Last fall we had the opportunity to sit down with Bobby McConnell, the Vice President and Head of Sales and Customer Experience at Gaia Herbs, a leading natural herbs and wellness brand and fellow B Corp. At the time of our conversation, Bobby had just recently joined the Gaia team, where he currently leads both the sales function of the organization and customer experience for both the brand’s brick-and-mortar and e-commerce outlets.
Check out our conversation below:
KSV: Your career has spanned across quite a few different industries, so how is the role that you're currently in similar to what you've done in the past?
Bobby: It's similar in the sense that in the last 1/3rd of my career, I've been focused on plant and alternative medicine, and that really started with my transition from General Mills to Nature's Way. All of the organizations that I have recently worked with (Nature's Way, Sunsoil, and Gaia Herbs), believe in the power of plant healing and are brands that are known for quality and efficacy within the natural products industry. It's been a seamless transition to Gaia as, similar to Sunsoil, there is a vertical integration component to the company with a passion for farming organically and doing good for people, plants, and the planet. Nature’s Way is a large supplements player within the natural products industry across multiple categories like probiotics, multivitamins, cough/cold, and herbs, and then Sunsoil is very specific to one category with CBD, specifically ingestible CBD. Gaia's portfolio is a nice balance as it isn’t as extensive of a portfolio as Nature's Way, but is the leading herbal brand in the US Natural Channel.
KSV: Can you talk a little bit about how the B Corp certification affects Gaia's culture and day-to-day operations?
Bobby: The healing power of nature is at the core of Gaia’s mission, however, equally as important to Gaia’s brand ethos is our commitment to social sustainability and environmental standards. The requirements around becoming a B Corp are so well aligned with how Gaia authentically makes decisions across the smallest and the largest topics on a daily basis. The standards that Gaia has established in the industry on agricultural practices, ingredient sourcing, and environmental stewardship are second to none in the industry. We are consistently challenging ourselves to elevate these standards and pushing internally for what next-generation B Corp-ness looks like at Gaia.
KSV: It’s such a refreshing experience when you begin working with a new brand or a new product and you already have that baseline knowing that they meet these expectations for not only for you, but also just for themselves as a business.
Bobby: Absolutely. Gaia has such a rich reputation and loyal consumer base and it has been fun to join the team and validate that we're really putting our money where our mouth is as it relates to quality, potency and purity. While I wasn’t surprised, it was great to see how many retailers proactively reached out to me when I joined Gaia to share their love for the brand.
KSV: There are a lot of different supplement brands out there, and there's a lot of saturation in the supplement industry these days. Other than the B Corp designation, how do you think Gaia differentiates itself among competitors or other players in the field?
Bobby: Quality, potency, and transparency are notable differentiators for Gaia. Over the years, Gaia has been a trailblazer in the herbal category in many ways in all three of these areas. With the launch of Meet Your Herbs over 10 years ago, Gaia was the first herbal brand to offer lot-by-lot, consumer-accessible traceability of the company's herbal ingredients and products.
While Gaia is known for high-quality and efficacious products, we are also able to tell our consumers and retailers unique and differentiating stories about all aspects of our products and company that authentically solidify our brand mission and company values. Whether it be organically farming and harvesting 45 different herbs on our certified organic, 350-acre farm in North Carolina, our unparalleled testing and quality standards, or stories from the like-minded farmers we partner with for the herbs that we don't grow ourselves, the storytelling behind the products are becoming increasingly important to a brand’s success (both with retailers and consumers).
It's been an interesting shift because, when I used to work at General Mills years ago, retailers put a disproportionate focus on velocity. "How quickly is this display/end cap going to sell through?" or "Can I feel good about leaning into these movement assumptions for innovation?"… but the conversations were centered primarily around productivity. While product movement is obviously still important, retailers have become very savvy on ingredient sourcing, quality and testing standards, and even manufacturing processes. Retailers are doing this because consumers are demanding it and want to better understand how their personal values align with the values of the brands they are purchasing. We just had a meeting with Whole Foods where we spent two hours outlining Gaia’s sustainability efforts and, the fact that we could’ve taken multiple days to talk about our initiatives in this area is really encouraging and separates the brand.
KSV: What do you think that brands can do right now to best serve customers and their needs, right now. Then, going forward, what do you think the future holds for how brands really serve customers?
Bobby: I think consumer empathy is important right now - recognizing what consumers are going through, connecting with consumers, and having the consumer in accord with every decision that is being made. As a premium brand, we've always talked at Gaia that value is more than price and have put an emphasis on educating on our brand and products to connect in meaningful ways with our consumers. I believe the emphasis on personalization, brand experience, and overall brand values will continue to become larger with how brands successfully serve their consumers in the future.
KSV: Right, and as a consumer, you're a lot more likely to purchase or stay loyal to a brand regardless of the price point if you see those values or that personality line up with your own values and your own personality. Speaking of… the way that Gaia communicates with consumers through social media is really top-notch. So how do you foresee Gaia continuing to use social media to communicate with consumers and how important is social media as part of your overall brand strategy?
Bobby: Yeah, it's huge. I mean, our social platform is the fastest way and most efficient way for us to connect with our consumers and really share our stories and values. The herbal category can be a confusing space and social media has been a great lever for product education. Aside from product education, we are able to showcase our brand personality. We can ‘bring’ people to our farm and update them on the entire seed to shelf process. We can introduce our followers to the farmers that are harvesting the herbs we are using in product formulation. We also use social media to talk about meaningful causes to our brand including climate reform and social and racial injustice.
I think it's a way to connect the dots of that personality that we're speaking to with the consumers, and we'll continue to magnify that even more as we increase our investment in sharing this Gaia story.