Steve Collins of Pure Fiber: Five Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Steve Collins, President and CEO, Pure Fiber U.S. Corp.

With nearly three decades of experience in consumer products, Steve Collins is a results-driven, senior leader with an exceptional record of success at some of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers. His passion for relationship building coupled with his deep understanding of best-in-class processes has enabled him to transform both businesses and organizations across a variety of markets, channels, and categories. Steve’s strength as a change agent positions him as an invaluable resource to accelerate growth.

Throughout his 24-year career at Mars, Inc., Steve consistently delivered results ahead of plan by developing new, innovative strategies, building stronger, more collaborative relationships, and creating high-performing sales management teams. Not only did his efforts drive significant share gains and profitability advancements, but they also lead to numerous “Supplier of the Year” recognitions and dramatic improvements in customer satisfaction rankings, including a number one finish at Walmart, having started at #17.

Steve’s seven years on the Mars Walmart team as Vice President and then Global Vice President of Sales for Mars provided even greater opportunity for him to demonstrate his business building and transformation expertise. With responsibility for over $3B in sales, he effectively leveraged his customer leadership and sales strategy capabilities on a global scale, successfully meeting the needs of the retail giant in over twenty countries.

In his role at Market Performance Group, Steve harnessed his best-in-class expertise in customer leadership and collaboration, sales and category management, and business transformation to support and solve client issues while creating new opportunities for growth. Additionally, his in-depth understanding of Walmart and executive experience with the retailer made him uniquely qualified to craft effective strategies for, and build more collaborative relationships with, this market-dominant account.

For his entire career, Steve has been committed to using data to plan and win. After leaving Market Performance Group, he spent 3 years with IRI data company. At IRI, Steve was responsible for leading the retail sales division and securing retailers’ sensitive data. His previous experience helped him develop an aggressive set of goals, engage his team and close several innovative contracts with retailers, putting IRI back on track with retailers and ultimately manufactures. After leaving IRI he worked for Treehouse Foods and 5G Consulting, continuing to learn and develop his skill set.

In 2019, Steve became President and CEO of Pure Fiber, U.S. Corp. with the goal of launching a new, ready-to-drink beverage called vibi+ (pronounced v-ih-bee — plus). On a mission to Fuel Health for All, vibi+ aims to close the fiber gap in America. Steve remains guided by six key principles including delivering on the claims of his hero product, customer advocacy, passionate people, smart and lean operations, and partnerships that matter. Throughout his tenure in the CPG industry, he has been an active contributor in the communities in which he’s lived, including participation in multiple charities and board leadership positions.

Steve is a graduate of Creighton University with a BSBA in Marketing and has completed the Executive Development Program at the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Fate, good people, and a little luck never hurts. I have been preparing for this opportunity for the past 30-plus years. I have been blessed with great mentors and teams that have achieved significant successes. I have a simple formula — Innovation + Passion = Success. Innovation, it’s about being smarter, better, and faster than your competition. Passion is putting your heart, soul, and energy into everything you do. I love the consumer package goods market because everyday you can make a difference and everyday you get a scorecard on how you are doing. In addition, the industry is full of really talented people which drives me to continue to get better and better.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made was related to the naming of vibi+,® our first product to market. vibi+ is a great-tasting, ready-to-drink beverage rich in prebiotic fiber with the purpose of promoting good gut health.

We were convinced the name should include the word “fiber” in it. For example, Pure FiberFiber Plus, etc. During customer research, all of our fiber names and related ideas were rejected. When asked, the respondents told us that if it had fiber in the name, they wouldn’t bring it home to avoid having to answer the question, “Do you need fiber due to digestive issues?”. My early mistake was assuming I was an average consumer and so what I liked, everyone else would like. As a result, I learned early on to rely upon data and insights versus personal opinion. The sooner you accept the need to know your customer and leave your personal and mother-in-law research behind, the better.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are driven and inspired by our mission of “Fueling Health for All” by creating a great-tasting approachable product that is available anytime and anywhere. A great mission must be supported by passionate people and a hero product and I believe we are blessed with both. As a startup, we rely heavily on our best-in-class business partners. Enrolling them in our mission is making all the difference in the world. Our mission is supported by 6 principles: Hero Product, Passionate People, Customer Advocates, Smart and Lean Operations, Partnerships that Matter and Giving Back. All of this is being recognized and rewarded by our retailer partners and our ultimate customers.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are launching vibi+, a ready-to-drink beverage rich in prebiotic fiber. Most Americans don’t consume enough fiber, but vibi+ delivers 27% of the daily recommended amount of fiber. Here’s how it works: the prebiotic fiber stimulates the growth of existing beneficial bacteria in the gut, helping the probiotic bacteria thrive! Since there is evidence that prebiotic fiber intake also increases resistance to illness or infection, vibi+ also supports the immune system. In addition, it assists with the absorption of minerals and helps to curb appetite.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I will put it terms of a car. Take your average car (the product), each car has four wheels (or I should say most do), doors, etc. All cars serve similar functions, getting you from A to B and back. The brand is the how you want to look getting from A to B and back. It’s the emotional connection to a consumer versus a logical connection.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Logic and function can be more easily duplicated, the more technical insulation you have on your product the less important the brand connection. If I make a product that is patented, has a high cost of entry, and lower margin structure, I would invest more of my marketing investment here. Of course the reverse is true, if it’s not insulated, has a low cost of entry, mid- to higher size of the prize and margin, well you want people to have a personal relationship with your brand, you want people to want to be seen “driving in your brand”. Another driving factor in the U.S. is the emergence of retailers’ private and exclusive brands. There is a big push by retailers to grow their private label brands in an effort to reinforce loyalty and margin. Driving more trips to the store is paramount for retailers’ success and development. This heightens the need to build your brand equity with customers in the consumer package goods industry. I could go on and on about this situation given the time I spent at IRI and Treehouse Foods where learning this lesson was invaluable in opening my eyes to the seismic shift underway.

