The journey to irreplaceable: how F&B brands can own their position on shelf

Coke famously started life as a pharmaceutical product.  Tiffany’s was a stationery store.  Nokia, a paper mill.

Together they represent particularly acute examples of a truth that applies to all companies:

They evolve into something they didn’t intend.

Nobody knows this better than food and bev brands.  It’s exceptionally rare for an initial concept to succeed in the way the founder imagined.  Instead, best-laid plans quickly fly out the window, as you are forced to react to the unpredictable feedback from retailers and consumers that your idea provokes – not to mention the shifting cultural sands thrown into flux by a worldwide pandemic.

For most brands, this reactivity becomes their day-to-day life.

They exist on the back foot, chasing competitors, experimenting with different angles, and scrambling for traction in whatever way they can.  They live in constant fear of being copied, delisted, replaced, or undercut – and have to work hard to make sure those things don’t happen.

But this doesn’t apply to everyone.

A select few businesses in F&B and elsewhere manage to break out of the reactive dogfight, identify a clear and ownable strategy, and proactively attack it in a way that separates them sharply from their competitors.  These are the brands that no supermarket would dare be without.  They are, in the minds of consumers, irreplaceable.  They represent their categories and don’t have adequate replacements.  They’re the ones on the tip of everyone’s tongue, endlessly repeated as case studies.  They’re the brands who know exactly what they’re for, what their role in the market is, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

I call them “strategic brands” – so-called because they operate to clear, defensible, effective strategies, rather than being dragged into the competitive dogfight.

Most never become strategic brands – not because they don’t have the potential, but because they are unaware of the path to get there.  I want to show you this path; a process named “the strategic lifecycle”.

The strategic lifecycle

The strategic lifecycle represents three stages of strategic maturity which all companies need to pass through if they wish to develop clear propositions which dominate their markets.  This is especially true for F&B brands, which have to deal with the dual markets of retailers and consumers.  The vast majority, not being aware of the stages, never leave the first – and remain reactive (sometimes very successfully, it must be said) throughout their entire existence.

Here is a brief description of the three stages:

1 – Experimentation

This is the first stage of any brand’s life, when it starts with a hypothesis (like Coke and its pharmaceutical origins), and begins feeling its way through the market like a caterpillar edging along a leaf.

At this juncture, you still aren’t sure what you’ve created, and so it makes sense to not hold any direction too forcefully and to experiment with lots of different things so that company can find its role.

In terms of food and drink brands, this might mean experimenting liberally with different formats, flavours, and distribution channels.  Most will fail, some will not – and those will give you the necessary clues to pass on to the next stage.

2 – Consolidation

Now, assuming you have survived and achieved a degree of success as a roving caterpillar, it is time to enter your cocoon and consolidate the evidence your experiments have gathered.  What exactly is this thing you’ve created?  Where does the market want it?  Where does it reject it?  What kind of person does it appeal to?  Who does it turn off?  What little, accidental, insignificant things did you do which actually provoked a big response?

Providing you have achieved some traction, and some sales, you will be doing something unique; something right.

The question is what?  (If you want tips on figuring this out, see the link at the end of this piece)

When you find the answer, codify it, and commit to it, you can enter the final stage…

3 – Acceleration

Here finally you burst free from your cocoon – no longer a caterpillar but a dazzling butterfly that stands out like a beacon in its market.

This has been achieved by synthesising the results of your experimental period and extracting from them one concrete direction which represents the true place your business fits in the market (rather than the one you imagined when you began).


The entire process can be summarised by the immortal Dolly Parton line:

“Find out who you are, and do it on purpose”.

Note that she didn’t say choose who you are – you have no idea how the market will respond to you, so it’s not for you to say.  No, instead you must discover the hidden and unintended potential of your business so that you can begin attacking it with purpose and focus.

Want to learn more about each of the stages, where you are at the moment, and how to act in order to get the best results each step of the way?  Then:

****CLICK HERE**** to watch the 1 hour webinar I did with Young Foodies on the subject.  This is a private link just for readers of this article, it can’t be accessed on the open web.

Throughout the video points are illustrated with a detailed case study of an up and coming F&B brand who has passed through precisely this process.

Clearly it has not been the most stable year for any of us.  For many brands it has exposed confusion and vulnerability at the heart of their offerings – and very few have emerged financially better off than they were last year.  However, it is precisely at such moments of chaos and flux that we are given the opportunity to consolidate; to explore the questions mentioned above, and expanded on in the webinar.

If you want to emerge from this period better than you entered it, then this is the way – and I would be delighted to guide you, as I have many other high growth grocery brands.  Just drop me a note: 


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