In February, I attended the Heart Series conference and ran into Keely Wachs, Director of Communications and Company Affairs for the Clif Bar company. We sat down to discuss the mission-driven family of brands, social responsibility and doing good, and what the future holds for the Clif Bar company.  

LM: So, tell me the origin story of Clif Bar.

KW: Clif Bar started 25 years ago when Gary Erickson, our co-founder, went on a 175-mile bike ride. He had taken six of one of our competitor's bars, and after eating five of them, couldn't eat any more. He thought, "I can make a better bar." At the time he had his own bakery, specializing in pastries. But he wanted to go to his mom's kitchen and use her original recipes for oatmeal cookies. They spent six months in that kitchen together. And that was the beginning of it all. 

LM: Super cool. So, your role in the company is integrating the brand into all the marketing - digital, offline, everything. How has the bar maintained its brand identity across all these platforms with the evolution of the brand.

KW: Clif Bar has evolved to have three brands. We've got the Clif brand, the LUNA brand and the Clif Kid, which is Zbar. Each of those brands has its own distinct, unique identity, purpose and target audience. Clif Bar, historically, has really targeted the endurance athlete type, but we are getting into the healthier snacks space too with our mojo bars and our builders, which are also a kind of performance bar. LUNA, obviously, is all about empowering women. And Zbar is all about nurturing kids in motion and empowering them to live healthy, active lives.

Then there's the company side; it straddles all of these and it's about this interesting intersection of business and purpose and how we leverage our company for good. It really comes down to creating a healthier, more sustainable food system. Everything from what we call field to final product. How do we source in an ethical and environmentally sound way, how do we run our business in an environmentally sound way? We've been carbon-neutral for 14 years, which is pretty remarkable. Our Head of Planet is incredible. Our Head of Community is doing all this great work. It's my job to figure out how to tell that story, how to make it relevant to consumers, and how to do it authentically.

Then we have to tie it all together. I would say most people don't even know that LUNA is actually one of our brands. That has been one of our challenges. We have to answer the question, what is the connective tissue that would straddle all our brands, that we can bring to life in an authentic way.

LM:  So, we're here at the Heart Series conference. All the brands here have a very heart-centered focus. Do you think that all of the good you've been doing in the world has been a propeller for the brand or was that just part of the core values that happened to be part of what elevated the brand? 

KW: You know, that's such a great question and our CEO Kevin Cleary and our owners, Gary and Kit, talk about this all this time. And the example they give is, when they decided to go organic in 2002. It was only one year after the national organic standards had been created. Gary and Kit decided to take this brand organic because it was the right thing to do. They had no idea, or any interest, in it actually becoming a marketing pilar. It's really a testament to following your values and doing the right thing. It happened to be dead-on where consumers are purchasing, but it's not the reason Clif Bar did it and it certainly isn't the reason why I think authentic brands do the things that they do. 

LM: I think that is perfectly said. Where can people find the products? Where do you want them to connect with you? 

KW: Historically, we've had amazing retail relationships and we feel so fortunate to have these partnerships, but we're also really leaning into e-commerce, trying to connect with consumers one-to-one, for a lot of reasons. One, that's the way consumers are buying. That's why we have to pay attention to that trend. Two, once you develop that one-to-one relationship you can really connect with equity and values in a way that is harder to do through retail.

It's really about sharing your values and experiences with them. When we started, that's what Gary did - it was all field. He was selling Clif Bars out of the back of his car to his cycling buddies. That core experiential one-to-one connection is one of our ingredients - connect is one of our ingredients. We aspire to live it every day. I think we haven't been so great at social media and digital because we've been so focused on connecting through experiential, whether it's on the slopes or at runs. We really care about that deep one-to-one, rich experience.

LM: So, what is next for Clif Bar and the family of brands?

KW: We're leaning hard into innovation. What we're seeing in the marketplace is that consumers are really hyper-specializing in their needs. The core values that we hold are going to stay true. Those are going to be the guiding forces by which we innovate, which provides some challenges and some constraints, but we're not willing to compromise on those. And we'll create an innovation pipeline that's going to meet consumers where they are and create a healthier, more sustainable food system.

Clif Bar is proving that you don't have to compromise strong core values for successful business.

Published on: May 8, 2018