What to do when your brand launch coincides with an economic shutdown

If there’s one thing that Herbert Labs president Nicole Bleiwas has learned during a 20-plus year career that has included stops at Coca-Cola, the Kraft Heinz Company and Canada Bread, it’s that sometimes things go wrong. Maybe not trying to launch a new brand during a global pandemic wrong, but…

“There are going to be problems, barriers and challenges… but for me it’s always about recognizing that there’s an alternative,” says Bleiwas, who took over as president of the Toronto-based organic juice company in November. “It might not be the way you wanted things to go, but when you’re handed a challenge, you look at how you deal with it and find alternatives to approach things.”

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After three years in development, Herbert was set to launch on March 16—just as the COVID crisis arrived in North America. The first batch of products had already been manufactured, so cancelling the product launch outright was out of the question. Instead, the company quickly pivoted towards a soft launch.

That meant cancelling a launch event and temporarily pausing a planned influencer marketing program developed with Felicity PR.

“We were so excited,” says Bleiwas, whose career has included roles in sales, marketing and corporate strategy. “We’d just gone through a wave of excitement when our products first came off the line, but it didn’t feel true to who we were to put ourselves out there when the very people we want to engage are going through a time of anxiety and change.”

The good news was that the brand architecture, developed in tandem with Toronto’s Sister Merci, was in place, and they had already developed an extensive array of visual assets to use across its various social channels.

The most pressing short-term challenge, she says, will be getting Herbert’s products into consumers’ hands. E-commerce was part of the plan from the outset, and its products are available at HerbertLabs.com. A broader retail strategy, however, remains something of a work in progress, with the immediate challenge of getting access to complementary channels like on-premise and natural grocers.

“Selling isn’t happening right now, but it’s not forever,” says Bleiwas; they hope to be in the Toronto brick-and-mortar stores operated by its sister company, Greenhouse Juice Co., beginning next month, for example.

The original plan was for a measured rollout while slowly building brand equity, but the likely upshot will be moving into other retail channels faster than originally intended, all while retaining a strong focus on brand promise, purpose and values.

“Going back to my CPG roots, it’s not just about the product side of things, it’s the equity you build,” says Bleiwas. “As long as we continue to be true to those things we’ll be here for the long haul. The short-term is what it is.”

The key here, says Bleiwas, is perspective. Herbert’s problems are minor compared to those whose lives are being significantly affected by COVID, whether they’ve contracted the virus themselves or are front-line stuff putting their health at risk.

“Those are challenges that make ours seem small in comparison,” she says. “There are days when I feel like I’m going through the stages of grief five times over, but it’s looking and recognizing that there is an other side. It’s focusing on getting through rather than being stuck in the here and now.”

Created by Deeva Green and Lee Reitelman (main picture), Herbert Labs describes itself as a wellness brand, which combines extracts from healing plants with organic juices. Its products are an extension of beverages the two co-founders had been making in their own home.

Herbert is launching with three drinks based around three primary plant ingredients: ashwagandha (sold under the name Uplift), which possesses mood-boosting properties; passion flower (Unwind) which has calming and stress-reducing properties; and dandelion (Clarify), which provides antioxidants and has been linked to everything from fighting inflammation to boosting the immune system.

Bleiwas says that Herbert has been forced to adjust its 2020 revenue targets “quite a bit” as a result of the current crisis, although she stresses that it’s more about deferment of revenue than outright loss.

“Our plan is still our plan, and we’re going to pick things up the way we originally planned as soon as we’re able. It’s about being focused on making sure we’re doing the right things, and balancing expectations of what the next few months will be.”

Once the immediate crisis has passed, Herbert appears to be entering a category that appears poised for long-term growth. Organic beverages were a $670 million business in 2019 according to Euromonitor data, which projects category sales to reach $884 million by 2024.

According to the research company, its growth will reflect growing consumer demand for natural plant-based supplements to improve physical and mental health, with so-called “functional beverages” offering a convenient and tasty way for people to achieve wellness benefits.

So with her prior experience and business acumen, what would Bleiwas say to other brand leaders grappling with how to do business in an unprecedented time?

“Focus on what you can control, and look at what you can do to mitigate those things that are out of your control,” she says. “It’s by no means easy, and there are days when I say ‘This has been a tough day and I don’t want to experience that again,’ knowing that two days later I’m going to do just that.

“It’s focusing on the good things, even if they’re little things, just to get you through. That’s all we’ve got.”




Chris Powell