Three Things We’ll Say We Saw at Natural Products Expo West

Every year, we return from Expo West to an inbox filled with a flurry of photos, trendspotting, and observations from some of the industry’s finest minds. This year, we decided to start things off a little differently. As the only branding agency dedicated exclusively to the natural products industry, we figure we ought to know not only what the current must-see trend is, but what the next one will be. So let’s call this the first of a biannual industry palm reading. Get out your tarot cards, light some incense, pull out the crystal ball, and let’s see if our natural sixth sense is working!

Pre-trend #1: The rise of collaboration

It’s no coincidence that the Expo West keynote speaker’s website touts “collaboration is the new competition,” and consultants use catchy phrases like “co-creation,” “elevate the conversation,” and “the power to unite people.” It’s a confluence of forces.

Let’s look at the context: The last decade of our lives has been a politically charged, ragged edged, 100-story question mark. What we do know is that we all feel unstable, what we don’t know is where it will lead us. We’re unsettled and seeking strength in numbers. From finding our personal tribe to celebrating the common ground within the natural channel, the idea of working together for a common good is catching on.

Even more encouraging, enlightenment is on the rise in both individuals and organizations. While the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey are publishing articles about Shared Value, we’re getting to know rising leaders every day whose vision is to better the world profitably. And they know they can’t do it alone.

It’s no surprise, really, to see this kind of thing in the natural channel. We’ve been a community since the beginning. And though we’ve grown up quite a lot, Expo West is really more tree fort than sandbox. It’s the kind of place where we’ve always understood that banding together can be stronger than going it alone.

Pre-trend #2: Imported with love

In 2010, we had the privilege of meeting Runa’s Tyler Gage and Justin Guilbert and Douglas Riboud from Harmless Harvest. All three had been seeking their destiny in the Amazon rain forest, and found it. We expect to find a lot more folks like them at this year’s event. The business community’s heightened focus on social entrepreneurship and global collaboration pairs nicely with a fleet of world travelers who have discovered something special and want to share it with the world. The phenomenon reminds me of an inspiring Sufi parable I first heard in a slightly different incarnation from Traditional Medicinals’ founder Drake Sadler.

Two people are lost in the desert. They are dying from hunger and thirst. Finally, they come to a high wall. On the other side they can hear the sound of a waterfall and birds singing. Above, they can see the branches of a lush tree extending over the top of the wall. Its fruit looks ripe and delicious. One of them manages to climb over the wall and disappears down the other side. The other, instead, returns to the desert to help other lost travelers find their way to the oasis.

These folks aren’t just bringing home exotic treasures to make a buck. They’re leveraging the opportunities of a capitalist society to bring value back to the source. The most compelling trait of these importing entrepreneurs is that they’re doing good not only through their own actions, but in heading out into the commercial desert and giving other lost travelers an easy way to make a difference.

Pre-trend #3: The mid-life crisis effect

We think this year the biggest players in the industry will be taking a step back, looking at their lives, and asking… “Is this really me?” Sure, we’ll still be looking at towering 40-foot booths with spinning banners and aluminum scaffolding, but it’s the message that will shift. In 2011, leading companies in the natural sector will be the ones who can capitalize on the same messages the more nimble among us have authentically adopted.

Passion. Vision. Local. Handcrafted. Social. Give back.

Stop by the booth of any first-year presenter, and you’ll find a group of passionate people selling something they truly believe in. It’s not a marketing message they rehearsed in a boardroom, it’s not something they had to memorize, it’s just plain-spoken truth. Usually, that truthful message is filled with phrases like “wanted to make a difference,” or “something better for my family.”

One of the things we’ve learned in our years consulting for natural brands of all sizes is that these stories exist at the big companies too, they just get lost along the way sometimes. We believe that at Expo West 2011, the big brands that really leave their mark will be the ones who get back to their roots, tap into institutional memory, embody the company culture that got them where they are today, and talk about it, a lot.