The following is part of a series of interviews focused on brand builders and leaders in the CPG Industry. We recently sat down with Kunal Kohli, Co-Founder and President of BOU Brands, a maker of a wide range of bouillon products, at his offices in Midtown Manhattan.
I read that you were initially skeptical of bouillon as a fresh business venture. Tell me about BOU’s beginnings.
Kunal Kohli: It’s true, I was skeptical. At the time, this is around 2016, I was the U.S. General Manager for itsu grocery/Metcalfe’s Food Company, a business my co-founder, Robert, ran in the UK that was eventually acquired. I was in charge of launching a few products in the U.S. market—product development, creating and implementing marketing strategies, budgeting, pro formas, you name it. I learned a lot.
When strategies shifted for itsu/Metcalfe’s and acquisition took over, we ended up not launching in the U.S. The manufacturer that I had developed a close relationship with came to us with an idea: better-for-you bouillon cubes.
I thought to myself, Bouillon? Really? That has to be the least sexiest food to sell and market.
But Robert said there may be something here and, after researching the market, we saw that bouillon was being sold everywhere, but that it was still dominated by the big brands.
How did you turn the corner and decide to reinvent the bouillon cubes category?
I took a look around and realized just how ubiquitous bouillon is. It was on the shelves at conventional retailers, specialty grocers, everywhere. And all I saw on shelves at the time were big, old-school brands—Knorr, Maggi, Campbell's, etc. And the one organic brand at the time was offering a paste product. I thought, Maybe there’s an opportunity here to disrupt this space.
After further discussions with the manufacturer, they expressed interest in starting the business and funding it with us. This meant we’d become vertically aligned with their team and get priority pricing and line time, as well as access to their entire R&D team. Getting your manufacturing and supply chain in order with one of the biggest manufacturers in your category is unheard of from the onset. It was a no-brainer to move forward.
The company and product development became a side hustle for Robert and I as we were working full-time as executives at a spin studio. It took us about 8-10 months to get our first bouillon cube right. We focused on creating a differentiated taste, and then on brand. A lot of bouillon I didn’t think you could drink as a soup. Ours was different. That was another reason I bought into it.
What were some challenges you faced early on?
There were a few, and they were all connected to a misunderstanding of who we were as a company. We just didn’t know yet. This had a domino effect on everything—our go-to-market, budgets, distribution, branding, marketing, product, velocity, sales strategy, everything.
For example, Robert and I weren’t completely aligned at the beginning. I wanted more of a slow-growth game plan that functioned on a shoestring budget. I wanted to get our product out there, get feedback, and tweak as we go. He wanted to accelerate growth, bring in a certain amount of revenue right away, get multiples, and do what we needed to do to support that strategy.
There’s so much that goes into building a company and a brand, and it all revolves around knowing your why, as Simon Sinek says. We didn’t have that figured out at first. Whatever differences we had about strategy should have taken a backseat to figuring out who we were and why we're doing what we were doing.
Did you make mistakes as a result of not knowing who you were as a company?
Oh, for sure. And we learned a lot from them! But from the get-go, not knowing who we were and what problem(s) we solved for the consumer, it cost us. We fell into the traps of only targeting Millennials, paying influencers and trying to make beautifully packaged products that would sell a ton on Amazon. We thought that we had to look and feel cool and break into the snacking craze by marketing our cubes as soups. Too much attention was paid to the branding and design when little was paid to the why and what we were set out to accomplish. We didn’t show consumers why we deserve to exist and what problems we solved for them.
We now have a clear message: We bring joy into your kitchen by providing complex flavors in a quick and easy format.
What’s your advice to businesses who haven’t yet figured out their identity—to those still trying to figure out their why?
My advice to any entrepreneur, founder, or business owner is to first understand what problem or issue your product or service solves for consumers; discover how you plan to message that in 5 words or less; then build your strategy and tactics around that. Be conscious of your time and resources. Try to get to a stage where you can enter the market and gain feedback from consumers.
We stumbled on these building blocks at first. You don’t have to know the “why” right away but you do need to get grips on it as soon as possible. That’s why you will never have the perfect product before or at launch. You can only improve something after you get feedback from everyday people who have real-world problems that they are looking to products and services to solve.
How did you finally figure out BOU’s why?
Last year was a huge learning year for us. We launched a new product range that did not fit into the brand mantra (which we did a whole exercise on with a third-party agency in early 2019). Our marketing team did (and continues to do) a great job of driving trial and generating buzz through a mix of digital marketing, trade marketing, brand ambassadors and of course using funds from our Series B. Our sales team went out and kicked ass by bringing on a ton of major retailers who stocked all our flavors. But after our 2nd month, retention did not meet expectations. We learned that a lot of people thought it was lacking that great flavor they came to expect from our highly successful bouillon range.
The lesson here is that we didn’t focus on what people really cared about. When it comes down to it, taste rules all. You buy food that delivers on quality and taste. Everything else is a plus. If consumers don't like it, any coolness factor related to branding doesn’t matter. We are a flavor company and the new product range did not live up to that.
What does the future hold for BOU?
Our goal, our focus is to make complex flavors quick and easy for our consumers so we can help them enjoy cooking at home. We want to eliminate the need for 7-10 types of ingredients, reduce prep and cook times, and alleviate the complexities of long, arduous recipes. That’s our why.
There’s tons of data out there that shows that people want to cook more at home. People want to be healthier and control what’s going into making food. People also want to save money. Imagine not ordering in 3 or 4 times a week because now a company exists that can help you make pretty much anything taste good. That’s close to a savings of $100 per week!
For example, we just launched an Indian curry cube with Chef Palak Patel, who’s a native of India, just like my family. She’s a celebrity by winning Beat Bobby Flay. She won Chopped. She’s a rock star in the culinary world.
There are unique complexities that go into making Indian food. Our mission was: How do we take curry—which involves several complex ingredients and normally takes 45 minutes to an hour to make—cut that time in half, reduce the number of ingredients and still deliver on taste and quality? So we took Chef Palak’s recipe and packed all those complex ingredients into a cube. And lo & behold, we can now deliver a delicious and authentic chicken curry or vegetable curry in under 10 minutes.