John Starkey of Danone North America: “Determination and Patience”

Determination and Patience — There is always a balance of art and science that goes into innovation to ensure a product comes to like as you envisioned — but even more so with food and beverage products. To create a successful food or beverage brand, you must be determined and patient. For instance, Silk spent several years perfecting our […]

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Determination and Patience — There is always a balance of art and science that goes into innovation to ensure a product comes to like as you envisioned — but even more so with food and beverage products. To create a successful food or beverage brand, you must be determined and patient. For instance, Silk spent several years perfecting our Greek Style yogurt offering to ensure amazingly this texture featuring a coconutmilk base and pea protein. We weren’t willing to put out a product that didn’t “nail it” and we’re so proud of what ultimately made it to stores!

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Starkey, President of Plant-Based Food & Beverages for Danone North America.

John Starkey joined Danone North America in June 2021 overseeing the plant-based food & beverage portfolio, including Danone North America’s leadership brands Silk and So Delicious Dairy Free. John is an accomplished management and marketing professional with a consistent track record of brand-building, innovation and business results.

A 25-year veteran of the food and beverage industry, he spent the last 10 years at Mars, Inc., where he led a variety of treats and snacking brands, such as Extra, Orbit and 5 Gum, along with Fruity Confectionery brands such as Skittles and Starburst.

He also oversaw the Bars portfolio, which included some of the world’s favorite chocolate bar brands, like Snickers and Twix. In this role, his responsibilities included the development of the 3–5-year global growth strategy, identifying and delivering transformational innovation, and stewardship of the value creation plan for the global Bars portfolio.

Before Mars, John was an executive at General Mills for 15 years, where he grew several businesses across snacks, yogurt, cereal, and foodservice. He also led a soymilk business through a joint venture with DuPont, and an initiative in the health and wellness Center of Excellence focused on developing and driving growth opportunities with aging consumers.

John started his career at General Electric as a financial analyst and auditor, before leaving to complete his MBA at the University of Michigan (Ross) Business School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, where he earned a BA in Economics.

John and his wife Melissa have two sons, John Kalen and Noah, and a golden doodle named Desi. They currently reside in Wheaton, IL and are planning a move to Colorado in 2022. A native of Cleveland, OH, John is an avid fan of all Cleveland sports teams and The Ohio State University. In his free time, John is into running — and has completed 7 marathons — and enjoys sporting events like the US Open and outdoor concerts.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Thanks for the opportunity! Growing up, throughout high school and college, I was always heavily involved in sports. I participated in several throughout the years, including high school track and college basketball. What’s always resonated with me about the challenge of competition is the idea of winning together, as part of a team — and that serves as the basis of how I work. I’m a team player, that loves the thrill of solving hard challenges with an excellent group of people, to make a difference together.

I think that’s what is so exciting about the plant-based category, and the work we’re working at Danone North America. Plant-based continues to rapidly expand, with new innovations and segments coming to-market. It’s a constant influx of opportunities — and challenges! — that we’re continually addressing, and I’m motivated to solve them for consumers.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I’m proud to be a part of Danone North America, an organization that brings innovative, delicious plant-based offerings to consumers — in an unmatched variety of formats — for every moment, lifestyle and need.

Let me take you through our largest legacy brand, Silk, and our path to where we are now. Silk got its start in Boulder, Colorado, with a focus on soy. The brand really pioneered the plant-based revolution by bringing refrigerated soymilk to the masses more than 25 years ago (1996), leading the way for the fast-growing plant-based beverage category people know today. Since its introduction with soymilk, Silk has expanded to offer Almondmilk (launched over a decade ago, 2010), Oatmilk (launched originally in 2019, with new and improved recipes in 2021) and other SKUs along the way such as Coconutmilk, Cashewmilk, Protein Nutmilks, and its latest high-protein launch, Silk ULTRA (2021). We’ve come a long way since Silk’s humble soy-inspired beginnings, and now Silk is America’s #1 plant-based beverage brand.

But Silk is more than just soymilks, almondmilks and oatmilks. We have a great portfolio of coffee creamers, yogurt alternatives and even culinary favorites like our Heavy Whipping Cream alternative to enjoy throughout your day. Our sister plant-based brand, So Delicious Dairy Free, has also been bringing dairy-free deliciousness to people for over 30 years. So Delicious offers plant-based options in beverages, creamers and yogurt alternatives, in addition to cheese alternatives and frozen desserts.

