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Food and drink megabrands turn to small startups for big ideas

Food and drink megabrands are seeing their sales chewed away by smaller, nimbler, cooler rivals. They can’t beat them — so now they’re joining them.

Nine of the world’s biggest industry players, including Danone, General Mills, Campbell Soup and Kellogg, have launched venture capital units over the past 18 months, a Reuters analysis of the sector shows.

The aim of the strategy, according to interviews with executives, is to buy into — and learn from — the kind of startup innovation that has become their nemesis, from microdistilled spirits and cold-pressed juices to kale chips and vegan burgers.

Food and drink multinationals spend far less on research and development than their counterparts in many sectors such as tech and health care. They have been stymied over the past five years by the shifting habits of consumers who are increasingly shunning established brands in favor of small, independent names they regard as healthier, more authentic and original.

This is forcing the companies to take a leaf out of Silicon Valley’s venture capital playbook — and their success or failure in harnessing promising new trends at a very early stage could help determine how well they adjust to the changing landscape, and whether they ultimately emerge as winners or losers.

“It’s difficult for companies to have the persistence and to replicate the energy and the passion that these early-stage entrepreneurs have,” said John Haugen, head of General Mills’ venture capital arm 301 Inc., adding innovation was extremely tough because of how quickly market trends were changing.

“We’re just a year or a little more than that into these investments,” he said of 301, where his team of about 15 sits down twice a month to pass around dozens of samples from startups. “For me it’s part of a total long-term growth strategy for our company.”

In the United States — the world’s biggest packaged food market — small “challenger” brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade’s time compared with 5 percent now, according to Bernstein Research.

The researchers point to successful upstart brands such as Chobani greek yogurt, which they say has stolen more than half of General Mills’ market share in yogurt, and Kind snack bars, which have taken a big bite out of Kellogg’s snack bars.

‘It’s amazing’

The nine companies to recently launch venture capital arms also include Hain Celestial, Tyson Foods and Pernod Ricard. Typically, their funds range in size from about $100 million to $150 million.

While it is still early days for them, the experiences of the handful of food and drink firms that have had funds for several years — Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Diageo — could offer some guide to the future.

Coca-Cola, for example, has had a mixed record; its investment in Honest Tea was a success, but a fermented soda and a Japanese tea failed to take off in the United States. So far, none of the companies’ venture units has delivered a blockbuster brand, but they say a link to the cutting edge is worth the effort.

Diageo, the world’s biggest liquor maker, has invested in 14 startups through its venture capital arm Distill Ventures, spending about 30 million pounds over the last four years on minority stakes.

It points to last year’s purchase of a 20 percent stake in Seedlip — a British startup that says it produces the world’s first nonalcoholic distilled spirit — as a prime example of how the strategy is making it more adventurous.

“If we’d had our strategic areas written down four years ago — what does Diageo want to go after — nowhere would we have written down, ‘We think there’s a big opportunity for a nonalcoholic spirit,’” said James Ashall, who heads its innovation unit Diageo Futures.

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