Become an industry trendsetter

Consumer preferences can be, well, pretty fickle. Here’s how Growth 500 firms became tastemakers, rather than taste-chasers.

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(Illustrations by Emily Chu)

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

Take a stroll in any of the country’s buzziest neighbourhoods, and it’s likely that premium coffee shops will outnumber any other type of establishment. No longer simply content with the classic “double-double,” Canadian coffee connoisseurs are the new wine snobs—a highly invested and knowledgeable consumer pool that wants to be not just plugged in, but ahead of the game. “With so many options out there, we realized that it was crucial for our customers to hear about industry trend from us rather than from the competition,” says Rob Wilkin, who joined Pilot Coffee Roasters (2019 Growth 500: No. 260) as partner in 2013.

In that time, what it means to “trend” has changed dramatically, due in large part to social media, home of thought leaders and industry influencers. To maintain tastemaker status in an intensely crowded coffee market, Wilkin decided to turn innovation into a literal full-time job—and it’s just one of the ways that Pilot Roasters and their peers on the 2019 Growth 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies cultivate and brand their expertise in new and (yes) trendy ways.

HIRE ACCORDINGLY

The key focus of Pilot’s new Head of Innovation, Wilkin decided, would be—first and foremost—new and emerging products, but also he wanted them to find novel approaches to bar-flow efficiency and community engagement. “Investing in [a dedicated role] is one of those investments where it’s not always easy to see a return on, but it’s definitely worthwhile,” says Wilkin of the position, which was carved out in 2014. It was former Pilot HOI (and current Head of Cold Brew) Brett Johnson who helped the company come out ahead of one of the industry’s most significant trends of late, when a months-long exploration of brewing temperatures became the basis for Pilot’s nitro cold brew product. “That wasn’t what I set out to do,” Johnson says of the period of fruitful experimentation.

Grant McCracken is a Canadian anthropologist whose work focuses on the connection between culture and commerce. His book Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation makes a case for why monitoring innovation is (or at least should be) a full-time job. On Twitter or Instagram, everyone can be an influencer, says McCracken, comparing contemporary trend patterns to a torrential downpour where water is whipping around in all directions. McCracken says a Chief Culture Officer (or Head of Innovation) can help companies to ID “black swans” (unpredictable trends that disrupt the industry) and “blue oceans” (unexplored markets).

More recently, Pilot introduced cold brew in a can. “One of the big trends we’re seeing now in premium coffee is around packaging and portability,” says Johnson. “A lot of us have a great product, but how do you make it so that customers can experience it in different locations?” Any HOI role, he says, is about balancing experimentation with the practical part of staying on top of what’s hot—which, yes, may still involve going to trade shows and following the mushrooming number of industry thought leaders.

DON’T JUST SELL, TELL

These days, brands don’t just push product, they manage communities—which means it’s no good for your Instagram to look like a series of glossy magazine ads. “We want our customers to feel connected to not just what we sell, but what we do,” says Wilkin. Pilot’s feed intersperses gorgeous product shots with more dynamic images: a recent staff trip to Colombia, helpful how-to videos,  and one of beans formed into the Raptors logo (because in 2019, being a basketball fan was good for business).

It’s no longer enough to just present new merchandise every season with a quick “Hi, everyone, this is what’s cool now,” adds Jenny Bird, founder and CEO of jewellery company Jenny Bird (2019 Growth 500: No. 183). “[We’re about] bringing our customers inside the nest with us—they see it’s a real company with real people. It’s in Toronto, not a black box.” It’s a counterpoint, Bird adds, to jewellery and accessory mega-brands where it’s obvious that the jewellery design is outsourced via licensing deals. “People want that connection to the maker—they want to feel the hand in the work,” says Bird.

LEVERAGE YOUR FOLLOWING

Bird will never forget that time Michelle Obama wore her Harbour Drop earrings in the pages of Elle, or when Serena Williams sported her Faye Knockers (another earring design) on the court. But while a celebrity endorsement is obvious #goals, she says her most valuable product pushers are regular women—the ones who approach her at events to snap selfies (which Bird will often repost). Using Instagram as a virtual clubhouse, Bird has built a community of #BirdGirls. “I have women tell me that they will start chatting with another woman at a party because they’re both wearing Jenny Bird.”

In addition to being brand ambassadors, a devoted community of repeat customers provides an extremely engaged focus group.

Heuristic Branding consultant Bruce Philp used to advise his clients to devote time and resources to passive social listening to help predict future trends. Now, he says, there is too much noise out there, and often the loudest voices belong to the most marginal. “The most important people to listen to,” Philp says, “are the ones you’re already doing business with.”

Brands with a smaller customer pool can still glean big lessons from their base. Just ask Matthew von Teichman, CEO of Toronto’s GreenSpace Brands (2019 Growth 500: No. 17). “We are a lot closer to our customers,” says von Teichman, who gets plenty of usable feedback at small vendor booths and industry trade shows. He points to recent product launches in the company’s turmeric and gut-health verticals, many of which came from taking that direct feedback to heart.

“We could definitely save money by contracting out that work to a third party, but it would be a missed opportunity.”

WATCH THE WORLD

For Oasis Aqualounge (2019 Growth 500: No. 411) founder Judy Kaye, trendsetting means evolving along with broader social and political climates. Ten years ago, visitors to her popular adult entertainment club were mostly part of the swingers subculture, so that’s who their programming and marketing catered to. “We’ve made so much progress in terms of sex and body positivity—it’s really affecting who is coming to our club and what kind of experiences they are looking for,” Kaye says. Recent successful additions to the Oasis curriculum include yoga classes and nude drawing events—neither of which scream “sex club,” but have proven extremely effective in bringing in a new, socially progressive cohort. “Of course we’re watching other clubs, but trends now have as much or more to do with what’s going on in the world.” Basically, forget the navel-gazing—no pun intended.

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