A more recent “ah ha” moment we had on product innovation was around the development of Silk’s high-protein product line — Silk ULTRA. Taste will always be important in driving plant-based dairy alternatives, but more and more we see consumers are also looking for function. Protein content is an important factor for nearly half of consumers when choosing healthy foods and beverages, setting the stage for Silk ULTRA’s launch earlier this year. Not only does it offer a smooth and creamy taste, but also 20g of complete plant-based protein per serving to help support muscle maintenance and repair. It’s a great option for athletes looking to incorporate more plant-based options into their diets and training regime, as flexitarian lifestyles continue to grow.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I received some poignant feedback from peers that continues to stick with me. Before we got to know each other, some of my colleagues felt I didn’t like them — based on my facial expressions and body language sending the wrong signal. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and I will always be grateful to an executive coach who one day asked me if I was feeling alright. When I told her “I feel great” she simply stated, “Make sure you tell your face that, too.” A true lesson in self-awareness, and how my presence and physical cues can really foster the environment — and for me, I want to make sure I’m fostering approachability and trust.

In today’s digital environment, and since I just joined Danone North America in June 2021, I’m meeting many of my colleagues online for the first time, so this lesson continues to maintain relevance.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they launch a new brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think one of the most common mistakes brands can make is to only look at the “now.” It is imperative for longevity to have a forward-looking perspective to ensure your brands remain relevant. Many focus on the “now” because long-term planning requires time and financial resources to really understand your consumer and your market.

In addition to timing, I advise new brands to consider their larger purpose, and focus their efforts to support not only products in the portfolio, but a higher ambition. Remaining true to your values as an organization will serve dividends in the long run. We’re proud that our products resonate so deeply with our consumers’ values, allowing us to implement practices we are proud of, such as our work on Silk through water conservation, recycling, pollinator programs and more.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

At Danone North America, consumer insight and research are truly at the heart of our innovation because we’re always looking to meet unmet needs in the marketplace. When looking at our product portfolio, our goal is to help address a need or solve a barrier to entry.

When you really understand what you’re selling and to who, you can confidently begin moving from idea to reality. For instance, I know our plant-based consumers may be vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or just looking to lower their dairy intake, but they’re always looking for delicious options. Whether focused on taste, health, or environmental impact — this is where Silk and So Delicious thrive.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

There are so many steps required to take a product from the ideation stage to being on store shelves — from ingredient sourcing to production considerations, developing a retail strategy, branding and more. The road is long and there will be challenges you don’t anticipate. I encourage taking the time to test-drive, learn from mistakes, and stay solutions-oriented to overcome hurdles.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Everyone’s situation is different and there is no “one size fits all” approach. A consultant can be helpful to handle parts of the process that may be unfamiliar, but there truly is no substitution to rolling up your sleeves to tackle each step, so you gain knowledge of the entire process. Our parent company, Danone North America, has experts of all types to help support product development.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

When you’re able to clearly articulate your product and who is buying it, you will be able to put together an overview of your brand and its value proposition.

I’m certainly an advocate of pursuing venture capital, especially for brands looking to grow. In fact, Danone North America is passionate about working alongside talented entrepreneurial food and beverage brands to create a healthy and sustainable future of food. Through Danone Manifesto Ventures, our VC arm, we are supporting a portfolio of food and food tech businesses that are disrupting the world’s eating and drinking habits. We’re committed to supporting their growth and operations to help make them tomorrow’s market-leading companies.

