Brands Doing Good Series

Flour Power

A rebrand amid a pandemic can’t slow the growth of King Arthur Baking Company

By Anne Field

Employee-owned King Arthur now ranks No. 2 for retail sales of unbleached, all-purpose flour. Courtesy of King Arthur Baking Company

King Arthur Baking Company, founded in 1790 to import high-quality flour from Europe, is the oldest flour maker in the U.S. But it’s only recently that the Norwich, Vt., enterprise faced one of the biggest challenges of its centuries-old history. Amid record-breaking demand during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the company officially rebranded, changing its name from King Arthur Flour Company to emphasize its larger portfolio of products.

Through it all, the employee-owned company stayed true to its long-time mission: selling unbleached, high-quality flour with an especially high protein content; working with U.S.-only farmers and millers to boost sustainable growing practices; committing to community and progressive employment practices, such as profit-sharing; and educating home bakers.

“We do well by doing good,” says Bill Tine, King Arthur’s VP of marketing.

King Arthur switched to all-American-milled flour with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Over the next several decades, the company evolved from a regional supplier to bakeries to a national brand focused on home bakers. It now sells through supermarkets and big box stores, its website, Amazon, bakers and restaurants, and a retail store on its 14-acre Norwich campus, affectionately called Camelot by employees. The company also increased its product line to include such items as mixes, specialty flours, baking ingredients, and yeast.

What’s more, King Arthur introduced Bake for Good, a free program for schools that combines baking with STEM lessons; an on-campus education center, which offered about 800 classes in 2019, including programs for children and professional workshops; and classes run in partnership with the Bread Lab in Washington State.

The ownership model at King Arthur has evolved, too. Run by five successive generations of the Sands family, descendants of an early owner, the company was sold to its 300-plus employees in 2004. Three years later, King Arthur became a founding certified B Corp. and then, in 2012, a registered Benefit Corporation. As part of its obligations, the company reports annually on such triple-bottom-line results as the percent of flour bags that are recyclable (100 percent) and environmental performance requirements for all job descriptions.

About two years ago, as King Arthur looked to attract a younger audience, the company decided to rebrand, complete with a new name that emphasized its larger baking agenda and a more modern logo. The big rollout was planned for summer 2020. When the pandemic hit and baking became the national pastime seemingly overnight, the company scrambled to meet demand. In fact, flour sales spiked 154 percent in March and April compared to the same period the previous year. But King Arthur went ahead with its rebrand, launching the advertising campaign “Power of Baking,” based on pre-pandemic research. The campaign fortuitously showed real people (not actors) busily making dough at home to a song with such lyrics as “We will rise again.”

With calls to its Baker’s Hotline tripling from March to May, King Arthur stepped up its online content production with video tutorials and new shows created by employees. In “Martin Bakes at Home,” for example, King Arthur baker Martin Philip and his son Arlo show viewers how to bake sourdough crackers, bagels, and other fare from their home. Bake for Good staff film at-home tutorials for children, such as baking scones and apple crisp.

It has all resulted in appreciable growth at King Arthur. The company now ranks No. 2 for retail sales of unbleached, all-purpose flour, second only to General Mills’ Gold Medal, according to the company. By the end of 2020, flour sales were up 80 percent from a year earlier, and for the second half of 2020, the company grew its share of the total wheat flour category by 4.1 points, to 19.4 percent.

Tine shares additional observations about King Arthur with Greater Good magazine.

 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Brand Purpose

“Our vision is to inspire and share the joy of baking and build stronger and healthier communities. We believe the power of baking can make a difference for people, for the planet, and for our communities. Our singular focus — increasing access and connection to real foods — is something that impacts everything we do. As an example, we take pride in our responsible sourcing, and our team does a lot of work to make sure we’re using the right ingredients from the right places. We work closely with farmers, millers, and suppliers that have the same commitment to sustainability.”

