All brands wish for a crystal ball wanting to better understand retailers. Retailers want brands to take a leadership role in their categories and they want actionable insights they don’t have access to. Effective story telling is what sets brands apart.

Welcome, have you ever wanted to ask a retailer what they really want? I mean, really have a sit down conversation with them, and pick their brain and find out how does a brand be successful in their stores? You’ve been repeatedly told what paperwork you need, what forms you need to fill out, what you need to have when you show up to a category review. Today’s episode goes well beyond that. We talk about exactly what retailers want and need from you. 

Let’s be honest, there’s a big difference between how big brands, and small brands interact with retailers. Have you ever wondered why that is? The reason this show exists, and the reason that I put out all the content that I put out is to answer this exact question. To help give brands an equal seat at the table with the most sophisticated brands in any category. To help small brands compete head-to-head, toe-to-toe in any category, in any channel, and in any economy. My mission is to make our healthy way of life more accessible by getting your products on more retailer shelves, and into the hands of more shoppers. How do I do that? Beyond my content, my course and this podcast, I invite thought leaders from this industry to share with you their thoughts, their advice, their wisdom. You’ve heard me say repeatedly that this podcast is about you, and it’s for you. 

Today’s special guest is a former retailer with experience with small retailers, as well as one of the largest retailers in the country. He and his team were responsible for making Kroger the number one retailer for organic foods a couple years ago. My special guest today is Mathis Martines.

On today’s podcast we have an in depth conversation about what retailers really want, what they really need, and how they need brands to step up and help them succeed, and grow their categories. What we share goes well beyond an incubator, business school, seminar, or program out there. We share with you the road map to success. The skills that every brand needs to know to become a category leader. To stand out on a crowded shelf, and to build sustainable sales. We talk about the strategies to help small brands close the gap, and level the playing field.

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Click here to learn more about ENLIGHTENED

Click here to learn more about Kroger



Hello and thank you for joining us today. This is the Brand Secrets and Strategies Podcast #54

Welcome to the Brand Secrets and Strategies podcast where the focus is on empowering brands and raising the bar.

I’m your host Dan Lohman. This weekly show is dedicated to getting your brand on the shelf and keeping it there.

Get ready to learn actionable insights and strategic solutions to grow your brand and save you valuable time and money.


Dan: Welcome, have you ever wanted to ask a retailer what they really want? I mean, really have a sit down conversation with them, and pick their brain and find out how does a brand be successful in their stores? You've been repeatedly told what paperwork you need, what forms you need to fill out, what you need to have when you show up to a category review. Today's episode goes well beyond that. We talk about exactly what retailers want and need from you.

Let's be honest, there's a big difference between how big brands, and small brands interact with retailers. Have you ever wondered why that is? The reason this show exists, and the reason that I put out all the content that I put out is to answer this exact question. To help give brands an equal seat at the table with the most sophisticated brands in any category. To help small brands compete head-to-head, toe-to-toe in any category, in any channel, and in any economy. My mission is to make our healthy way of life more accessible by getting your products on more retailer shelves, and into the hands of more shoppers. How do I do that? Beyond my content, my course and this podcast, I invite thought leaders from this industry to share with you their thoughts, their advice, their wisdom. You've heard me say repeatedly that this podcast is about you, and it's for you.

Today's special guest is a former retailer with experience with small retailers, as well as one of the largest retailers in the country. He and his team were responsible for making Kroger the number one retailer for organic foods a couple years ago. My special guest today is Mathis Martines.

On today's podcast we have an in depth conversation about what retailers really want, what they really need, and how they need brands to step up and help them succeed, and grow their categories. What we share goes well beyond an incubator, business school, seminar, or program out there. We share with you the road map to success. The skills that every brand needs to know to become a category leader. To stand out on a crowded shelf, and to build sustainable sales. We talk about the strategies to help small brands close the gap, and level the playing field. Here's Mathis.

Mathis, thank you so much for making time for me today. Can you please start by telling us a little bit about yourself? And how you got to where you're at today?

Mathis: Yeah, thanks a lot Dan. I appreciate you having me on. I'm really excited to have the opportunity. I have had a little bit of a wild journey of a career. I'd say by sort of starting out, I didn't really know in my life what food was gonna be. And I remember ... Going back quite a ways, I was in New York as a teenager in high school, and sort of having dinner at Windows of the World on top of the World Trade Center. This was in 2000, so fairly close to 2000, and September 11, and that stuff. It was quite ironic for me to have sort of a life changing moment there.

And I had grown up in small town, and farm, and had never really been exposed to different types of food. And when I was there, got served a Caesar salad at the restaurant, and it had anchovies on it. As a kid, I'm freaking out when I see these foreign little animals on my plate. And I remember getting sort of a kick in the butt at the time from my professor, who said go ahead, give it a shot. These things aren't strange. You'll like it. That's what Caesar is made of. And naïve little kid, changed my life, right? It got me into this mode of don't say no, when something is strange. Say yes at least twice, to figure out if it's for you, or if you like it.

Dan: Good for you.

Mathis: Yeah, so in that perspective it sort of took me on the initial stage of my sort of food journey in life. I wound up moving to Europe, and being a high school exchange student before college, instead of going directly to college. And we talked about some really great food and cultural experiences. Everything from eating at the Palace of Versailles, to the different castles around Belgium, to all the food around Italy. It really became a big passion because food became one of those things that really expressed the culture of the people. And you can get a close understanding of what the heritage, and what the feelings are, and how people lived. That really interested me.

Went to college, didn't particularly pay a lot of attention to the food. This passion inside of me so to say. Outside of college, first sort of jump was with IRI, and working at Frito Lay / Pepsi. If you want to talk about sort of drinking from the fire hose, fresh out of college, and going into one of the most organized, and well built sales organizations on the planet, and really, really learning a lot there. From there sort of ventured into Whole Foods, and started on the analyst side of the business. Really getting an understanding for data, not knowing what kombucha was, to drinking three kombuchas a day by the end of my time there. I parlayed the analyst work into buying roles both in grocery, dairy frozen, and bulk.

