The 40th anniversary of the first Whole Foods Market in September was bittersweet for co-founder and CEO John Mackey. He marked the occasion with the publication of his second book, Conscious Leadership, a follow-up to 2013’s Conscious Capitalism, but knew the pandemic had made 2020 the worst year of many people’s lives, including his. Still, like most successful entrepreneurs, Mackey is an optimist–and resilient. “I always keep my chin up and move forward,” he says. “Life is short. We should live it with heart and passion.”
In October, Mackey talked with fellow Houston native Aishwarya Iyer, founder of the handcrafted olive oil brand Brightland, to share some of his optimism–and wisdom. Founded in 2018, Los Angeles-based Brightland launched a line of direct-to-consumer extra virgin olive oils sourced from family-owned California farms. In 2020, Brightland introduced a champagne vinegar and a balsamic vinegar, both of which mix well with its olive oils.
Iyer is now grappling with how her primarily DTC company should approach retail expansion, and whether it’s the right time to branch out into even more new products.
Iyer: We started with direct-to-consumer because I didn’t have a background in retail. How should we think about expanding into retail?
Mackey: Getting it on the shelves is one thing. Getting customers to try it is a totally different thing. This is a very difficult time to get trials because you can’t have demos going on. If you have a really high-quality product, the best way to get people to like it in a retail setting is to give them free samples, demonstrate the product, and let them see this is a really good, high-quality product.
Iyer: We were contacted by a Whole Foods buyer who saw an article we were featured in and thought it was a really compelling local story. I went to meet with the buyer and said I didn’t think we were ready yet. I would love to be ready, but I don’t know if or when we can make that happen.
Mackey: To be ready, you have to have good quality that’s consistently good quality. So it’s consistency of quality and execution, and making sure that you have an adequate supply. When you can do that, you’re ready.
Iyer: What about pricing? We’re at a premium price point because we work with these farmers.
Mackey: That higher price has to be justified by higher quality. For example, is it organic? Local gets you a little bit of a premium. If the narrative’s good, you can get a little bit more premium on top of that. But people have to like the product.
Iyer: On the retail side, is there a way to tell that story without my having to be at 200 stores every day?
“The perfect is the enemy of good. Sometimes you have to balance your ideals out with what’s practical and pragmatic.”John Mackey
Mackey: It is challenging, because all you’ve got is whatever you can put on your packaging. What some people do is encourage people to go to their websites. They can scan the QR code and go to your website, and then you can show videos and get your whole story out there. The interesting thing is a lot of people do that. They want to know where the food came from.
Iyer: We’re constantly being asked, “Are you making sure you do refill bags instead of shipping your bottles?” The bar keeps getting higher for us, and I sometimes feel like I’ll never be able to please everyone.
Mackey: You won’t be able to. That’s an important lesson in business: The perfect is the enemy of the good. Sometimes you have to balance your ideals out with what’s practical and pragmatic. People will always urge you to increase your quality and your sustainability, but as your costs go up, your prices go up, and they’re not always willing to pay them. You’ve got to find that sweet spot where you get the product to be just good enough. You have to make a hierarchy of these product virtues and realize which are the most important and which are less important to people. Do you feel like you have the best olive oil on the market?
Mackey: Then your challenge is a marketing challenge. You’ve got to figure out a way to break through. One way to do that is to get influencers to pitch your product. It might be worth your time to find some of the best restaurants in L.A. and get your product in there. Get the chefs to love your product and they will help sell your product for you. Pitching celebrity chefs and sending them samples could really make a difference.
Iyer: Given that Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon and people still may not want to discover products in stores, should we wait?
Mackey: You probably should. It’s going to sit on the shelves, because nobody is going to buy it. People are in transaction mode when they come into our stores. They’re not in a discovery mode right now. They want to get their stuff and get out.
Iyer: How should we think about rolling out new products?
Mackey: You have to ask, how far can the brand go? If, all of a sudden, you start selling dog food under that brand, that’s going to be confusing. You can do a lot of market research on this, but you want to see how your customers see you and what they think the brand means. Find out what they like about your brand and what they don’t like. What other products would they like to see? When you’re developing new products, you want to stay consistent with the purpose and the mission of your company.
From the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Inc. Magazine