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Creative Ops

Building a purpose-driven food & beverage brand

Connor Murdock

On this episode of the Basil Creative Ops Podcast, we sit down  with Luke Kingma, Head of Brand at Tomorrow Farms, the makers Bored Cow.

We chat through his journey to becoming a creative director with insights on:

  • Building a purpose-driven brand
  • Using a future vision as a means to branding
  • Using whimsical world-building as a brand story
  • Building a food/beverage brand with a focus on climate and sustainable food systems

Read the Full Interview:

Introduce yourself, Luke! 

My name is Luke Kingma. I'm based in Brooklyn, New York, and my role currently is Head of Brand and Creative Director at Tomorrow Farms which is a next-generation sustainable food company. We're the makers of Bored Cow, which is a new kind of milk alternative made with milk protein from fermentation instead of cows.

Tell us about your background! Where you started, how you got into the creative field, and how you got to where you are today. 

I've been a writer my entire life. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, studied dual marketing and film. Thought I was going to move to Los Angeles and work my way up in the film industry. Instead I kind of got swept up in the wave of social media marketing that was happening around the time that I graduated.

So, I ended up in New York. My first job was actually an executive assistant. I just was trying to get my foot in the door anywhere And so, I did that for a little while and found out that it was not a core skill of mine but they found out that I liked to write and so I got an opportunity to become a junior copywriter – and that kind of was the start of my career as a creative. So, I worked in the ad industry for a couple of years for a small boutique agency called Big Fuel.

For VaynerMedia, I was one of the early employees on the creative team at Gary's company, which was a fascinating time. Then, I made a pivot to media and got swept up in that wave that was happening around the time that BuzzFeed was sort of at the peak of its power.

Then, I worked for a company called Futurism and wrote a lot about emerging science and technology trends. And so I did a lot of really cool stuff there. I got to publish a cartoon book, wrote a mini sci fi series, launched a weighted blanket brand called Gravity. There was just a lot of cool experimentation that I think really made me both fall in love with brand building, but also woke me up to the climate crisis in a meaningful way. Then, I made another pivot after that and worked at a company called Seed in Venice California for a few years. They're a science-focused probiotic startup. I learned from Eric Katz, who's the creative co-founder there. He was very influential in my thinking in terms of brand-building and messaging. Then, I went and worked for Calm for a little while on the creative side and got to work with the marketing team. During the pandemic, it was a really interesting time to work in the mental health and wellness space but continually was sort of waiting for my opportunity to get more deeply involved in the climate movement. It's a career pivot that I've been wanting to make for a lot of years. And so when the opportunity came to help join and figure out the foundations of what became Tomorrow Farms and Bored Cow, I sort of jumped at the chance. 

So, I consider my career in two stages. There was everything before I joined the climate movement and made that climate pivot and everything after. And I fully expect now to hopefully spend the rest of my career helping solve this enormous, multi-generational problem. 

Let’s dive deeper into that journey into climate activism through your work as a creative director, writer, and creative strategist. What was that progression like?   

I think it was a slow progression. It started with working at Futurism – one of our beats was green, clean, sustainable technology and solutions. Inherent in that work is obviously learning about the “why” behind all of these technologies – why they're so important and why there's so much emphasis, money, and energy being poured into this space.

I read a book called The Sixth Extinction which was really pivotal in my understanding of our role in the larger climate and biodiversity crisis. And then, I just fell down this deep rabbit hole of obsessing over this problem and figuring out what the genuine solutions to this problem are.

Not just the ones that are flashiest or easiest to raise money around, but asking “What is actually moving the needle?” Both in every level of society, from individual and household consumption, to the corporate commercial industry, to obviously government and the public sector.

Figuring out where I could plug in and where my skills as a storyteller and a brand builder are of use in this space so that I can hopefully land somewhere to genuinely make a difference and meaningfully move the needle in this critical decade of action.

How do you see your role as a Creative Director/Head of Brand in relation to building a purpose-driven brand?  

The specific part of climate that I’m in is the intersection of climate and food. I think what's so interesting about this particular niche (it's obviously a big niche – food systems account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, a significant amount of deforestation, water use, etc.) is that it’s one of the most impactful human activities on the planet. But it is also one that is furthest behind where it needs to be. That's largely because the foods that we love the most are actually causing the most issues – it's meat and it's dairy and it's coffee and it's chocolate, these staple crops that are deeply meaningful to us and our cultures. But we simply cannot keep consuming them the way that we do today. From a storytelling perspective, there's something really interesting there.

Part of my job in helping to build a sustainability-focused food and beverage company is asking how we actually get people to care about this problem. So much of that comes down to messaging it in the right way. That challenge was really compelling to me. 

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The Bored Cow brand is very fun. Is that a part of the puzzle in getting people to take notice of not just the problem, but also the brand? 

Yeah, I think so. And I think it's also about using tools and strategies that we know work and sort of like Trojan-horsing better ideas, better education and ultimately better products into the food system and ultimately into people's pantries and refrigerators.

We know that bright, fun, and whimsical branding just really stands out on the shelf. As a creative, of course, you also just want to create things that are joy-filled. I've always been somebody who leans into whimsical, offbeat-storytelling and world building. So, that was super fun for me. 

Ultimately, we're dealing with a really depressing problem, which is that the vast majority of animals in the food system are now being raised on factory farms where they are being treated horribly.

