks about she's a fan of consumer brands and modern consumer brands. And so she talks a lot about sort of her perspective in that world. And she was with another natural food company called Daily Harvest for the longest time. But just great perspective. She says she kind of buckets companies, brands, into two categories, and it is painting with very broad strokes here. But [00:21:41] there are like brands with a conscience in 2019 and there are brands that build communities in 2019. And that's really where we are. It sounds like this story of growing your brand might be learning how to have both. How to do what you said, which is to have a conscience around the transparency, but to be able to storytell by having community. [00:22:08] I'm curious if you if that resonates with you at all or if that's something from all of your experience as a CMO, what your read on that is.
Victor: [00:22:16] It does. I think how I looked at how brands are or products or companies is there's a lot of talk these days, and rightfully so, about what you're doing for the world, what are you doing with a consumer, the cause, the sustainability. [00:22:31] And a lot of people want to know that companies are doing something for a greater good. A lot of people understand they're businesses, too. But they want to understand, well, are you sacrificing one over the other as you're talking about before, from community to other things? I look at it as at the end of the whole journey is the legacy. What legacy did a person or the brand leave behind for the world? And not a lot of brands, not a lot of products can say to themselves, people can do this, too. Where you say to yourself, if tomorrow this brand did not exist with anybody notice? And that is a good barometer of did you do the right thing and did you resonate? Did you make an impact? Did you have the all important legacy? And legacy comes in many forms and fashions. So it could be defined as we did something for the betterment of X, or we did something for the cause, or we did something for this person or whatever it is. [00:23:38] Like the legacy of the baby car seat. Right? Safety and health of a child. But I'm sure there was a time where it didn't even dawn on someone's mind. But if tomorrow car seats for kids were gone, people would know.
Phillip: [00:23:54] We would notice.
Victor: [00:23:55] Right. And so you start thinking about that and start applying brands into it. Start applying entertainment brands. Start applying actors, and start applying things you use every single day. So if the name brand of the sneakers you wore today, if it didn't exist tomorrow, how sad would you be?
Phillip: [00:24:12] Very.
Victor: [00:24:12] How long would it take for you to get over it?
Phillip: [00:24:13] Right.
Victor: [00:24:15] That's where you cement yourself in terms of how long would it take for you just then say, fine, I'm not going to walk around barefoot forever. I'll learn to love this. And that's where you start to understand where you made your mark on the world.
Phillip: [00:24:28] This has been so rewarding for me. I really appreciate it. I have one thing that I didn't prepare you for. My wife made a request. She's like, "I love RXBAR so much. If they could only peel the almonds that's..."
Victor: [00:24:42] Really?
Phillip: [00:24:43] Yeah. She says from a consumer feedback perspective, the almond peels get stuck.
Victor: [00:24:49] Well, you know what? You tell your wife that she's gone through the right channels.
Phillip: [00:24:54] OK.
Victor: [00:24:55] And any channel will work. But I will absolutely personally look into it myself.
Phillip: [00:24:59] She's she's a big fan of the coconut chocolate. So I think that's should say a lot.
Victor: [00:25:05] Coconut chocolate was the original flavor.
Phillip: [00:25:07] Was it?
Victor: [00:25:08] The first one.
Phillip: [00:25:08] Oh, wow. It's quite the legacy. I know I've gotten a lot out of this, and I'm sure other people have, too.
Victor: [00:25:15] Thank you.
Phillip: [00:25:16] Where can people reach you if they have any questions, or if they want to reach out? LinkedIn? Twitter? Where are you?
Victor: [00:25:21] Linkedin. I'm on everything. And it's one of those, as a marketer, if you're not on everything, then you don't know how to do anything. And so they can find me anywhere there. They can reach out through our social media, on RXBAR, as well or anywhere else. In this day and age, if you can't find somebody, then they're not meant to be found.
Phillip: [00:25:38] Well, thank you so much for your time. Victor. I really appreciate it. And thank you to everybody who listened and for watching. We want your feedback. Add your voice to the show. You can do that at FutureCommerce.fm. We would like you to subscribe, so you'd never miss another episode of Future Commerce. You can do that at Apple podcast or Google podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Premium. You know, or with a smart speaker device. Those exist too. And you can do that with the phrase "Play Future Commerce podcast." Thank you so much.
Victor: [00:26:06] Thank you.