10 October 2017

Piccolo: dealing with short-term customers

Baby food may be simple but getting into the business of it is not quite so.

For baby food companies like Piccolo, there’s no such thing as ‘loyal customers’. It’s a constant chase for new mums and dads.

It’s easy to see why many brands want new parents for customers. They’re a captive audience, bamboozled by the myriad options in food, clothing, education and toys they’ve never even thought about before.

But that ignorance can also be a challenge for new entrants. A group of multi-national brands like Hipp Organic, Heinz Baby, and Cow and Gate dominate the baby food section of supermarkets and are the tried-and-tested choices for parents. Reputation, trust and easy decision-making are powerful factors in this market. Then there’s only a short period when a child needs baby food. Once it’s over, that customer is gone until they have another child – or forever.

Breaking in

It has made it exceptionally hard for upstarts to get a foothold. One company trying is Piccolo, set up in 2015 by Cat Gazzoli. It’s selling baby food by emphasising organic ingredients and the kind of dishes which would appeal to food-conscious middle-class parents (48% of families actively search for organic products). It sells them in pouches costing around £1.10 each.

The pouches are more than a little reminiscent of those of Ella’s Kitchen, a brand which broke ground when it launched in 2006. It ditched the glass packaging major brands favoured for soft, brightly-coloured vac-pack pouches and promised quality, organic ingredients instead of the sludge in jars parents had previously bought.

Ella’s share

A key factor to the success of Ella’s Kitchen was driving a close association with the word ‘organic’. 11 years later, it’s captured a 30% share of the UK baby food market and claims to be growing by 10% each year. Ella’s Kitchen founder (and Ella’s dad) Paul Lindley believes more small brands entering the market will help drive demand for organic baby food. ‘Consumers can quickly identify which brands are the “real deal”,’ he says.

Partner power

Gazzoli has assiduously tried to build credibility for Piccolo. She’s secured investment and mentoring from food luminary Prue Leith and the Green and Blacks founder Craig Sams. She’s also cinched endorsements from reputable organisations like Buggyfit (a mum and baby running club), Water Babies (the UK’s largest baby swimming school) and the National Childbirth Trust (or NCT, where lots of first-time parents undertake courses).

Baby sector demands

Although Piccolo pulled in £2m in revenue last year, Gazzoli reckons the baby food sector is more demanding than most product categories ranged in supermarkets.

‘My investors [said], “You’re going to need more money, much faster than you think.” They were right,’ Gazzoli says. In the meantime, her push to add retailers, new product lines and ultimately get the word about Piccolo out to more new parents hasn’t relented.

Ella’s and Piccolo built their brands quickly by promoting their products in the right networks. Endorsement and community engagement can be crucial in markets where trust plays a big role.

Why Mumsnet is the holy grail for selling to parents

More than 7.5 million parents log in to Mumsnet for advice on everything from school places to childcare.

As a result, the site is a powerful gateway to access this consumer group; Cadbury’s signed a ‘six-figure’ deal with the site to get its chocolate bars onto Mumsnet. For Lindley, the platform has been invaluable. ‘The best endorsement for a new parent is the word of another,’ Lindley explains. ‘If people are talking about you, and recommending your products [on Mumsnet], that can make a huge difference.’ The platform has, however, come under fire in recent years for not clearly identifying advertisements, and muddying the water between what’s a genuine endorsement and what’s been paid for by brands. ‘Mumsnet’s a bit like Tripadvisor,’ Gazzoli warns. ‘You don’t know who [the information] is coming from.’

First appeared in issue 19 Oct/Nov