And then from there, after about three years, moved onto the next phase, which was with a regional retailer called The Fresh Market, out in North Carolina. And that's where I was sort of able to get a bigger understanding of the landscape of the industry. Started to work with a lot of entrepreneurs, and small brands to help them launch, launch smartly. Understand the different dynamics of their business, and also understanding how to regionally position yourself as a retailer to drive some innovations, some things that are unique to your customers, and really work on the loyalty aspect, and get customers into your stores.

Then, you know one day Kroger gave me a ring. And I had always considered myself a natural foodie to be on that side of the business, but when you look at the passion that I had developed for food over time, and for me personally, I looked at Kroger as like, man, this is a platform where we can take this to the next level. With 2500 stores, I mean, there's so many areas of the country. You have a lot of area to try things. To innovate in small, large scale. And ultimately about bringing better food to more people, which has been a passion of mine for the past seven or eight years.

And so going to Kroger, roles evolved there from working on innovation, and snack foods, and beverages, and partnering with folks such as L.A. Libations, and BMG, and these other brands. To sort of looking at innovative new products, and then working on things like eCommerce platform, ship to home, then getting into distribution and logistics. Working at Kroger gave me a really great perspective to kind of look at all the different dynamics, and understand innovation, and how brands can continue to evolve, and how retailers can continue to evolve in several different levels.

As exciting as that was, after about 11 years on the retail side of things, decided to go ahead and jump over, and now I find myself with a fantastic brand called Enlightened Foods, and a beyond better brand. We have a really great product. We have a great group of entrepreneurs. Really exciting time for us. This is the type of company that I would want to be part of like at Kroger, and see their success, and get them on the shelves, and just watch them grow. Now it's just an amazing time to kind of see and be part of that energy from the inside out, and really be able to focus on a brand as a whole. Instead of kind of putting a lot of eggs in different baskets. That's where I find myself now, and helping these guys out, and being part of a wonderful team.

And along with that I continue to do some work with the Plant Based Foods Association on the side, and so really excited to be on their retail advisory board, and doing some good things there as well. I hope that encapsulated it, but it has been a very wonderful, and swift journey. And a lot different experiences, and I'm very happy, and grateful to have been able to experience it.

Dan: Well, I appreciate your sharing that. I know that we've talked off and on for several years now. And so that's why I've gotten to know you. And so I appreciate the fact that you're focused on healthy brands, and helping to make a difference. You said you focus on brands as a whole. What do you mean by that?

Mathis: Well, I think that there's this argument, right? As far as like do you see the trees, or do you see the forest? And I've always been a big believer that you have to have this vision and this mission that kind of trickles down, and becomes like the center of the core of your brand, and everything else revolves around that. And I think this is where we see a lot of brands kind of lose their way, is that core they don't really strengthen, or really kind of focus and tie it back to what they do, and what do they do best, what do they mean to the consumers, how do they keep their consumers, how do they keep people in the category.

Staying focused on a brand as a whole, I mean, overall you're looking at making sure that you can execute everything around, or inside of the forest. Making sure that each tree looks, and is taken care of very well. That the details aren't left out, that they are important, but what those do is, the details help to build up what is eventually like this great vision. This great picture, that I think builds a stronger brand that relates, and has better brand loyalty, and a better chance of success in the market, then brands that really sort of lose that way, but it doesn't always start like that, right?

Dan: Right.

Mathis: And it always evolves. There's no one way to get there, but that sort of concentric vision is something that I really like to focus on, and this company has done a great job of kind of keeping that mindset, and being part of it has been very fun so far.

Dan: Well, I loved the way you framed that. What a great analogy. That's one of the things that I focus on, and that's why this show exists, to help brands remain committed to their core mission. To stay focused, and to not get distracted, and help them get more runway, and help them be able to tell their stories to retailers. Thank you for sharing that.

When you're talking about some of the issues that you see brands struggle with, throughout your retail career at both Whole Foods, and then Kroger, what do you see as being a challenge? How do you see the different brands struggle with this? And then what advice would you offer to a brand to help them to stay focused, and then communicate that to the retailer?

Mathis: Well, I think that's kind of a loaded question at this point.

Dan: That's why you're here.

Mathis: The landscape has changed so much, in even the past two to three years.

Dan: It has.

Mathis: You know, the earth shaking purchase by Amazon of Whole Foods. It was definitely something that sort of shook the trees a little bit, and everyone is mobilizing around like, okay, how can we innovate? How can we be better? And so you see purchases of these different aspects, where retailers are starting to innovate, and broaden their differentiation in market, or trying to compete with Amazon, or Walmart, or a lot of these others, that are kind of becoming second nature.

When we talk about ship to home, or endless aisles sort of ideas, where you've got online shopping if you can't find it in store. This convenience factor to the customer. Right now is the time where I think evolving as a brand, and understanding when to say yes, and when to say no, is becoming more, and more important. The importance of your revenue streams, and how you structure your company, and where you generate that revenue initially, for new ideas on trial. How you get new items to market. With online being what remains as, for right now at least, a less expensive way then going to brick and mortar in some cases. And how that revenue stream is growing, whether it's three, four, five percent of sales. Looking at these options, and how digital is engaging customers.

Really kind of looking at all this, and restructuring your trade spend, restructuring your marketing organization. And making sure that all of these different aspects that you have a solution for them, or a strategy and some tactics there to be effective in these. Before, and I still believe you can go straight to brick and mortar and make a product. Right? Happen without having an online presence, but that brand loyalty, and that engagement online is much more important now.

Dan: It is.

Mathis: Whether you think marketing is important or not, you're gonna have to do some of that. Before, you could make it. You could build something regionally, and build it out without doing a lot of that. With doing more of gorilla work, and in some categories you still can. Great products still ring true, but that engagement. The ability for that to be sort of the moment, the tipping point so to say, that's where a lot of the social engagement drives. When you're talking about that look at Quest, and what they've done. A lot of brands have sort of made that happen, and then they've turned into big national brands now because of it.

If I was to give any advice, it would be understand what a win is, and be willing to say no if it's not the right time. Understand that as retailers are getting, being put in environments that make them feel more, and more uncomfortable themselves, that they're grasping for straws. That they're having these moments of growth, and what that means are things like, okay, the new slotting fees, right? We're gonna go to penny for penny promotions. If we're not gonna make our sales target, we're gonna make our profit margin. And what you see is a lot of retailers go into that model, and unfortunately that limits the ability for smaller brands to really jump into brick and mortar, in a way that was less expensive and effective when compared to even five years ago. That opportunity is getting tighter and tighter.

