Inside an emotionally raw rebranding story

Rebrands can be a tricky, stress-inducing proposition even under ideal circumstances. But the one Kristi Knowles embarked on in late winter of 2018 was perhaps the biggest challenge of her professional career.

Just weeks into her first-ever CEO role with what was then known as Michelle’s RawFoodz, Knowles found herself orchestrating a brand reinvention following the premature death of the company’s founder.

Michelle Kopman‘s plant-based food company was six years old when she brought Knowles aboard as a consultant in the fall of 2017. The ask was multi-faceted: Better define the company’s business strategy, make its products more broadly appealing and widely available across North America.

The business had already undergone some slight tweaks since its inception (adding Michelle’s name to its original RawFoodz, for example), but wasn’t seeing the expected traction. “Michelle seemed to really trust me and was asking for help,” says Knowles.

Knowles had already amassed some experience in brand reinvention over the course of her career, which by then had included increasingly senior marketing roles at the Campbell Soup Company and Molson Coors Canada.

When she left the latter as vice-president of marketing; innovation, insights, portfolio strategy and commercial planning in 2017, she was in charge of a 30-person team with a broad purview that included managing its in-house creative and design studio.

But Knowles and Kopman would meet in person only briefly before the latter’s death at the tragically young age of 45 in January 2018. “It felt like the lights went out,” says Knowles. “What do you do?”

The saving grace, she says, was that Kopman had left behind a well-articulated vision for her company. It would leave a lasting imprint on her eventual successor as she engineered a brand reinvention that included its 2019 name change to Mother Raw.

“Michelle has had a tremendous impact on me and my role as the CEO of Mother Raw,” wrote Knowles in a Jan. 29 tribute to Kopman on LinkedIn. “My personal passion for ‘leading with heart’ has taken on a deeper, more multi-dimensional nature.”

Knowles officially took over as Michelle’s RawFoodz CEO within a month of Kopman’s death, and would lead a brand transformation that involved stripping the company down to the bare essentials before rebuilding it from scratch.

The company’s relative lack of size offered her a degree of latitude that had been unavailable in her previous roles. “What I love about being in the start-up environment, and running a company that’s just getting going, is that the risk of change is very low relative to if you were to say ‘Let’s change the name of Campbell’s Soup,'” she says.

“It was a really interesting journey for the team because you get so attached [to the brand] and believe that [because] we’re carried in Metro, people know us. But it was only in 300 stores in North America.”

For Knowles, rebuilding the RawFoodz brand was centred around two key priorities: recipe development and rebranding. “It was clear to me at the outset that the product proposition was spot on, however the brand needed a full re-imagining, including a name change and recipe development,” she says.

She was “99% sure” early in the process that the company would change its name. “It was my view that, as a descriptor, the name was limiting and the branding didn’t evoke the premium-ness and organic/natural essence of the proposition.”

She enlisted Zulu Alpha Kilo, with whom she had worked on a repositioning of the Corona brand while serving as head of partner brands at Molson Coors, to achieve the latter.

But at the same time, Knowles also worried about the optics of a new CEO coming in and seemingly sweeping away all of the work done by its late founder. “I felt a tremendous responsibility to Michelle, her community,  and fans of RawFoodz, to pay respect to what she built, particularly when it came to changing the name,” she says.

“I was concerned that it could be perceived as not respecting her legacy, while I knew that wasn’t the case at all.  The most important thing we could do to respect her legacy was to get more people enjoying her products, and changing the name was key to doing that.”

One of the keys to the transformation was Kopman’s daughter, Laurel, who pushed through her own grief to assist in the rebrand as it progressed through the summer of 2018. “She was with us all along and really supportive,” says Knowles. “Mother Raw is a nod to Mother Earth as well as her mom.”

The Mother Raw name was put forward by Zulu Alpha Kilo, and Knowles instinctively knew that it was a winner. Its evocation of the phrase “Mother Earth” not only reinforced the company’s plant-based credentials, but perfectly encapsulated its commitment to naturally sourced, additive-free products.

A year after the rebrand, Mother Raw has seen its distribution explode to nearly 5,000 stores across North America. In Canada, it has secured new deals with leading banners including Sobeys and Save-On Foods, and Knowles expects revenues to hit $10 million this year, up from around $1 million a year ago.

The company is also decidedly on-trend, riding a plant-based wave that shows no sign of cresting. “The new [retail] customers that are coming on board are really the biggest indication we have something they want,” says Knowles, noting that previous outreach to grocery banners had largely been met with disinterest. “The pick-up wasn’t there.”

The rebrand has also brought with it a new marketing approach that is digitally led and less focused on product messaging than espousing core brand values. “One of the things that does make us very different and allows us to speak louder, is our tone in a landscape in which consumers are being told ‘You must eat Keto, you must be vegan, you must have Paleo, you can’t have tomatoes,'” says Knowles. “It’s just so confining and guilt-laden.

“Our tone is about keeping it real and keeping it raw.”

The company is working with micro-influencers, and periodically enlists its loyal army of followers (nearly 20,000 on Instagram alone) to shape its direction. That approach is embodied by recent programs like “Duel of the Dressings,” a program developed by Toronto’s Stack Creative that invited customers to determine the 20th addition to its product portfolio.

This year is also about a concerted push into the U.S. Mother Raw recently began a test with 18 Costco stores in the Western U.S., and has enlisted a PR firm, StartR, to raise its profile in that market.

But while awareness is key, Knowles says it’s also important to get the product in people’s hands—particularly in a highly competitive market like the U.S. “It’s one thing to have awareness and engagement,” she says. “It’s another thing to have trial.” To that end, Mother Raw recently embarked on a partnership with U.S. vegan meal kit company Purple Carrot that will see samples placed in some 16,000 U.S. deliveries.

So just how poised is Mother Raw for success in such a vast and highly competitive market as the U.S.? “We’re very ready,” says Knowles. “Our management team is extremely experienced and wants to win.”


Chris Powell