How Ocean Spray Launched Three New Brands During a Pandemic

By Lilly Milman |  September 15, 2020

Ocean Spray has been extremely successful in creating an image for its brand. Just the name evokes images of two farmers knee-deep in a bog of cranberries, touting the company’s tart juice for qualities like its lack of added sugar. The iconic series of commercials is just one way the Massachusetts-based agricultural cooperative dominates the cranberry business. But now that Ocean Spray has mastered juices, sauces, and dried berries, they’ve decided to move into a new market: health and wellness. 

Rizal Hamdallah, Ocean Spray

The cooperative, owned collectively by about 700 farmers across the United States, Canada, and Chile, has launched several wellness-related products recently, some of them during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new product launches were accelerated by Ocean Spray’s Lighthouse Incubator, which was established in Boston last year to focus on health and wellness-related products.  

“In the past, it was all about juice. Our company was very much a juice company,” says Rizal Hamdallah, Ocean Spray’s Chief Global Innovation Officer. “While we are thriving, [our strategy is] about moving from [being] a juice company to become a health and wellness company. … It doesn’t mean we’re leaving juice. We are working continuously to re-excite the market of juice, modernize the juice shelf, but we’re also thinking about…helping the whole transformation of our innovation agenda from a juice company to…a health and wellness company.” 

The shift makes sense for a company focused so heavily on cranberries — an antioxidant-packed “superfood” that studies link to a reduced risk of recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration even responded to a health claim petition submitted on behalf of Ocean Spray on July 21, authorizing the co-op’s use of the health claim.

That authorization, he says, “is a great new step, not only for Ocean Spray. Other players in the industry that are using cranberries as a core ingredient will gain the benefit of it.”

A few months prior, in April, Ocean Spray also announced that it was the first major fruit cooperative worldwide to receive verification that its cranberries were 100 percent sustainably grown. That verification is awarded through the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform’s Farm Sustainability Assessment, which evaluates farms using a 112-point checklist. The group defines sustainable agriculture as “the efficient production of safe, high-quality agricultural products in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers and their communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.” 

Restructuring Innovation at Ocean Spray

All of this momentum had to be built first, and the innovation team set itself up for success during a large cultural restructuring a little over a year ago. After spending time at Tyson Foods and Nestlé, Hamdallah arrived at Ocean Spray in May 2019. At the start, he noticed the company’s relationship to innovation was consistent with what he had seen at other big organizations.

“When we talk about innovation in big companies, there’s always that ‘red tape’ mentality,” he says. Long-range planning and bureaucracy often lead to a rigid culture. The consequence of a slow innovation process is that the “big guys” struggle to compete with smaller brands, startups, or even bigger brands “that are able to bring agility to their product innovation,” he says. 

So, when he arrived, he was determined to “flip the coin,” which meant “changing the mindset [that existed around innovation internally], adjusting our goals, adjusting our strategy, and then fixing our basics. When I say fixing the basics, [I mean asking questions like:] Do we have the right people in the room? Do we have the right process in place? Should we continue with the word ‘process’, or should we move to the word ‘framework’? What is that ‘how-to’ approach to innovation that will be a fit for the future?”

The company eventually transformed its traditional approach to a “design sprint mentality” that has helped accelerate innovation, Hamdallah says. “As part of our changing culture and mindset, we are driving innovation by focusing on framework, and moving from ‘tasks’ to ‘milestones.’ This helps our team to think differently and to ask different questions throughout the whole development journey.”

The restructuring led to a number of recent wins and accomplishments for the brand during the months of the pandemic. 

Launching New Products During a Pandemic

During Hamdallah’s time at Ocean Spray, the cooperative has launched four products under its health and wellness agenda: Atoka, an herbal tonic beverage that its website describes as “Kombucha’s zen counterpart”; Dabbly Sunny Offense, edible daily supplements that act as a complement to sunscreen; CarryOn, a series of sparkling CBD-infused waters; and, most recently, Tally-Ho, a line of functional water enhancers for dogs, launched in August — geared to supporting canine qualities like fresh breath and calmness.

All were developed at the Lighthouse Incubator, and the latter two are currently being launched as pilot tests in Colorado and Massachusetts, respectively. Atoka, the first product developed at the Lighthouse and the company’s first-ever new brand, was testing in Boston last year and became available for direct-to-consumer online sales in April — right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The launches were made possible by online consumer testing and innovation tools like Mural and breakout rooms in video calls that help the team run design sprints online (“which is actually very hard to do,” Hamdallah notes) as well as partnerships. For the Tally-Ho launch, for example, Ocean Spray partnered with brick and mortar pet stores like Polkadog in the Boston area and Pet World in Natick, Mass. Ocean Spray has also partnered with the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for several brand launches, leveraging the platform’s marketplace to sell products to passionate early adopters. 

Tally-Ho, a functional water enhancer for dogs

These brands have all launched quickly — the timeline between the Tally-Ho kickoff and launch was about eight months, according to Hamdallah — as a result of the Lighthouse incubator process. 

“The Lighthouse incubator operates in a five month time period from concept to test market launch,” he says. “It’s very fast-paced. We use the same approach for ‘traditional’ product development. The only difference is we operate with an ‘experiment’ and ‘MVP,’ or ‘Minimum Viable Products,’ approach. This is helpful for the team to operate differently, but still uses the primary tools of product development from user research, product testing, business viability and technical feasibility.”

In some ways, the pandemic has led to new successes for the products launched. They “fit with the whole new context of COVID-19, where e-commerce and direct-to-consumer sales are just booming,” Hamdallah says, and the concepts of wellness and self-care have also found new meaning in recent months. 

As a team, Hamdallah and his colleagues have had to adjust expectations and scheduling around new product development to accommodate the business and personal impacts of COVID-19. For example, like all companies handling consumer-packaged goods, dealing with gaps in the supply chain has become a top priority. So, while the initial plan was to get Atoka on shelves in brick and mortar stores by March, the company shifted to direct-to-consumer online sales instead.  

Hamdallah says practicing empathy as a team has been crucial to his innovation strategy during the pandemic — both when it comes to consumers and employees. 

“Every household is dealing with a different problem,” he says. “We just need to increase our emotional intelligence as leaders in the organization to understand what other people are doing and feeling, and bring that passion in a very authentic way, and allow them to do what’s best within their limits… So, that’s what we have been doing, myself and my leadership team, because we know this hits each of us differently. We know the impact is probably bigger than what we can see on paper.”