Know when to say no, structure your organization, and make sure that you have a well rounded plan to take advantage of the things that have the best ROI, whether it be digital, social, or in store, or any sort of any sales management organization, get the support that you need, and just make sure that you're willing to stay true to your brand, without spreading yourself too thin.

Dan: Perfect. Thanks. And I agree that retail is changing. And the way people, the way consumers shop the category is changing. My point being is that consumers no longer just look at the four corners of the package, they need to look beyond that. To your point regardless whether you're online or in traditional brick and mortar, you've got to have a rich selling story, and you've gotta be able to communicate the value of your product. Let's say that a brand does that well. They've got an effective digital strategy. They've got a placement, and online, and then they go to a retailer. When you're talking about being able to say no, or yes. How would you recommend a brand address that, and position themselves within the retailer?

Mathis: Yeah, I mean. It's gonna be on a case by basis, and at the end of the day, this is a people business. You have to have good people. You have to build and develop relationships, and that's the number one connection with a retailer to finding a win-win. Not all products are created equal, but with strong relationships you can build programs that really work to overcome some of those barriers that are naturally thrown up.

Yeah, and there's a lot of, I mean, if you look at it right now, and I'm sure you know this Dan. You see it, but we went through this expansion of retail space, where stores were getting bigger, and bigger. Then over the past probably four or five years, the opposite has been true. If you look at Whole Foods, they were building 80,000 square foot stores, and now they're going back to a smaller box. Then you look at folks like Kroger, who are building these massive marketplaces that have tons of different types of products in there to keep people and purchases within their store, but if you look at their core grocery space, core food space, it's shrinking a little bit. They're trying to play the different role in the customers, and appeal to them in different ways.

And then you look at Walmart, who with their purchase of Jet, and stuff like that. That has been such a great strength, and growing evolution of their value to customers over the past five years. When you think about that, what does that mean? You've got this big cloud up in the sky, literally a cloud of data, where your products are gonna live, and they can live, and there's infinite space. But the space on the shelf is continuing to shrink, and the shopping experiences are continuing to become, I would say cleaner in a lot of ways.

We're seeing a lot of remodeling, reinvestment in a lot of stores. And the differentiation, and the seeking out for that. How can you participate in that differentiation to a retailer? What is your brand value to the retailer? What kind of customers are you gonna bring to their stores? Are they gonna be engaged? Are they gonna be new? Are they gonna come from competition? Are they gonna be someone that you are driving to their stores, through what you do on social media?

When you think about it, it's about sales. If you get a chance, you're gonna be judged better or worse on your sales, but if you really focus on this brand loyalty, this engagement, with ability to draw consumers to your retail partners, and build a relationship from that direction, which is seeing it from their side. What's most healthy for my company? And my category as a retailer? I think taking that perspective is where you start to win. And you build up trust, and you're able to overcome what would have been mountains, and now they turn into molehills.

Dan: Well, I appreciate you saying that, and I could not agree with you more. And that's what I've been preaching in my free course, and in my articles. That’s what this podcast is about, teaching brands how to leverage that relationship. First of all, excuse me, let me back up. How to develop a relationship with their core shopper, turn them into evangelists by providing them what they want, to exceed their expectations, and then by leveraging that story at retail. When you're talking about being able to help a brand drive sales into a store. Ultimately, that's what all retailers need, Retailers don't generically make anything, they sell other people's products. What they sell is real estate in the form of shelf space. If a brand has the ability to drive traffic into a store, one, and two, to be able to drive sales within the category, that is the ultimate game. That's the way this game should be played.

From my perspective, not just paying attention, as you were saying penny profit, and some of the other things, the metrics that retailers look at. I believe that brands need to help retailers understand the value of the market basket, or that shopper to the retailer. What I mean by that is, when an organic consumer goes to a store, they buy organic bread, organic spread, organic produce, et cetera. They spend more money in a store than a consumer that buys cheaper stuff. The point is that consumer, that brand is more valuable as a result. One, do you agree? And then, two, how would you recommend a brand leverage that conversation with the retailer?

Mathis: I couldn't agree more. I think that's a great way of putting it. And I think it is about putting yourself in their shoes. What's good for the long term viability of their business?

Dan: Exactly.

Mathis: And if you look at the retail chains, or if you look at folks in the industry, or it could be any brand where they don't engage the customer in a way that builds longterm loyalty, but it ceased to really exist after time.

Dan: Agreed.

Mathis: It may be a death of a thousand cuts, but slowly but surely they wind up getting away from their core because they're not focusing on it, and you get a lot of band-aids going on, and then the other side of it is the fact that customers, little by little, they don't think of you. You're not their beloved neighborhood shop. Being where I am in North Carolina, we have some great grocery stores that I think continue to drive loyalty in that way. Namely like Harris Teeter, and Publix. I mean, those are both first in class. They have very loyal followings. And if you look at that, at some of the others out there, being like HED, and Kroger, there's a lot of good things that customers have to say, and keeps them going into the store, but if you take price off the table, what do consumers go for? They're gonna go for something, a place that identifies with them.

As a brand, take a step back, all right? We don't have to worry about where we're paying more, or paying less. We have to worry about who is behind the deli counter, or who is picking up my produce when I order for a delivery, or for a pickup order now. It's what that relationship with the service, or the engagement in stores, and how does that make me feel? Ultimately, that's what your brand has to be at the shelf without having any presence, or without having sales support in store, or having a direct a connection with the consumer.

And so when you talk about that, and you look at that from the retailer perspective. How are you gonna help me? You put yourself in their shoes, and from your brand perspective, there are a couple key things that you can do. All right. Number one is build that relationship, partner, and communicate. Understand what the retailer has available to you, and what isn't available to you. Understand what the relationship, and the value of the relationship to the retailer is from your brand. If you're a smaller brand, that really doesn't, I guess the revenue potential with a 100 person ACV, is much lower than say a game changing brand.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: You've got to understand and be realistic, and seek out that feedback, and seek out that feedback on how you can be that. If that is what you would like to be. If not understand, hey, I am a regionally relevant brand, or I am a brand in a category, and I can be the growth driver in the category, but the category is really boring. If you take something like spices for example. There's a little movement or excitement in the category, right? With organic happening a lot more, but in general we're not seeing a whole lot of new spices. We're not seeing spikes in spice sales that moves the needle in a big way. We look at that from a retailer perspective, where you are in the pecking order, and understanding of that is a great way to kind of lean into the relationship, and identify with the category buyer.

