The Retail Strategist Speaking About Going Beyond Sustainability and Building the "Brand World"
In the time of consumers being more selective with their spending, we sat down with Caroline Grace who is a retail strategist for CPG brands, helping brands scale and navigate the US market. She founded Product & Prosper, which has supported over 60 CPG brand launches, scaled sales, and go-to-retail strategies. She wants brands she works with to become the brand buyers come to.
ConsiderBeyond: What fascinates you about being in the CPG space?
Caroline Grace: From an early age, I wrote poetry. To me, CPG is the poetry of the consumer world - an experience packaged and presented to evoke emotion. I've always been fascinated by the sensory experience of "the browse" around a farmer's market, a specialty store, or a gift shop.
ConsiderBeyond: How did your career journey lead you to focus on helping emerging CPG brands?
Caroline Grace: In college, I won a pitch competition to launch a sustainable CPG startup named Bubbl. Bubbl reimagined the single-serve creamer with an outer capsule and liquid filling. The outer capsule was completely dissolvable, edible, tasteless, plastic-free, and waste-free, making it an ideal option for on-the-go coffee creamer.
But then, the reality of CPG hit me. I didn't know where to start with product development, how to fund it, source materials, or sell it. The information online felt like walking into a class halfway through the semester. Consequently, I moved to a sales & marketing consultant role for tech startups in autonomous vehicles, data privacy, and IoT. After a while, I missed the world of poetry, CPG, and the retail store experience. If I couldn't launch my own product, I wanted to help other founders in launching and growing theirs.
At Product & Prosper, we support the launch of CPG startups and assist countless others. We've developed a collaborative 12-week Go-To-Retail Program to help brands stand out in their category, approach their first retailers, and gain sales traction. We offer tools, strategies, processes, and high-touch coaching to not only introduce your product to the market but also make it easier to sell.
ConsiderBeyond: What's one of the most challenging aspects of helping a brand go to market, and how do you navigate it?
Caroline Grace: Many new-to-market brands don't consistently check a few key things — namely, competitors, cash flow, and micro-tests. If you're just launching, your direct competitors aren't usually the big players in your category, at least not immediately. Who is of a similar size to you? Whom might a buyer compare you to? Who has a similar value proposition? I would want to watch what they're doing. Follow them on social media, subscribe to their newsletters, and set up Google News notifications. Monitor their actions for inspiration and retail pitches to buyers. Cash flow is king, isn't it? Reduce spending where possible. In my opinion, don't invest in paid ads right out of the gate. Instead, adopt a scrappy approach. Distribute samples in person, attend local events targeting your market, and join Slack groups. Don't follow what everyone else is doing for exposure - do it the cost-effective way first. As for micro-tests, it means testing on a small scale before rolling out something big or cash-intensive. As startups, we must be open to and actively perform micro-tests.
ConsiderBeyond: How should sustainable CPG brands start pursuing retail as a sales channel?
Caroline Grace: Brands typically believe they need to work with a broker immediately to enter retail. However, I've observed that brands with the highest success rate in retail (by success, I mean relatively profitable expansion without being de-shelved) don't work with a broker right from the start. Rather, they learn and write the retail sales playbook for their brand, building what I call their "Retail Resume" first. What’s in that resume? We need to anticipate that buyers will ask certain questions, and we must be ready to respond and highlight our "resume" of sales growth, competence, and credibility.
Brokers are most effective when you're ready for mass expansion. They’re expeditors, meaning they'll increase your case volume in retail when you give them the right sales pitch and you have the budget and capacity to deliver. In the meantime, I'd recommend finding a fractional VP of sales, a retail strategist, or participating in something like my Go-To-Retail Program with a coach. This way, you can build the sales playbook and gain traction without paying a retainer or commission.
ConsiderBeyond: What common misconceptions do new CPG brands have when they start, and how do you address them?
Caroline Grace: Brands typically believe branding and building wide will help them to go big. For instance, "my target market is everyone" or "I want to be in Whole Foods or Target nationwide this year”. However, I've found that branding and building on a smaller scale can help gain initial traction, such as local channels, niche branding, or a problem-focused target market. Smaller doesn't have to mean small results.
ConsiderBeyond: How do you integrate sustainability when advising CPG brands on their go-to-market strategies?
Caroline Grace: We're at a point where sustainability is a prerequisite for most retail buyers and consumers. Some retailers and category buyers will prioritize sustainability in their category analysis more than others. A buyer might ask about the sustainability of packaging, the sourcing of ingredients, or how you offset carbon emissions or contribute to the community as a brand. These are questions we can anticipate most bigger chain retailers will ask. But we're also at a point where sustainability as a branding and messaging strategy isn't a differentiator. I encourage sustainability to be a secondary yet necessary message.
ConsiderBeyond: How has consumer behavior towards sustainable products evolved since you started?
Caroline Grace: Sustainability used to be a product differentiator. Now, it’s an expectation, especially for emerging brands selling in natural channels. There's a certain shopper who will purchase the sustainable option almost every time, regardless of the price. But consumers also want to know that brands are truly sustainable and not just "greenwashing."
ConsiderBeyond: Where do you see the future of sustainable retail heading, especially for CPG brands?
Caroline Grace: There is an enormous gap in sustainable products and how we package, ship, and distribute them to retail. I anticipate that will be the next focus. I foresee sustainable products expanding in all categories. But they won't enter the market just because they are sustainable. They must also have a great product and a "brand world" to attract buyers and consumers.
ConsiderBeyond: What does a "brand world" mean in this current market?
Caroline Grace: Brand worlds are worlds that invite you in and immerse you. They're like the Narnias and Hogwarts of products. The customer is given a map with an introductory touchpoint, perhaps a retail product, and as they engage more with the brand, they discover surprises unique to the imaginative world the creators designed. New brands like Liquid Death, Midday Squares, and Graza have adopted this approach, following in the footsteps of established brands like Nike, Sailor Jerry Rum, and Hendricks Gin. You establish a brand world through your packaging, storytelling, hidden easter eggs, aesthetic design, website, social media, and any other owned assets.