Using Activism to Drive Sales and Loyalty, Nutiva is a Rocket

Posted by on December 6th, 2012

The following is an excerpt from a twitter conversation between me and Nutiva’s CEO, John Roulac. From @kevindoylejones to @nutiva: “yeah well, it’s no wonder investors are flocking after your company wanting to get involved. You sell stuff that sets people free.”

John Roulac is an activist and social media ninja who runs Nutiva, a profitable $40 million “super food” company that’s growing at four times last year’s revenues. He produced a video for the Prop 37, label the GMO’s initiative that was on the California ballot in November that went viral with more than 420,000 views.

I am, for the moment, a total @nutiva fanboy, for their social media strategy linked to setting people free, fighting the power, driving sales, and helping people to both eat healthfully and disentangle themselves from the corporate food system. They have a powerful story and products people love.

Like a scientist, Roulac is running an experiment that asks this simple question: Can an organic brand leader champion activist values and use the marketplace to change the industrial food system?

The #righttoknow campaign activists – which Nutiva funded with $50,000 for an online media campaign – came closer to victory than an observer who only saw the power of money would expect. The Monsanto-world ecosystem of big food companies put $50 million to work to defeat the initiative, and came three percentage points from losing to a grass roots movement relying on volunteers.

Losing in October may have been the best outcome for the now even-more-engaged activists. It could be the battle that leads to winning the war, or that’s the way Roulac says they see it right now. Now the activists are going upstream and culture jamming the food aisles and online venues of the brands like the breakfast cereal company Kashi, which is owned by one of the multinational food companies.

The companies successfully denied people the right to know what they are putting in our food, so guerilla actions like putting stickers saying “GMO inside” on a box of Kashi’s Go Lean Crunch in your local Whole Foods are happening. “GMO inside is way more than stickers,” Roulac said in an email. ”It’s shelf talkers for stores, GMO free Fridays, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and firing up organic fans to use FB walls of big GMO brands to change their policies. Several FB posts got 3500 plus shares at GMO inside. Not bad for a 2 week old group.” Roulac is quadrupling down, with Nutiva spending $200,000 on the activist campaign this year.

If social media is an accurate indicator, the activism is paying off for the group of companies who are part of the #righttoknow campaign. Here’s a Facebook post from one fan announcing how she’s going to be spending her money: “Dr. Mercola, Dr. Bronner’s, Lundberg Family Farms, Nutiva, Amy’s Kitchen, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, Udi’s, Earth Balance, Annie’s Homegrown, Applegate, Eden Foods and Good Earth Natural Foods – These are the folks who support GMO labeling… And these are the folks who I will support when I shop.”

John Roulac is a driven CEO, and natural business man (he started reading the Wall Street Journal at 14) who knows how to use culture jamming to get a message across to his peers in what he considers a corrupt established industrial food industry. He’s not just an activist, or a social media whiz. He’s a CEO who has experienced years of 52% annual growth, who is raising money to grow, and spending his profits on things like processing equipment that brings his costs down. Giving away one percent of sales, last year the company donated $400,000 and hopes to do $700,000 in gifts in 2013. A debt deal with RSF is in the works and Roulac is looking at the possibility of taking on equity to help him grow fast enough to meet the demand.

Nutiva grants go to things like sponsoring organic events such as Bioneers and EcoFarm, planting fruit trees at public schools, and giving away 100,000 coconut seedlings to his producers.

Oh, and people really like his products.

Roulac does not let his activism get in the way of his company. It’s been the fuel for deep customer loyalty, but the women who buy his coconut oil rave about how it makes their skin feel great and soft after they get out of the shower. When someone on his extremely active Facebook page asks a question on how to use hemp, another customer responds with a recipe and another chimes in with suggestions on variations.

One thing that makes Roulac good at social media is that he measures what matters, not what’s easy to measure. He measures the ratio of active conversation on his Facebook page to total number of people who’ve “joined by liking,” the page. He’s close to 20% of his “Facebook Community” actually being a community that’s talking to each other, talking in ways that add value to the products, helping each other modify and adapt it in new ways.

Roulac is trying to avoid the problem of other CEOs: managing sky rocketing growth. He’s trying to get out of as many jobs as he can, probably finding a president earlier than later. But he will stay focused on product development, strategic relationships, and, oddly enough, social media. “It’s something I really like doing. I’m thinking about it all the time, a new graphic, something to get conversation and engagement going.”

Strategy, product development, and twitter. Roulac thinks he is the guy to take the company to $2 – $3 billion in sales, focusing on those three areas.

Though he’s a natural businessman running a company where increasing numbers of customers are coming on board as deeply loyal converts who buy his products and his message, Roulac says both sides of his personality – the business man and the activist – are essential for him to achieve the blended value he’s trying to create. He wants to build a good company that’s actively doing good while it’s selling healthy products people love that help set them free.

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