The second thing is participate, and take their feedback on where they would like you to participate. I would say that there are a lot of programs out there, and there are a lot of programs that are driven by retailers to be pure profit centers.

Dan: Yes.

Mathis: I mean, and there are a lot that are really, really good ways to engage the customer. And so if you can understand what those tools are, evaluate those on the ROI. If you look at digital, and digital coupons. I mean, I think they're growing greatly, to do things inexpensively, have another touch point, have another interaction with the customer, and drive some incremental sales. They're not gonna move the needle in a lot of ways, but I think they're a tool, and it's an inexpensive tool for you to gauge. But when you start to do things that are loyalty card offers. Are you really getting ingrained with the retailer? You're looking in spending upwards of five to ten percent of what your annual budget might be on marketing for one event, especially for smaller brands. Are you ready for that? And does it move the needle? And so continue to have that conversation with the category manager. Understand what he or she really values, and be able to play and talk about that.

And then the third thing is make it easy for the category manager.

Dan: Yes.

Mathis: As a retailer. Yeah, I mean, ultimately like that. Hey, we all have a great product. I mean, we're all passionate about our products, but it's very difficult in the retail world to manage thousands of products, and also manage hundreds of vendors. Going through the broker network, unfortunately it provides a lot of efficiencies. But fortunately for a retailer it provides a lot of efficiencies. Unfortunately, and it costs.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: And you need to make sure you add that into the budget. You structure your financial in your margins to your product, and where you're going with it, to incorporate some of the cost. Is it absolute that you need one? Probably not, but I think we're getting further and further away from the situation where you didn't have to have one. To where I think the efficiencies are there. And then you can look at other options in that world, whether it be like RangeMe, or some of these selling events, to where you can get your foot in the door without getting a broker. Like ECRM's, or Natural Products Expo, and vendor meetings, and you kind of bring all these groups together. There are ways to do it, but you're still going to spend money to participate. You've got to kind of be prepped for that.

Understanding that, less time for the category manager, understanding what they want, and are passionate about, versus what works, and you can afford, and then really helping to partner with them, and get a rapport developed around what their goals are, and helping to be a part of all of those conversations along the way if they want you to. I mean, if not, you know where your brand stands.

Dan: Thank you so much for saying all that. Okay, now the check is in the mail. We had an agreement worked out ahead of time. Just kidding. The point being is that validating, you're saying exactly what I've been preaching for years now. Brands need to think, need to rethink the way they're doing things. They need to stop being just drones. They need to stop looking at the retailer to solve their problem.

Let me back up, first of all, number one, I hate the conversation around price. Price is not the only thing that drives a shopper in to stores. Well, you said it yourself, loyalty. Develop a loyalty program. I'm not talking about a loyalty card. Sure, those are great, but those are coupons for a lot of consumers. My point being is that I've got a loyalty card for almost every retailer, every airliner, et cetera, that I fly on, but I will go out of my way to shop my local retailer, my favorite retailer because they provide tremendous value.

To your point, the butcher goes out of the way to remember my name. The store is friendly. It's clean. They provide the selection that I want. That's where you get real loyalty. And I love the way you said that. Brands need to work hard to develop that relationship with their customer, and then nurture that relationship with the retailer, to drive their core customers into the retail store. That's back to driving foot traffic. Thank you for saying that.

And number two, I bet that you have horror stories about the times where you sat there behind the desk, as a retailer, and listened to a brand drone on about this is what I want. This is what I need you to do. And you need to do this for me, and this is why this is important. Rather than taking the time to treat you like a person, one, and then, two, ask you what you want and need. How do they help you drive sales in the category? I would love to have you elaborate a little bit about that, and then I'll cover some of the other things, but I've worked with a lot of retailers on both sides of the fence. National level, local level, et cetera. And I think people forget that retailers are people. Category managers are people. They've got a specific job to do, and they don't like people treating them like they're lint on their shoes.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the horror stories that you've seen? And some of the successes you've seen from the brands that go out of the way to help you be successful in your job, when you're sitting on that side of the fence.

Mathis: Yeah, I mean. Lint on the shoes. If you ever said that around a group of category managers, oh, man, you would have one angry group. There would be pitchforks out there. In any organization, the category manager is really one of the most powerful people, if they are enabled properly.

Dan: True.

Mathis: And I mean, they are the decision makers. And they control what's on the shelf. They have the ability to direct strategy. To create new programs. To really be your internal spokesperson.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: Yeah. You look at brands that are out there that have caught fire. Think about Vita Coca, you know on the beverage side. You look at like GT's Kombucha. You go and look at things like that. You look at Kettle Brand chips. At some point they not only partnered with a category manager to build their sales, but they became so relevant and important to these category managers. And the category managers were speaking on the behalf of these brands to up, down, all around merchandising plans. And so within the category management world, there's always a scrum going on, right?

Dan: Right.

Mathis: Scrum for promotions because you've got all these people that are basing their success on their department sales and margin, their store sales and margin, and ultimately their category sales and margin. When you look at that, there is a little bit of a scrum that goes on. Some tart turf war. Think about that, right? That category manager could be your biggest proponent, or it could be someone that hurts your brand the most because you are not allowed to participate in the way that other brands are.

Dan: Very true.

Mathis: And in my experience, all it takes is a poor initial meeting, a poor relationship, a poor interaction, a single brief 30 second call, a missed email to put you on the other side of the fence. And so when you're thinking about the interactions with the category manager, there is nothing more important than making sure that everything that you do is supportive to them. You approach it like that, right?

Dan: Yeah.

Mathis: And you make sure that if you have a broker, you've got your broker to understand what type of relationship. You reach out on social media. You go to LinkedIn, and get on top of these groups. You look at who has networked with these folks.

Dan: Excellent.

