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Decoding The Whole Truth: Lessons from the brand playbook of a purpose-led brand

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Packaged food is a difficult category to make a dent in, for the simple reason that it is cluttered. There are a lot of players, with almost everyone saying fairly similar things. In such a cluttered category, it is really tough to break out of the pack and build a strong brand.

So, when we found a 28-month-old packaged food brand garnering appreciation for its product as well as marketing, we were intrigued.

This time, we turn the spotlight on The Whole Truth, a brand that’s on a mission to rebuild the world’s trust in its food.

And who could be a better person to give us an inside peek into the brand than the founder himself. So, recently we sat down for a free-flowing conversation with Shashank Mehta, founder of The Whole Truth to decode the brand’s playbook.

This article summarizes some key themes & takeaways from our conversation. Readers can listen to our unabridged conversation with Shashank at the link below:

Freeflowing conversation with Shashank

#1 A brand borne out of personal passion and pain points

It all started with Shashank’s personal quest for fitness.

Over a period of 8 years, Shashank cumulatively lost (and regained!) over 100 kgs of weight in 3 cycles. These struggles, successes, and setbacks inspired him to focus on food- which he realized is the most crucial part of fitness journey in general and weight loss journey in particular. He chronicled his personal journey and experiences in a blog and also started taking a critical look at the packaged food options available to Indians.

Shashank began by taking products off the store shelves and unpacking the claims and ingredients on the front and back labels – demonstrating where incumbent players were playing fast and loose with the truth or using half-truths as marketing claims. What started as a hobby during his Unilever days set him up for an entrepreneurial journey in the food space.

Interestingly, Shashank has registered his venture as “FITSHIT health solutions,” in a nod to his blog of the same name.

Shashank eloquently sums up his journey as: “In hindsight, it seems that my entire life was leading up to this.”

#2 Mining a powerful insight for a meaningful brand purpose

A fundamental lesson in brand building that Shashank imbibed from his days at Unilever was the power of insight. Great brands like Nike (“Inspiration”), Starbucks (“Third place”) and Dove (“Real Beauty”) are all built on the bedrock of very powerful insights.

Rather than a bundle of products, a brand is a sum total of consumer experiences. When all of these experiences are anchored on a real and resonating insight, the brand makes consumers stand up and take notice.

So, the first step for The Whole Truth was to unearth and articulate this insight.

Through his personal experiences and research, Shashank realized that big food brands were telling selective truths, suiting their convenience. On the one hand, positive nutritional elements, however minor in proportion, were blown up through media, marketing and packaging. On the other hand, potentially problematic ingredients were conveniently relegated to the back of pack.

But in this new age of knowledge democracy unleashed by a digitally-driven world, information arbitrage is fast disappearing and brands can no longer hide behind the protection of fine print, especially if they are catering to a suave, digitally native urban consumer.

“Over the years, the world’s trust in food was broken. And it was broken by big food companies… who told self-serving half-truths”, remarked Shashank.

This realization led to a powerful insight that Shashank articulated as: “If trust was broken by half-truths, it can only be rebuilt by the whole truth.”

Clearly, for The Whole Truth, brand purpose is not an afterthought to marketing strategy – instead, it’s a mission that guides their brand and product strategy. It is seamlessly baked into everything the brand does- starting from the product to marketing touchpoints (content, packaging…) to even aspects like organizational culture and hiring.

#3 Enduring short-term pain for long term gains

While brand purpose brings everyone in the organization onto the same page and serves as a beacon for decision-making, it also lays out rigorous guardrails for the brand.

The first manifestation of this for The Whole Truth was the need to rebrand when they realized that their current brand identity was not doing justice to the brand purpose.

The brand was originally called “And Nothing Else.” However, just three months into its inception, Shashank realized that the current identity was all about being honest and upfront about product ingredients, whereas the purpose of the brand extended way beyond this.

Beyond good ingredients and honest claims, The Whole Truth’s purpose was also about educating consumers to help them confidently navigate the world of food and fitness. “And Nothing Else” did not do justice to this larger, overarching brand vision.

Once this realization set in, Shashank decided to immediately rebrand from “And Nothing Else” to “The Whole Truth”. It took months of planning and a considerable monetary outlay to rebrand.

However, doing it at an early stage was a well-calibrated call as it helped to position the brand’s mission front and centre and induced consistency at all touchpoints.

In the case of The Whole Truth, the brand sent personalized letters to 20,000 consumers informing them about the name change. Reminiscing about this phase in the brand’s journey Shashank said: “A purpose is not strong enough if it is not painful at times.”

#4 Clarity + Consistency: The secret sauce to build an engaging & endearing brand

Despite being fairly young, The Whole Truth has demonstrated remarkable maturity in its brand-building efforts.

Shashank believes that enduring brands are built on 2 strong pillars- ‘Clarity’ and ‘Consistency.’

Put simply, clarity is knowing what you stand for and confidently embracing it. With clarity, the brand is not swayed by ongoing fads and never loses sight of its reason to exist in the world.

A by-product of clarity is consistency- it reflects in everything the brand says and does, across all touchpoints.

The magic happens when Clarity and Consistency are infused with Creativity. By bringing the 3-Cs together a brand can consistently reinforce its mission without sounding repetitive, and charm consumers with fresh consistency each time.

This is best reflected in the unboxing experience of The Whole Truth, where consumers savour nuggets of surprises and storytelling much before they savour the actual product!

#5 Engaging by Educating

Shashank believes that if The Whole Truth intends to “rebuild the world’s trust in its food”, a brand-centric pitch that only talks about its own merits will not be enough. Indeed, the very nature of its mission requires it to bust myths, demystify and help its consumers navigate the conflicting and often contradictory world of packaged food.

