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Honest Tea Co-Founder to Future Rabbis: Know Your Brand

December 13, 2016

Understand that you operate in a competitive marketplace, make your offerings unique, and meet your potential customers face-to-face in order to offer samples of your product. Seth Goldman

That was some of the advice that Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea and executive chairman of Beyond Meat, gave to aspiring rabbis seeking to connect new people to Jewish experiences. On Dec. 13 he spoke to a packed room of students, faculty and staff at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College on the topic of “People, Planet and Profits: How Business Can Drive Positive Social Change.”

“I talk competition in a friendly, fond way. Competition can make you better, as well as test you,” said Goldman, a longtime member of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. “It is very easy to get lazy. You got the base, and these people are coming for the High Holidays and will have their Bar Mitzvahs and will pay their dues.”

“So I would challenge every entrepreneur to think about, what is your point of difference, what is the brand identity that you create that is singularly and immediately yours,” he continued. “For Honest Tea it is: less sweet, organic, fair trade whenever possible, authentic ingredients and transparent supply chain. For your community, how do you make sure your offerings are unique and distinct in a way that couldn’t be confused with the synagogue down the street?”

“Yes, you have to meet the basic value proposition, but how do you create those deeper layers for those who really want to engage?” he posed. “You’ve got to market. For us, even though we are a much larger company, sampling is still the biggest way to build our brand. Personal interactions are so important. I can have a billboard that says ‘drink Honest Tea’. It may get some people interested. But it is never the same as someone having eye to eye contact, hand-to-hand, cup-to-mouth sampling. How do you connect with people in a way that they get to hear your unique voice and story outside of the synagogue walls?”

Goldman spent the better part of a day visiting RRC, sharing lunch with students and meeting with Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., and other institutional leaders. His talk was part of the Social Justice Organizing program curriculum. All RRC students are required to take a course in entrepreneurship and his talk offered a way to learn from someone who has turned an idea into a market-disrupting force.

An engaging and accessible speaker, Goldman spoke about his mission-driven approach to creating Honest Tea in 1993 and filling a niche of a low-calorie, mass-produced tea that was healthier than existing alternatives. Many of the goals behind Honest Tea were consistent with that of a nonprofit: improving health, improving working conditions abroad and connecting people to one another. Part of his mission, he said, is to encourage Americans to think more about what they put into their bodies, noting that the United States is the wealthiest country on Earth, but ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.

He detailed the company’s first decade, from when it failed to make a profit and primarily sold its products in health food stores, to becoming a major investment of Coca-Cola and enjoying enormous growth, to the point that its products are now available in fast-food chains like Wendy’s and Subway. He acknowledged that working with larger companies raises a slew of ethical concerns, but said that by partnering with the likes of Coca-Cola and Wendy’s, he is able to have a much larger impact and promote fair-trade, organic products on a wider scale.

He stressed the importance of listening by sharing a tale of visiting tea gardens in south central China that were only accessible by boat. He suggested building a bridge and was told that, apart from the financial barriers to doing so, opening up the area would invariably lead to development and pollution and endanger the very resource farmers were trying to protect.

“I saw a problem, thought I knew a solution, but my solution was going to create other problems,” he said. “Business can be part of the problem but also part of the solution if it is deployed in the right way.”