Mathis: You reach out. You get feedback. As a retailer, on the retail side, as a former retailer, the brands that put themselves in that situation were really one of three types, and the first type would be the type who is a really passionate vendor, has a really great product, but only sees the trees, doesn't see the forest for their brand. They're worried about costs of goods all the time. They're worried about, well, I can't, but I can't, I can't, I can't. And that's where, that relationship on the category manager side has to be nurtured more so, if it's a great product that you want to bring to your customers. That one's easily correctable, right?

Dan: Right.

Mathis: That's something that you coach and train. Well, I say easily. If that person wants to ... If you can help to build a vision with that person, or that person can start to develop that vision, that the now is not as important to where you want to be, and understand that brand loyalty, and how to build it.

Now not every vendor is going to have the funding to do that. And there have been numerous times where you have that conversation, and they just don't have the money to do that, right?

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Mathis: And so you have to work with a category manager after that to partner in whatever ways you can. If you can't hit that key price point in the category on promotion to get your displays. If you can't go and engage the customer in what's really working for other brands in the category. If you can't adjust your manufacturing to get something to make the product that is tweaked just enough to hit that sweet spot. Then you have to be willing to say it is what it is. We're gonna give it a shot though because it's a great product. And so how can I help you do that with that category manager.

The second type of folks are vendors where, you sort of get on that list of, the blacklist there, I would say, and this is probably the most common, are your large vendors that manage above you. At the first sign of a problem, you go to the category manager's boss. Or you go to the VP that you know. Or in some cases you even go the president of the company, and that trickles back down. And that really takes away the empowerment of the category manager. When you talk about feeling like lint on a shoe, nothing will instantly make a category manager feel more marginalized then doing something like that. You have to be really tactful.

Dan: What I mean by that though is not that I would. I'm certainly not espousing that. My point is this, brands need to work harder to nurture those relationships just as you're saying.

Mathis: Absolutely.

Dan: My greatest successes came from being able to have a tremendous relationship with that person, the category manager on the retailer side. As a national category manager for various brands, big brands, I had relationships with the presidents, and the CEO’s the C-level people, as well as people at all levels of the organization, but I treated those people special, and as a result because I went out of my way to help them succeed. To help them drive sales. To help them grow sales in their category. That's how I became a category captain nationally for several different brands. This is something that we don't really see, and especially in small brands.

And the point being is this. When you're in a unique position like that, you get incremental opportunities to promote, and to create the assortments, or have a voice, as long as you're honest, you're not one sided with your brand. But as long as you’re honest, and forthright, and you're doing your level best to help that retailer drive sales, there is where the real opportunity is. And so kind of going back to what you were talking about before, this is why this is important. That retailer, that brand needs to go out of their way to make that person special. And not throw fluff or sunshine at them, but like I said, make their job easier. And that's one of the things you were talking about.

And then to go one step further, one of the things that I did, one of my greatest successes. I was in a situation where we as a manufacturer, before I started with them, they had a very difficult relationship with the biggest retailer in the country. This is before Walmart. And I had a great relationship with them, working for the brand that I worked with previously. I would go into the retailer, and I would talk to the procurement manager, and different people underneath the category manager, and I would solve their problems. When I actually met with the category manager, I had a deck. It was very clean, and neat, and it captured all the key points that the retailer needed to focus on. And it was a turnkey solution. I actually provided the retailer with a turnkey recommendations, and the schematic. All the retailer had to do if they wanted to was simply pop the disk into their computer, back when we did that, and job was done. And so to help guide them, and help them become successful, that was the biggest thing that I did to help differentiate myself, and that's the way that I was able to compete really effectively, and even out compete the big brands that I competed against.

Mathis: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean, I think that all ties back to also knowing your category manager.

Dan: Yes.

Mathis: And what the value is with them. I mean, again, category managers are very prideful.

Dan: Yes.

Mathis: You automatically, you don't want to be. You have to develop your license to who you are to that category manager. What role are you gonna play to them? And just as you're saying Dan, if that interaction where you build them a planogram, you build them a custom solution, and it doesn't come from a grounded knowledge of their business. A grounded understanding of what their current situation is, and if any way they feel like you aren't giving them everything in full faith of their category growth. Also from your branded perspective, I think that, that's where you can go off the rails.

Dan: Well said.

Mathis: And so you have to earn the license to be one of the smart people in the room with them.

Dan: I love the fact you said that. It is so important. Let's emphasize that. You need to earn that relationship. Respect is something that you command. Not something that you demand, and that's kind of where I was going with that before. And what's really cool about this, for anyone listening, is as a national category captain for several different brands, I was in such a trusted position where the retailer actually came to me, and actually asked me to validate my competitor's deck. That is a huge honor, and you don't get that by just showing up. You get that by over delivering, over and over, by doing more than everyone else.

And the other cool thing is frequently I was asked to help them develop strategies in other categories. Or evaluate strategies for other categories. And the point being is this, when you become a value-added resource to a retailer, they will bend over backwards to help you be successful with your brand, but keep in mind that you're not there for your own purposes. You've got to be very altruistic. You've got to be very focused on how do you reward them the best. And the point is this, with the rising tide, all ships rise. And that's why you and I are talking, why we've had this relationship because at the end of the day, it's all about how do you and I, how do we help all these brands help to drive sales at retail? How do we help them to compete more effectively? So thanks for saying that.

One of the other things that we were talking about is making it easier for the category manager, and you were saying get to know their programs. That is something that I think a lot of brands fail on. Again, it goes back to not only knowing the name of the category manager, but who answers the phone, or takes messages, or who is the guy in the warehouse that takes care of your products when it comes in, or the lady at the, whoever. But you've gotta know everyone that works at that company. I went out of my way to pay attention to birthdays, and special opportunities, special occasions. I remember back in the day where we used to reward, or go out of our way to take them to baseball games, et cetera. And that doesn't really exist anymore, but still that kindness. To be able to reach out to someone, happy birthday, little things like that, that mean the world. Can you add some advice or suggestions for any brands, or retailers listening on how they can help work together?

Mathis: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think that's a great way to put it. I mean, often the most powerful people in the organization are the people that don't get the credit.

Dan: Absolutely.