Additionally, as if it’s not complex enough, I’ve learned from my various experiences at large successful companies that it is important to produce at the lowest cost possible. By adding this element, you are prepared to win in a competitive market and support building both a brand and product. This will assist you in defending against all types of competition including your own retailer business partners.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Be Mission Driven- I truly believe that people get up everyday to be part of something larger than themselves, so establishing a mission that inspires them everyday, thus driving trust and believability in your team and business partners is essential. Our mission for Pure Fiber U.S. Corp., is to Fuel Health for All, by offering a great-tasting, convenient solution by closing the consumer fiber gap with vibi+. As a team, we understand that only 5% of Americans get enough fiber in their diet, along with the fact that the estimated healthcare cost for digestive issues tops $300+ billion per year. So it’s easy to get up everyday and have the mission inspire you and help guide your decision making. Once the mission was established, we developed our business plan to serve our mission and continually check in to see if we are headed towards our North Star of Fueling Health for All. Our business partners are inspired and we are as well, in the process of transforming and informing our ultimate consumer via our website, social media and educational blog.
  2. Hero Product- Early on in my career I was taught the value of having a hero product. We have made vibi+ the product as our main vessel to achieve our mission. The product had to taste great, deliver benefits, and be affordable to create a regiment brand. We started the journey by purchasing some market level data to understand the potential categories, size, growth, velocities, and rhythm of the category. Once we validated the size of the prize, we commissioned a concept screen to hear directly form the customers on their perception of the concept. The results continued to lead us to a hero product idea based upon the 91% likelihood to purchase and the 10 out of 10 strength score. From this research, we understood who our target customer included and fielded a customer focus group to touch, feel, and taste the product. All of this research and data helped us to finalize the flavors, formula, and messaging. From the start, we have always listened to our customer and we continually try to avoid believing our own stories and opinions. This may seem expensive and unnecessary, and I am sure many of us can point to products that were an overnight success first and researched second. The beverage market is extremely competitive and in order to fulfill our mission we had to ensure we were doing all we could to reach as many consumers as possible and fishing where the fish are swim first. I’ve seen way too many entrepreneurs that skip the research phase to save money, only to lose it all. I cannot stress enough, the importance of the right research. It is worth its weight in gold. Lastly, you need to go head to head with your key competitor at the time, you need to meet and or exceed their offering at a better value to make it easier for the retailer to stock you (not them) and the consumer to purchase you.
  3. Passionate People- Everyone throws around the word passion, but too few understand it and measure it. I am a fan of the Gallup engagement process and metric. After you set an inspiring mission, the next step is to engage people in the mission and to set an aggressive target that is properly funded and supported. If you continually ask your team to achieve more than is realistically possible, thinking if you shoot for the moon at least you will get a star or two, your leadership will not drive engagement. When you have an engaged team, you have a team that has the potential to achieve extraordinary results. Once you set an appropriate goal, and properly resource, you need to value the talent of your team members, to employ their set of talents to find the most efficient way to achieve the goal. If you impose too much of the way you would do it, and they have a different set of skills, you are not allowing your team members to unlock their full potential. In one of my previous assignments, we used these principles to move a company’s ratings with a very important customer from dead last (13 out of 13) to number 1. Not only did we do it one year, but we repeated the results three more times. Of course, this also taught me a new lesson, you need to plan for success and plan to beat your own success. I had a great mentor that said it’s not until you walk over your own path two times that you truly understand how good you can be. During the first year you are executing and learning, in the second year you are putting your plan into place and in the third year, you need to beat your own plan.
  4. Customer Advocates- The new market rules that put a significant focus on engaging consumers has been one of my greatest learnings. Our principle of creating customer advocates is one of the keys to our success. W want our target customers to love our product so much, they would be embarrassed if they did not share this with their family and friends. Our marketing tag line is, “The drink of everyday champions. “To kick off our customer advocacy strategy, we gave away over 1,000 cases of product. Our goal was to have these consumers experience the product over several weeks and give us feedback. I wondered how long it would take to get 1,000 people sign up for the free case. I was amazed how quickly the 1,000 cases were requested and in four short days the request totaled 1,400 cases. We were able to get a significant number of individuals to give us qualitative feedback after they received and consumed their free 12 bottles. We were extremely excited to have 71% say they would be future brand advocates. In addition, 91% reported that they were likely to share the product with family and friends. Along with our Everyday Champions program, we are using paid and unpaid influencers to assist us in creating brand advocates that support our mission with social media efforts. Our goal is to create brand advocacy that spreads the vibi+ gospel by introducing the brand’s attributes to others, ultimately helping to generate more than 70% of our sales.
  5. Smart and Lean Operations- I have long been a fan of data and analytics, all the way back to the mid- 80’s when we were designing the category management efforts for Mars Inc. Since then, I have seen the power of data and research and how it accelerates performance. Along with many teams in my past, we’ve deployed data and insights, making us smarter, better, and faster. The results are significant market share points and gains. Some may argue that the market share game is not the only game, swimming in the red water, versus jumping into the green or blue water. I believe being prepared to win in a market share battle is never a bad idea, even if for a brief period of time when you have little to no competition. At Pure Fiber U.S. Corp., we are operating as if we are in a share game battle to ensure we are prepared. I love Shark Tank, they always talk about technical insulation, patents, process, competition, and cost of goods sold. I learned the importance of being lean from my time at Mars Inc. One of their principles was efficiency, do what you do best and leave the rest to others. As a start-up, we are operating under the lean principle; we are outsourcing all we can to remain nimble and keep cash flowing. Another lesson, cash is king. We are committed to being innovative, driving the need for smarter, better, and faster.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Mars Inc. has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. Their brands are timeless. I had the pleasure of working with them for almost 25 years. Much of what I am executing at Pure Fiber U.S. comes from an accumulation of experiences and knowledge at Mars and other successful companies. Mars was the best at branding by focusing on the brand image and unique selling proposition, hiring great people (me excluded of course), providing a set of principles and giving their associates the freedom to operate within these principles. Branding principles were expected to be followed, proper registrations, names, images, usage, on and on. The key here is you have to be somewhat militant and not bend the rules. Each brand has a unique selling proposition, a simple slogan and saying that defined the brand essence and not the function. One example that comes to mind is Skittles®, taste the rainbow. We are taking a similar approach with vibi+ and the importance of prebiotic hydration. We are not 100% sure we have it right just yet, but I am sure big established brands weren’t 100% clear from day one. The important thing is that we will continue to listen to our consumers and adjust over time.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