For those looking to expand in the food and beverage space, you can share more about your investment through the Danone Manifesto Ventures platform here.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I can certainly speak to the importance of producing quality products at-scale. Given our manufacturing footprint, with 14 plants across North America, our parent company Danone North America has the ability to produce at scale, distribute nationally to customer partners, and compete strongly in this high-priority segment. In addition, we take a consumer- and shopper-first approach with our retail partners, with a focus on developing and executing the right brand, package and price offerings by channel and customer. If you want to find retailers, the best way to do so is by proving the demand is there amongst consumers, and by providing an excellent product that meets that demand.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Knowledge of your product vertical and its customers — This is the most important. With our recent launches of our new and improved recipes for Silk Oatmilk and the launch of Silk Greek Style Yogurt Alternatives, we knew taste and texture were going to be of utmost importance. This knowledge guided our development phase as we were able to focus on the importance of those elements to deliver delicious final products.
  2. Determination and Patience — There is always a balance of art and science that goes into innovation to ensure a product comes to like as you envisioned — but even more so with food and beverage products. To create a successful food or beverage brand, you must be determined and patient. For instance, Silk spent several years perfecting our Greek Style yogurt offering to ensure amazingly this texture featuring a coconutmilk base and pea protein. We weren’t willing to put out a product that didn’t “nail it” and we’re so proud of what ultimately made it to stores!
  3. Flexibility — Your vision is important, but the most successful food and beverage brands are confident in their vision while also remaining flexible. Our brand Silk hit shelves more than 25 years ago as a plant-based dairy alternative and has steadily expanded to offer plant-based products across consumer dayparts including yogurt alternatives, coffee creamers and more. Its vision has expanded to include these additional items, while staying true to what makes the brand Silk.
  4. Be Inclusive — When Silk and So Delicious first started, there were fewer dietary lifestyles. Now in 2021, more people than ever gravitating toward flexitarian offerings, as well as the increase in specialty diets (such as vegan, vegetarian, Keto, Whole 30, just to name a few). We want to be sure that our plant-based products are as inclusive as possible and meet consumers in different moments when they are evaluating the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle.
  5. Live Your Purpose — It’s not just about what you put on shelves, but what you stand for. As a purpose-driven organization, we believe that the food we eat and choose to nourish our families with becomes an extension of each of us and our values. If a new product meets an unmet consumer need, is backed by consumer insight, and ladders back up to our organization’s values — it’s likely one worth moving forward.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

Listen to your customers and find your unique opportunity in the marketplace.

From a taste standpoint, Oatmilk has gained such strong momentum in the market for two big reasons: taste and texture. Consumers really resonate with its versatility, too. Silk Oatmilk just launched with a new and improved formula that focuses on these key factors, offering an even creamier experience than our previous beverages. We see Silk Oat as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Oatmilk of All Time) thanks to its flexibility enjoyed in cereal, in smoothies, in coffee or straight from the glass.

As part of Danone North America, the leader in yogurt, we’ve long been aware of Greek yogurt’s dominance of traditional yogurt and its relative absence from plant-based. That is a huge gap, and a huge opportunity for the right product to close it. Silk saw the prospect to appeal to those already familiar with a plant-based lifestyle, as well as those who love Greek style yogurt, launching Silk Greek Style Coconutmilk Yogurt Alternatives. We spent several years developing and perfecting Silk Greek Style and feel it’s perfectly positioned to deliver the taste, texture and protein that made traditional Greek yogurt a category-driver in the first place.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

By making products that taste good and do good for the planet! At its core, eating a plant-based diet is already a sustainable advantage; plant-based food and beverages provide more options that have less of an impact on the planet because they require fewer resources to produce.

But don’t just take my word for it. Danone North America is one of the world’s largest Certified B™ Corporations. B Corp Certification is about a core set of beliefs, a vision and a promise to redefine success in business. It’s a way of doing business that’s better for workers, communities, and the environment. It also means that we meet rigorous standards of verified performance, transparency and accountability. Part of the process is the continued ambition to get better — and we’ll continue to work toward raising the bar as the leading plant-based food & beverage producer.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Oh gosh, I feel like I’m already doing that by working for Danone North America and spearheading our plant-based category — this movement is challenging the perception of what plants are capable of and providing more options that have less of an impact on the planet. Take water, for instance — making a half gallon of Silk takes 64% less water than a half-gallon of U.S. conventional dairy milk * — a key example of how plant-based diets can help protect and conserve our planet’s precious resources.

** From ISO 14040/44/46 independently reviewed 2020 Life Cycle Assessment based on 2018 product data comparing cradle-to-grave footprint of one half-gallon consumed of average Silk plant-based beverage to US conventional dairy milk. Average Silk footprint from weighted 2018 production of all Silk conventional half gallon beverages, excluding almond-coconut blend.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

As a big sports fan, I’m fascinated by legacy athletes. In my own work, our brand Silk is the leader in plant-based beverages. We really paved the way for plant-based dairy alternatives, and we plan to keep paving roads into the future. Yet, we know the market is competitive and full of new offerings from young brands.

If I could sit down with anyone, it would be two sports legends that I admire, Tom Brady and Lebron James, to have an honest conversation on what is takes to build and maintain a true legacy. The consistency of performance that they continue to bring over time is admirable, and they don’t let others get in the way. I love that mindset and spirit!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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