Mathis: And you’ve got a lot of people that are executing. Strategy is a great idea, but without the team, the strategy doesn't get executed. The operations don't happen in stores, and ultimately those are all the folks that are making it happen, versus the strategy, so completely, completely agree.

Dan: Thanks.

Mathis: When you have a brand, and you're engaging that relationship. It's not just with the category manager, but it's with these different points within the process of getting a product to the store, that are gonna be meaningful, and be a cause of inaction.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: They're either gonna cause action, or they are going to be a point where inaction happens, right?

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Mathis: When you look at that, and addressing those sort of areas, and they develop in the relationships. I mean, there's a lot of different ways that brands can do that. If we're talking with brokers. If we're talking with who typically might manage your orders, and your bill backs and stuff, and really having them on your side. Whether that's giving them a sales goal, or some sort of spiff, or things like that. Developing competition, developing rapport. And overall developing that people or place relationship there, so that you have an advocate on the side, kind of always kind of fighting for you, and working on your behalf.

With distributors, the best thing you can do with a distributor is make sure that your orders come in, and go out on time. And that's the worst thing in the world, but you also have to take it from their perspective. They run these massive warehouses, where more and more traffic is so big. They haven't prepared. They don't have enough space. They don't have enough docks. You may constantly be working with your vendor manager there to address concerns. And developing that relationship will get you quicker answers, faster responses from their purchasing organization, alerts on low inventory, which are most common, one of the most common ways to frustrate your retail partner, but also your distributor partner, who really is your proponent on the supply side.

Then you look at your organization, and as you evolve, depending upon your route to market. You start getting into the in store types, right?

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Mathis: Your in-store execution, the store folks, whoever is executing, and putting the product on the shelf, and getting product to the floor. They are all your best friends.

Dan: Yes, they are.

Mathis: Yeah. That backroom is crowded. And when you talk about having field marketing, field teams, or you start using extensions of distributors, or brokers to engage people at that ground level to engage that store. You need to really work with them, so that everyone is speaking the same message, and you're getting it out them. Ultimately, having someone in the store on your behalf, engaging the operations teams that are really building support for the brand, and executing it by getting those displays out. By making sure that no product is sitting in the backroom. Watching out for out of stocks. By making sure that you still have tags on the shelf, more of a promotion. Those types of things are really, really important at that level.

Now, you’ve got retailers that do this, and do it really effectively. That's where you would partner with retailer teams, but then you can use brokers. You can use these other avenues to get there, so that's really important. If you see kind of where I went from big to small. It's actually from I would say cheap to expensive, to kind of go these routes. As a small brand, your primary focus is really going to be at the top level, and then depending on whether you're a regional brand, local, or if you were launching in 1,000 stores. You got to be willing to say, no, I can't afford to have that field team, and or pay for that extra support out there in the field because it's too much. And that's the sort of the problems. As you grow as a company, you start layering this on, and then you start figuring out, well, I need help there, and I need help there. But building those relationships along the way, and making them to where it's not a pain point. It's not a point of contention, but it is a win that we overcame by partnering together, and frame it that way, and kind of work from that perspective all the time. Then it helps so much.

And category managers, replenishment buyers, and folks at the DC's. They don't have time for any of these blocking, and tackling things to occur on your side. Blocking and tackling, I mean, make sure you have supply. Make sure you process orders on time. Make sure it gets there on time. And that's your biggest responsibility to having the license to proceed downstream, and frame everything as a win that we made together.

Dan: Yes, thank you for saying. When you were talking, I was thinking back when I was a director of a college dorm. When I wanted to know what was going on in the dorm, I asked the janitors. I asked the support staff. I didn't go to someone else, and the president of the college to ask them what was going on. The same holds true when you're working in retail. When I was a DSD driver, I knew the person who put the signs on every single shelf, in every single store. I knew the grocery manager, the assistant grocery manager. I knew all the backroom people. I knew that if I came in late, or didn't make my dock time, who I would need to talk to help me get the product on the shelf or whatever.

I'm going to say this. Everyone listen carefully. Your product has your name on it. Everything that happens with that product reflects on you. Consumers looking for your products don't want excuses. They want to be able to buy your product when they want, and where they want. Remember it's all about perception. If they can't find your product, they're gonna choose someone else's product. As a brand they expect you to have enough product on the shelf when they want to buy it. Period. No excuses.

If your product has an out of stock. If your product doesn't get merchandised correctly. In my opinion that is your fault. That is the brand's fault. Do not rely on the retailer, or do not use the excuse that it was the retailer who dropped the ball. When I said that I would go into retailers and give them a turnkey solution. If I had a promotion plan, I would tell them exactly how much product they should bring in. How much product they should anticipate by store. I would allocate it by store. And then I would make sure that there was no back stock at the end of the day. Again, I'm trying to make their job easy.

If you as a brand can't keep your product on the shelf, you're embarrassing the retailer. You're putting them in a difficult position. Brands need to step up, know their numbers, and understand all of the things like we're talking about here, what's important to the retailer. The retailer wants a clean, neat, organized store. Lots of foot traffic, and they want to make a reasonable profit. And if you can help to them meet those goals, meet those basic objectives, that's how you become a success. And that's how you get incremental opportunities.

Do you have any other thoughts around that?

Mathis: Absolutely Dan. You’re right on there. I think, that perspective, it rings true. And I guess, the only thing I would add is just to think about the phrase out of stock, and what that means to you as a customer. Or if you go back kind of far, think about video stores when you would go to get the newest release, and they were out of it. Or think of the one time that you were promised a place in line to get something, and then they ran out right when you got there, right?

Dan: Yeah.

Mathis: You're going there to get your favorite product. It's on ad. It's on display. It's a great prize. Or even you see the product in the store, or store locator, and it has this location, but it's at your nearest local grocery store, and you go there, and they don't have it because their planograms weren't connected right. Or you didn't have the right information on your side, or you have an out of stock. What that does is it hurts the loyalty to the retailer from that customer in the store.

Dan: Yes.

Mathis: It doesn't hurt your brand as much in the short term. But you consistently fail to block and tackle, to cross the T's and dot the I's on these things. And that's the benefit. If we took a look at all of the out of stocks out of the system, and they are rampant, just in general because their warehouse capacity is just really difficult, as we were talking about earlier. Just even traffic appointments, things get pushed, things get missed. Roads are imperfect. There are always gonna be out of stocks, but if we took out of stocks from where they are, and eliminated them completely. I guarantee you that we would have at least five percent growth bar none in the retail industry for food.

