Boulder County’s natural brands struggle to navigate digital marketplace


It’s a brave new world for Boulder County’s natural food companies trying to navigate online sales of their products, and more than a few have yet to find their way, according to industry insiders.

There’s a clear demand for help. NatchCom, a three-day event being held this weekend at Galvanize, is sold out. The “unconference” will bring together natural food brands and some of tech’s biggest players to “help natural brands and professionals dominate the digital universe.”

Most startups are a long way from domination, said Ted Ning, NatchCom’s executive director. More often, online sales and marketing are barely on their radar.

“They’re so trained to think (about) brick-and-mortar — ‘I’ve got to get into Whole Foods, I’ve got to get into Safeway,'” Ning said. “This is not a priority.”


Jason Walsh pouring coffee in coffee grinder.

Jason Walsh pours coffee beans into a grinder as he begins to cold brew coffee at his home in Louisville in 2016. Walsh tapped a consultant for help getting his hemp-infused nitro cold brew coffee Native Jack online. (File Photo)

But it should be. Today, fewer than 3 percent of groceries are sold online, MarketWatch reported, but that share is expected to reach double digits by 2023. Amazon, fresh off a $13 billion purchase of Whole Foods, is expected to take the lion’s share.

Simply getting your product listed on Amazon is a process, said Louisville's Jason Walsh. He tapped a consultant for help getting his hemp-infused nitro cold brew coffee Native Jack online.

Walsh's first attempt was "a couple weeks of writing letters back and forth to guys in India." It took hired consultants — ex-Amazon employees — emailing the company to "vouch" for Native Jack. A positive response came "within hours," Walsh said.

Now, he sells "a few grand worth" of Native Jack on Amazon each month. "It's nothing that I'm blowing out of the park, (but) it's enough where I get some good exposure."

Getting in front of customers on Amazon presents its own challenges. Lots of natural brands have a "build it and they will come" mentality, said Kay Allison, a corporate growth expert who worked for major brands such as Kraft, Campbell's and PepsiCo.

Allison also tapped a consultant to get her brand of veggie-filled baked goods, Farm & Oven, on Amazon. A "significant portion" of Farm & Oven's marketing budget goes to Amazon, with good results: all four of Farm & Oven's products are among the top-selling in their category.

"It's naive to think you can just put your product up there," she said. "Think of the way you use Amazon as a human being. You don't go clicking through 20 pages of peanuts before deciding what you're going to buy."

Beyond Amazon, there are dozens of other things to consider for sales and marketing in a digital environment, Ning said. "Are you prepared for voice search? Are you mobile friendly? How do you develop relationships with influencers? How do you use YouTube for advertising or promotions?"

"I think a lot of people don't know what they don't know."

To answer those questions, representatives from Google, Pinterest, Amazon and Facebook will be on hand at NatchCom. Ning said the goal is to provide "practical, functional" information — tools that "can be applied the next day" by businesses.

The good news, Allison said, is that smaller brands are well-positioned to capitalize on the new, digital marketplace — if they get on board quickly.

"Things are changing faster than people realize," she said.

This article originally appears in the Daily Camera.