 

Execution of Purpose

“I don’t think we would consider ourselves mission-driven if we didn’t think of it in everything we do, even in our smaller footprint activities, like our campus. We have several office and manufacturing buildings and a fulfillment center, as well as a flagship retail store and café and a baking school. Two of those buildings are completely run on solar energy. The bigger footprint activities are in working with our farmers, making sure they’re continuing to evolve in terms of using more sustainable methods.

“We want our vision to be apparent in all our decision-making, so it has to be distributed across many people. Take our For Goodness Bakes program. It started during the pandemic. Our food service division could see the struggles of bakers and pizzerias across the country. So, we dedicated a significant amount of money to reach those bakers to help keep them baking. We essentially placed very large orders where we paid full price, then the bakers would donate what they made to a food pantry or someone in their community who needed it. That benefits the bakery, but also attaches them more to their community at an important time of need.

“Another example is our Power of Baking campaign. Baking is a simple act that can be very powerful in bringing people together. Our team worked with the creative and messaging elements to create a spot about bakers from across the country. From an authenticity standpoint, we felt we needed to present real bakers. Once the ad spot ran, we profiled individuals in it to tell their stories about how baking affected their lives, with posts on our website that we shared through digital channels. We’ll continue to run that ad for a while.”

 

Marketing Activities

“We take a two-pronged approach. One, we’re focused on content marketing and community building. Because of that, we built a methodology to have a direct connection to millions of diverse bakers throughout the entire year, instead of emphasizing certain campaigns at certain times. We’re not that big, so we had to build an online platform that could scale. Now, we have about 60 million unique views. The second prong is a more traditional approach, working through advertising, retailer-driven programs, and at the shelf.

“Throughout the pandemic, we increased our content creation significantly. Our team was able to do a lot of interesting things as they were working at home to help all those new bakers. We had five or six people start creating content, some of it live. Some were content creators already, like for our live presentations to students. At first, classes couldn’t be done in-person, so staff came up with a new remote approach. We also had bakers who used to work in our test kitchen start making content from their home.

“We started the rebranding process well before the pandemic. That was to bring in a larger audience and to have a brand that could support the broader product line. Once the pandemic started, we talked weekly about whether our approach to rebranding still made sense, but we launched the week we planned to in July.

“We feel it’s our responsibility to grow the category, and we’re working to drive a younger audience into baking. So, we overlay that younger market with a behaviorally driven approach. For example, if we want to pull someone into an activity on digital platforms, we might start with baking content, like our recipe of the year, which is a cinnamon roll. When people respond to that, it tells us they’re interested in baking and might become part of our audience. That behavior is the start our relationship with them. Then, if we’re spending money to get to a younger audience, we might overlay simple demographics, like age, to further drive that target into the category.

“In a different vein, one part of our marketing team focuses on mission-driven partnerships, like our Bake for Good program. We just ran a partnership with Hu Kitchen, which has high-quality chocolate. For a small company, partnerships are important, allowing us to extend our reach.”

 

Notable Challenges

“Over the past year, some of our biggest challenges were employee well-being and safety. Our flour operations and customer service teams, which were entirely in the office, moved to being entirely remote virtually overnight. But for our fulfillment and manufacturing, we put in measures to make sure safety was a priority, at a time when sales were going through the roof. In a year that has thrown a lot of curve balls, the team has had to rise to the challenge, starting with the pandemic and the groundswell stemming from the death of George Floyd, and more recently, the current political landscape. It takes a strong team to be able to do that.”

 

Notable Results

“Being employee-owned is a unique part of our success. Many of our measurement tools have a traditional triple-bottom-line approach and financial success is part of our mission. But because employees share in the profits each year and over time, the well-being of our workers is inherent in our structure. Each functional area has specific goals that they measure against. Since our goals are aligned both to our mission and among each other, it allows us to collaborate more easily.”

 

Lessons Learned

“None of this is easy. But if you’re leading with your mission and making decisions because of it, it’s fine to make mistakes. Just correct them and keep trying. The better we do financially the more we can support our mission. But with a triple-bottom-line approach, you can’t forget about any of those foundational pillars — people and planet, as well as profit.”

 


 

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comments (1)

Ilyne Germaise

March 8, 2021 8:38am ET

Love this!