This is where The Whole Truth shines. From the outset, this purpose led brand focused on providing succinct, useful content that sought to unpack and simplify the complex food category for all consumers. In fact, a large portion of the brand’s content is not about the products they sell. This actually helps to establish credibility for the brand, since its content signals to consumers that the brand is motivated by not just commercial considerations.

“Don’t sell the truth, tell the truth,” says Shashank.

In this context, it’s worth mentioning that the brand’s punchy, clever copy is a big differentiator in the category. Written mostly by Shashank himself, the copy stands testament to the fact that a brand identity is not only about the visual language alone, but also about the power of words to inspire consumers.

While there are global brands (like Innocent) that have effectively used the power of copy to their advantage, it is rare to find examples of such brands in the Indian ecosystem.

#6 The framework for scaling

While it is easy for an external category observer to slot The Whole Truth into a ‘health food brand’, Shashank has a completely different take.

He stressed: “We are not here to sit in judgement of our consumers’ food habits. The same consumer who eats a protein bar after a morning workout might have had a rough day and may want to uplift his spirits with a piece of chocolate at night.”

This approach means that The Whole Truth does not self-select into becoming a niche category brand. Instead, it seeks to be present at all consumption occasions where it can offer clean, honest and tasty alternatives to prevailing incumbents with misleading claims. Obviously, this thinking gives the brand a vast playing field.

In fact, Shashank uses an interesting yet intuitive framework that guides the brand’s new product development choices.

As the first step, he zooms in on categories where established incumbents are using misleading claims or half-truths to sell products in the market. Next, he identifies categories where The Whole Truth can legitimately offer a clean and honest alternative to the incumbents. Last but not the least, the end product has to be tasty- which of course is a non-negotiable category need.

“It’s a misnomer that healthy and clean can’t be tasty. If food is made with healthy and clean ingredients, its actually tough not to make it tasty,” Shashank claimed.

#7 Cracking the culture code

A sharply articulated purpose that’s akin to an oath to consumers of always sticking to ‘The Whole Truth’ puts almost a moral onus on internal stakeholders.

Shashank summed it up tellingly when he said: “We have made consumers custodians of our conscience.”

This has ensured that all employees, from R&D to Ops to sales are clearly aware of the brand’s mission and the need to walk the talk. The Go and No-Go areas for the brand are fairly obvious and this avoids easy temptations and distracting discussions.

Similarly, when it comes to hiring, a non-negotiable trait Shashank seeks is a buy-in to the brand purpose. During interviews, he says, “I go very deep into the reasons why people want to do this, and why they want to do this with us.”

“For me, the intent is more important than skill”, declares Shashank.

#8 Navigating the perks and perils of a Founder led brand

Shashank has led brand marketing from the front – as the face of the brand and its spokesperson. This move has delivered many advantages.

First, in a David vs. Goliath world, where young brands are fighting with established incumbents with deep war chests, it is imperative for challengers to make maverick moves to credibly stand out. For mission-led brands like The Whole Truth, it’s almost mandatory for the brand to punch above its weight. In this context, the founder speaking directly to the consumers is a great move to build credibility as consumers realize that the person with the most skin in the game is leading from the front.

Beyond credibility, Shashank leading from the front also renders a great degree of consistency to the brand. Shashank’s personal style and signature is evident on all the content pieces. Whether it be the educative and myth-busting videos on ‘The Whole Truth Academy’ or funny and engaging brand ads, Shashank is always there to drive a clear messaging rooted in its purpose – to tell the whole truth.

This level of consistency in the tonality of messaging is hard to be replicated by an agency team, or indeed, even by the competition!

However, founder-led brands can take a huge toll on the founders themselves. Not only is their every action scrutinized, but their private lives also get entangled with the brand. Any perceived misstep by them or skeletons in their cupboard will reflect badly on the brand. And it’s only fair to assume that a brand that claims to tell ‘The Whole Truth’ and calls out half-truths would be put under microscopic scrutiny.

This, however, may be a risk worth taking, according to Shashank.

In his own words: “The Whole Truth does not mean perfection. If anything goes wrong, we will talk openly and honestly about it. And our consumers understand that. After all, we still abide by our promise of telling the Whole Truth!”

Challenges & Summary

Going by the social media buzz, The Whole Truth seems to have created a base of loyal consumers and has built up good momentum.

The brand adopted a judicious approach of entering niche categories (protein bars, nut butter, muesli) and building an initial set of loyalists. Now it has set its sights on more ambitious mainstream categories, like the just-launched range of Chocolate bars. In that sense, the real test for the brand begins now.

As Shashank is pulled deeper into the inevitable challenges posed by The Whole Truth’s scaling and expansion, things that will vie for his attention will increase exponentially. So, unless he codifies and institutionalizes his signature method of brand building, scaling the magic will be a challenge.

Also, Shashank shares that more than demand, it’s the supply side challenges that keep him busy. As a new player on the block that’s still learning, managing multiple categories, SKUs, vendors, ingredients and channels is a complex undertaking. More so, because they are manufacturing everything in-house.

Finally, as the brand gathers scale and salience and as it enters channels and categories where it will finally nibble at the market share of what it calls “Big Food”, it will be interesting to see how incumbents react to the upstart.

By the way, we just received our consignment of their newly launched chocolates and our post on LinkedIn says it all.

Here is wishing The Whole Truth loads of luck and love!

As usual, keep the discussion flowing at freeflowing@winnerbrands.in. Let us know what you think of The Whole Truth. We read all your emails!

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