Prince George Alexander Louis Windsor is going to grow up in the country that pioneered the baby gourmet. Jacky Parsons reflects on what it took to shake up the baby food category.
Babies across the UK and the US are eating better than ever, thanks to a bunch of radical parents and extreme foodies who took it on themselves to improve convenience foods for the little people in their lives. In the process, they built multimillion dollar businesses that are right now being snapped up by the global food giants in a veritable feeding frenzy.
American Plum Organics bought UK namesake Plum Baby Ltd in January 2013, and anticipates global revenues in excess of $120m this year. Campbell Soup has now struck a deal to buy the business. Meanwhile, Danone and Hain Celestial have also been shopping, respectively buying Happy Family and UK’s Ella’s Kitchen.
So how did the little guys do it? Three things stand out: guts born of a conviction that babies deserve better, the encouragement of open-minded retailers, and frankly, a streak of madness. Here’s my experience of the ride, which I was privileged to share with one brand, the UK’s Plum Baby.
Back in 2006, it’s fair to say that cats and dogs were enjoying a more premium and varied range of prepared meals than babies in the UK. Pet owners were spoilt for choice in the supermarket. A couple of aisles across in the baby section, however, manufacturers launched yet another variant of orange gloop in a glass jar. Even the organic ranges struggled to look any different or better. If you had asked any mother to taste a new baby food recipe herself, she would have recoiled. I know that, because I tried.
It’s a fine example of how brands can get stuck in an increasingly out-dated worldview, largely driven by a belief that consumers won’t pay more, where ‘innovation’ becomes yet another tweak of a recipe.
Mainstream category purchasers, murmuring dissent but largely going along with what’s on offer, were not the people to help change the category dynamics. For that to happen, it took the determination of middle-class parents who were outright rejecters of the baby food category. The kind of people who would get screened out of a focus group, and whose strident voices would therefore never be heard.
Susie Willis was one such parent, a tastemaker and foodie who ran her own cookery school in the leafy countryside, and her third baby was the catalyst for change. Despite her culinary prowess, she wanted the convenience of prepared baby foods as she rushed her older kids from ballet to music lessons, and was dismayed to find that nothing had changed about the products that she had seen when weaning her first two babies some ten years previously.
Back in her kitchen, she started developing recipes with ingredients that had entered the middle-class repertoire: parsnips, basil, butternut squash, beetroot and mangoes. Good as the recipes were, without cornstarch they were a bit more like soup than a meal. A turning point in product development came from meeting the cranks of the food world: people who were avoiding gluten, reviling modern varieties of wheat and promoting the virtues of so-called ‘ancient’ grains such as quinoa and spelt. Little-known quinoa proved to be the perfect ingredient to add both texture and even more nutritional value to the recipes.
Susie then turned to focus groups to trial her avant-garde ideas. It was in the course of recruiting those groups for her that I met a mother who would ensure the success of the fledgling business. Clare Pughe had previously owned and run a nursery for under-5s, and she was scarily well-organized. Her baby was fed exclusively on home-cooked food, and she was scathing of the commercial brands. Unlike myself, or Susie for that matter, she was never caught out, running late with nothing ready for her baby’s next meal. Admittedly, her own diet wasn’t perfect: she was a Diet Coke addict for a start. It turned out that she had previously been off-trade sales director for Red Bull. I ditched Clare from the focus group and Susie recruited her to the team as head of sales. Clare found herself knocking on an open door when it came to speaking to retailers, who saw the potential in premium ranges long before the major manufacturers.
And what of the focus groups? The moms recruited as ‘light users’ turned out to be ‘reluctant users’ after all. They used convenience foods for – well – their own convenience, but they felt guilty about fobbing their babies off with sub-standard fare. As they encouraged their babies to eat up, they secretly believed that the babies were thinking something along the lines of ‘not that rubbish again’. The moms admitted to their own feelings of inadequacy in the kitchen, and frankly, the difficulty of turning sweetcorn into a velvety puree. They agreed that a brand with food values would certainly add value to their lives as parents and their children’s diets, and they’d pay for it.
Technical innovation also played a part. Inspired by the pouches being used in other categories (pet food again!), as well as the latest plastics technology, the new baby food brands were able to forsake the glass jars of the mainstream manufacturers. For Plum Baby, Colin Campbell, a gentle Scotsman with five children at the last count, turned Susie’s recipes into products that could be made on a line. He cautioned against frozen or chilled options, arguing convincingly that parents wanted the ease and safety of shelf-stable products.
Meanwhile Perry Haydn-Taylor, a graphic design obsessive whose daughters are named after typefaces, created a beautiful look and feel for the brand that totally broke with category codes. It drew inspiration from farmers’ markets, using real food photography as well as photos of babies messily enjoying their meals.
Plum Baby hit the shelves of the major UK grocery retailers in 2006 to great acclaim. But we weren’t the only ones innovating in the category. Other parents were busy designing their own product ranges – such as Paul Lindley, who left Nickelodeon UK to create Ella’s Kitchen, and ex-IDEO designer Neil Grimmer in California whose brand was also called Plum. It was this spate of true innovation, driven by the mavericks, the rejecters and the eccentrics, that spurred on the baby food revolution.
The creation of a premium sub-category has contributed to impressive value growth of 35% between 2007 and 2012 in the British market for baby food, accordingly to Mintel. In the US, the premium and organic sector has grown at an even faster rate – estimated at 43% in the last two years according to Just-food.com news.
The effect of this activity at the premium end of the market has been a rise in the quality of the product made by the mainstream brands as well, all to the benefit of babies’ taste buds and tummies, and that’s the legacy I’m most proud of. Now every baby can dine like a king. And who’s to say little Prince George himself won’t be enjoying a premium organic baby food product in due course. Bon appétit.
The original article was posted on Forbes in July 2013