Dan: Yeah.

Mathis: I mean, because I would say at least five percent of the time, or at least five percent of products are out of stock in every single store that you have out there, and those happen to be in a lot of cases the products that move. Like you were saying, work with the retail partner on projecting the orders if you have that capability. Make sure that you constantly monitor any hotspots, or out of stocks in the supply chain, down to the store. And just continue to partner for solutions. And if they're larger scale, a lot of companies are going with these initiatives to reduce out of stocks overall. And in doing so they artificially create some out of stocks at the same time. Kind of helping to play both sides, and understanding the benefits, and then the solutions, and provide support. But it's a significant aim point, and out of stocks are a real cause for consumers going to, or migrating to other channels, or other retailers.

Dan: Well said. In fact like I was saying, you've got to own it. I always say that you never get a second chance to disappoint a customer. Think about it. You go out of your way to promote a product. You bend over backwards. You spend a lot of money on it. You get an agreement with the retailer. They put it as a feature on a display in the front, it's prominent, and then all of a sudden you drop the ball. You've got to own that. You've got to make that happen.

One of the challenges that I find that, let me throw this out real quick. Back in I think it was 1995, it was calculated that out of stocks costs CPG over nine billion with a B, dollars each year. That was back in 1995. Imagine what it is today?

Mathis: Yeah.

Dan: And my point where I was going with this, is that brands and retailers spend far too much time reacquiring the same consumer. Instead of working on loyalty. Instead of trying to develop that relationship like we're talking about. And this is how you do it, again you never get a second chance to disappoint a customer. I really appreciate your sharing all this with us.

Well, okay, now let's talk a little bit about some of the other things that you're involved in. Plant Based Food Association, had the privilege of doing some work with them early on. Great organization, and I love what they're doing. And one of the things that I've identified, and I've talked a lot about in this podcast, is how things like organic, gluten free, et cetera are driving sales across every category. Plant based is driving more sales across every category. It is the new thing that brands and retailers really need to be paying attention to.

First of all, what is the Plant Based Food Association? What is your relationship with them? And how do you work with them? And where I'm going with this Mathis is, can you share with people what this is about? And why this matters? And why they should be paying attention?

Mathis: Yeah, sure. I'll go ahead and try to give that a shot. I've been sort of involved with the Plant Based Food Association for two, two and a half years through the connections of New Hope, and Expo. And I kind of mentioned earlier, my passion for better food, more people. When you talk about gluten free. When you talk about natural and organic. When you talk about this plant based selling more, and more. This is all a part of this broader movement, better food, better food, better food. And I think we're looking at it as a way to prevent disease. To ensure that we are healthy to support a healthy lifestyle. Inner well being, outer well being. Balance. As well as things like being better for the environment. And just overall putting less stress on all of the economies, and environments that we have on Earth.

And so when you start to go down that route, and look at plant based. The Plant Based Food Association is really supportive of the manufacturers for dairy and frozen, who are meat alternatives, and or meat or dairy alternatives, right? A lot of the members have meat alternatives to replace your raw meats, or your processed meats, or we have other alternative dairy milks, and things like that. When you think about that, we’ve got a couple big categories there, and almond milk, everyone has had a glass of almond milk since it's been out. It's pretty well penetrated the market, but when you look at some of these meat alternatives, and some of the innovation that's going on there. We constantly look for something that is as tasty. Something that's quick. And something that. Well, frankly is just a better solution for our bodies, then what, animal proteins.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: The organization itself does a great job of kind of bringing the manufacturers together. And let's think of it as having one voice. I am very excited to be on the retail advisory board, and I'm working with the president, Michele Simon, and one of our consultants right now on some pretty cool initiatives for retailers, right? And we're figuring out how to partner with retailers to help to build support for our manufacturers in their stores. When you think about that, we all remember Got Milk, that campaign from years ago. And it's that same sort of thing. It's like how do we build a message out to the customers around plant based foods that are supportive of our manufacturers, and that also is really impactful to retailers because at the end of the day if there's no juice. You're squeezing really hard. The retailers they're not gonna want to partner with you because you're not generating revenue or loyalty to them, and or driving consumers into their stores.

Why is all of this important, right? Why are plant based foods important? Why is gluten free important? Why should this be important to manufacturers? Why should it be important to retailers? Well, if you look at some of the data out there, there’s a ton of it saying everything is moving this direction. Plant based is becoming from one meal a week, what was it like Fish Fridays, and things like that. If you look at Meatless Mondays. All this stuff is starting to transition to where consumers are looking, and building healthier lifestyles through their interactions with food. That doesn't mean that we're not gonna have a cheeseburger. We might even have two over the course of a week because we love cheeseburgers. But I think what you look at is like there's a balance that's being taught and built from the ground up, within families and schools now. Where if we are able, and I say able being that the cost of a lot of this is still not accessible to a lot of different folks out there. We'd always like to be able to make a better choice, but unfortunately the economy is still built around bigger business, and some of these traditional industries.

But I think it's really important because when you talk about preventing disease. We talk about the things that need to be relevant to us as a species, and also our own personal well being. Food directly affects almost all of it.

Dan: Right.

Mathis: And we eat three times a day. And someone once told me, hey, if you want a job forever, get in the grocery industry. And you know what? They're kind of right because everyone has to eat. At least once a day, I hope. It's important because if you're not the part of these, then in the future, if you're not part of any of these movements. If your brand doesn't need to be all things to all people, but it needs to be something to someone, and to your core audience. And so these are places for you to play that are going to be growth areas for the future. And if you're targeting an area where it's not participating in that realm. I think it's gonna be tougher to build in that environment, as an emerging or smaller brand.

When you think about it. When you think about assimilating your product, think about the future. Don't think about what type of ingredients, or formulations are available right now, but think about how your product might evolve. You need to build that product to identify with the customer that's going to be there in two or three years, but also right now by having just a fantastic product. I think overall like the world is gonna change. Instead of it being two meals a week, in ten years, it's gonna be half of our meals per week. As soon as I figure out, and I go back to the economics of the situation. Right now we're still looking for this sort of silver bullet, and I say that by plant protein. Plant based alternatives that can compete on price, flavor, texture, with the things that we have in traditional foods for the United States, and for the world.