For sure it’s connected, but different. I’m a big believer that everything you do has to lead to some sales/results. How you evaluate and when you evaluate is different. In my experience, each category has a rhythm, looking at the retail price point, promotion, and advertising. So the first thing you should do is understand the category, by trade channel and customer. Start with what you can see and measure, then you need to develop your own formula for success. For me, it’s critical to figure out your brand’s formula as quickly as possible. In pursuit of our formula for vibi+, we currently have six different test cells in place and are evaluating the impact of each marketing mix approach, social, advertising, lifestyle, function, discount, digital coupons, etc. One or two of the cells will prove themselves better than the rest and as they do, we will employ them as we roll out, while still continuing to learn and adjust overtime. The important thing is to have the best possible “formula” at all times.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

To say it plays a huge role may be an understatement. We are investing in all social media platforms and have had great results. If there is one thing that keeps me up at night, it is my lack of experience and understanding in this space. We are blessed that our marketing leader, is well versed in this area, and I know enough to ask the right questions, but I also have to trust her to make the right decisions. In this area in particular, I look forward to learning from others.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

If you’re getting burned out, maybe you are in the wrong position and or role. I’ve always advised people if you do not like the situation you are in, either change the situation or move to another situation. Get aligned on your goals and objectives, feel like you have the right resources to achieve them, and go get em!! In regards to thriving, learn from others, share with others. Thriving in today’s environment is a team sport, no longer an individual sport. So, the better your team is, the better you will be- surround yourself with people better than you are and help them thrive.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have started to rethink the Golden Rule: Treat Others As You Would Like to be Treated. I grew up being taught this by parents, church, school, etc. As time marches forward, and diversity awareness continues to grow, I find the Contemporary Golden Rule is more like: Treat Others as They Would Like to Be Treated. This approach recognizes the differences in our world and in our communities. Embracing our differences and learning from them helps us appreciate others and the gifts they have to offer.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t try to boil the ocean.” I learned this from one of my least favorite managers in my career, but what a great saying. While I was leading the category management efforts at Mars, our research was exhaustive We strived to have the answer that solved 100% of the opportunity and or problem definition. During a trip to the UK for a category management summit, I was introduced to their approach: if 20% of the efforts can get you 80% of the results, why would you expend the extra 80% of the efforts to get 20% of the benefit? Capture the 80%, and evolve over time. It’s about making progress versus waiting to have it 100% figured out.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Doug McMillon, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg- these leaders are leading some of the largest companies in the world, through undoubtedly the fastest changing environment. I would love to know how they consume information, process it with the understanding that allows them to understand and predict the future, and then deliver solutions that align with consumer’s daily challenges.

This article originally appeared on Authority Magazine by Fotis Georgiadis on November 3rd, 2021.