They might be beef alternatives, or chicken alternatives. And you see a lot of the research going in, whether it be different types of pea proteins. You see a lot of investments from tech in this industry. You see lab grown meat. All of this kind of blends together. And then you think about it, and there's not going to be a silver bullet. There are going to be a lot of brands that will start to evolve along the way. And we're seeing it. Everything is better. It's like just as gluten free was from 2001, where the product just wasn't good, to now, I think the quality of gluten free is on par with any other kind of product in the store. Just kind of pay attention to that in the big world.

This is a big movement. It's about health. It's about wellness. It's about how can I prevent illness and feel better. And if we can figure out the economics of it. Then we should be able to offer, and grow this in the areas that aren't economically feasible right now.

Dan: I couldn't agree with you more. I had a really good conversation with Phil Lempert, the SuperMarketGuru, and he equated it to being the new Silicon Valley. The idea being that this is where the innovation is coming from. This is where it's really gonna fuel the industry. I've also had Mike Cooke of Daiya Foods, Chuck Muth, and Seth Goldman of Beyond Meat, and several other brands on the show as well. In addition to thought leaders talking about how plant based, and organic is better for you. John Foraker, Gary Hirshberg, Neil Blomquist, Ahmed Rahim, et cetera. And the point being is that the future is in regenerative agriculture. And that is so important because that's how we start giving back to this planet. That's how we start making our way of life healthier, and that's how like you said, we start solving these problems around food allergies. And around some of the ailments. Like Gary Hirschberg said, it's a lot cheaper to buy something that's healthier for you, then it is to pay for the medical bills because you didn't eat healthy, because you didn't take care of yourself.

And one of things that I talk a lot about Mathis, is that I've done a lot of research, and I have learned about how consumers are turning towards healthy products as a way to relieve their dependency on prescription drugs, and doctors, et cetera. This is a growing trend, and it's not going to let up anytime soon. As a side note, I share my findings on some of the other podcast episodes. And I love the work that the Plant Based Food Association is doing, and I've got a lot of great strategies around that, that I've been leveraging with the brands that I work with. And again, this is something people need to focus. Thank you with your work on that.

If you could please send me links to anything you want me to put in the show notes, and on the podcast webpage, I'd appreciate it. You want to give another shout out to Enlightened? And talk a little bit about that.

Mathis: Yeah. Yeah, so for you folks out there that aren't familiar with Enlightened. We have a fantastic set of novelty in ice cream products, that are high in protein, low in sugar. The macros are really, really amazing, and the product is fantastic from a taste perspective. Everything from your traditional chocolate, to guilty pleasures like fudge brownie, and cookie dough, all the way to glazed doughnut. We sort of run the gamut of off the wall, and wacky, but really it's about the passion that's put into the product. And our team has really built something that is different than anything else on the shelf.

Overall the company itself, it’s a great organization, and we're spreading our wings right now, and would love to be able to engage anyone that's out there who would like to try the product, give me a shout, and we can certainly send you some samples. But I would say overall, it's just a great company. It's a people business, right? I'm at work every day. I work with the folks, the team in New York, and our team in LA, and stuff like that. And I couldn't be happier with the passionate group of people, and the strength that we have on the team, and are building in this organization.

Michael, the founder, and his mom, Carol. And our director of brands, Lily. They have all done an excellent job of kind of creating this core culture from the beginning that has really trickled down, and created a great entrepreneurial environment, that is a basis for passion and happiness, the team. And really bringing it together. And I think that's the sign of a good organization. And that's the sign of good leadership. And just really excited to be here, as just from the people side of things.

We’ve got a great product, and great company. Give it a shot. We're in your ice cream case, almost everywhere.

Dan: Love that. Appreciate it. And I love your passion for this business, for food, for everything you do. Thank you so much for making time for me all these years, and connecting with me, and thank you so much for your time for today. I really appreciate that.

Mathis: Yeah, absolutely. I think next time we talk, I may have to have a list of questions for you, and pick your brain.

Dan: That would work.

Mathis: I'd like to get that on tape too.

Dan: You know what? That would actually be a lot of fun because, okay, side note, I just launched a free Turnkey Sales Story Strategies course. The course is about how to teach brands to do exactly what we talked about. To teach brands to become an expert in their category. Expert in their brand. To understand who their consumer is, one. Two, to become an expert in their competition, and everything about their competition. Three, to help the retailer drive sales in their store by leveraging what they've learned by their story. So instead of being an ATM machine for the retailer, they become a value added partner. They do some of the things that we've been talking about here today.

I didn't pay slotting all the time as a big manufacturer. I didn't pay for the incremental promotional, and opportunities, et cetera. I positioned myself as a value-added resource to the retailers that I supported, and as such, they went out of their way to help me build my brand. And that's really what this is all about. And everything we shared today, that's exactly what brands need to be focused on. They need to be focused on how do they help the retailer drive sales in their store by leveraging the unique strengths of their brand, which includes the consumers that buy it.

Thank you so much for sharing all your insights, and again the check is in the mail. Just kidding, but anyhow thank you so much for your time.

Mathis: Yeah, absolutely. Happy to be here, and grateful for the opportunity. Appreciate it, Dan.

Dan: Thank you. I really want to thank Mathis for coming on today, and sharing his insider knowledge, his insights, and his wisdom. As you heard, Mathis is now applying those insights to help other brands grow sales. I'll be sure to include a link to Enlightened.

You can download the show notes at Today's freebie is my strategic solutions to grow your brand, where I go in depth about several of the strategies that Mathis and I discussed today. You can download it instantly by texting Strategic Solutions to “4422”, or get it in the show notes, or on this podcast webpage. And don't forget to check out my free turnkey sales stories strategies course. This is where I teach you the foundation, exactly what we talked about in today's podcast. You can get to it on my website in the show notes, or by going to If you like the podcast, please leave a review on iTunes. Subscribe, and share it with a friend.

As always, I appreciate your listening, and I look forward to seeing you in the next show.

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