And of course this is also bad for the planet and it's bad for us. So, figuring out what the positive spin on that story is and thinking about what the world should look like. What should the food system look like? And how do we actually bring that vision to life now so that people can see what the world could look like once we've actually solved these problems. 

A big part of that was asking the question, “Well, if cows were not stuck and trapped in this industrial food system where they are required to make food for us, what would they do with their time?” And of course, we took that to a slightly more whimsical and fictional place by giving these cows human-like personas and agency.

That spun out into a whole brand universe where all of these former factory farm cows are now free to explore their interests and chase their passions. And it becomes a really fun metaphor for a depressing and scary problem.

Is sustainable packaging a part of that too? Is that a focus when you’re designing/producing packaging for the Bored Cow products? 

Yeah, this is such an important conversation right now in particular. There was so much that I didn't know coming into it. And of course, coming into it, we obviously said we needed to remove single use plastic from the food system as quickly as we can and I came in thinking that we were going to do that from day one, right? I think what you find is that there are just so many entrenched powers, players, and systems that are keeping things the way they are. 

It is this really urgent problem and I think there's probably nobody on the planet (outside of maybe the plastics industry) that doesn't agree that we need to use less of it.

And so, you know, the question becomes, “Well, then, what are the alternatives and and what is actually available and scalable and viable right now? And so it's a really exciting time to be in the food and beverage space because the first scalable, viable alternatives to plastic are really starting to come online right now.

You have brands like Sway that are introducing seaweed-based resins and bioplastics. You have the Coves of the world that are starting to introduce more biodegradable solutions and things like that.

There's finally this opportunity to maybe begin to start using some of these products.In the meantime, there are a lot of imperfect solutions on the market. And, you know when you're dealing with manufacturers that have specific requirements your options often shrink down to the legacy companies which are often the plastics manufacturers, aluminum manufacturers, and increasingly paperboard based solutions. 

In a sea of imperfect solutions, the sort of decision point has to be deciding what is the least impactful in terms of negative externalities and what has the lowest environmental climate footprint holistically.

But ultimately, the solutions on the market today are all imperfect. The hope is that these sort of next-generation solutions come online and companies like ours, Tomorrow Farms, bring these solutions to market as quickly as possible.

That's what the Tomorrow Farms mission is: be the first ones to adopt and implement and scale these solutions and ultimately figure out how to tell the story in a way that makes consumers care about it. So when they're looking and trying to choose between different milk alternatives on the shelf, hopefully they're choosing the one that is the most environmentally friendly and hopefully that is also the one that is best for them.

What is that relationship like with your customer? Are you finding that stories about environmental impact are a good selling point? 

It's a really good question and I think we're all still trying to figure it out in some way. It's changing all the time, right? If you look at the polling, they say consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products.

But I think what you find in practice is that, when push comes to shove, while they say that, are they willing to actually take action on that when they're faced with the decision and when they actually have to, you know put up their money? There are certainly consumer segments that are much more willing than others to spend but you need to be able to spend more.

That is a larger issue and a little bit of a push-and-pull. Certainly. Consumers are coming into greater awareness of what the food system is doing to the planet and, and who the worst culprits are and what the solutions are.

But at the end of the day, you know, you still need to make a product that is affordable, easily understood, desirable, nutritious and healthy. That is more the responsibility of companies and government also plays a role.

Can you talk through a specific brand campaign or project where you focus on sustainability or trends in that space? How does that boost your mission and rapport with your customer?  

I think the most recent example is we do a lot of activation around around the month of January for Veganuary. Similar to Earth month,  people are willing to act outside of their normal routines and behaviors for a positive impact.

Veganuary actually isn't for vegans. It’s for flexitarians, vegetarians, and even omnivores who are interested and willing to experiment with plant-based foods. And so, you know, for us that is the sweet spot. And so, we created a lot of Veganuary focused content. We worked closely with the Veganuary organization. Lots of cross brand collaborations with other plant-based companies in the space to make it easier for people to find great food during that month. We created this really cool Veganuary grocery guide where we went through different parts of the day from breakfast to lunch to dinner to snack time and figured out a list of favorite brands. 

Last question: For folks working in their own respective fields, but especially in the creative industry working for brands and agencies, how do they make the case to drive sustainability into their brand’s ethos and practices?   

There's a lot of talk in the climate space about how we live in this very unique time in history when we are the last line of defense against the worst impacts of climate change.

That also means that we have an opportunity and a mandate to all be climate activists in our homes and in our workplaces and in our friend groups. And so, there's this idea that every job needs to be a climate job. And I think what that means to me is that there’s an opportunity to create change within your organization.

You don't necessarily have to leave your company for a climate or sustainability focused company. First of all, find other people who you’re working with who care as much as you do.

And I promise you that they exist in every single company. Change is much easier to make when you have a groundswell of grassroot support. Start having conversations with them and figuring out where the opportunities to make a difference are. 

And then how do you make both a moral and ethical, but also a business case for those decisions? We live in a world where companies are increasingly making these climate and sustainability-focused pledges. We're now entering a phase where they actually have to put action behind those words.

Find a way to get involved because we cannot do this without you. And we, especially in the West, have a disproportionate responsibility for where we're at. So, take that responsibility seriously, but also use your talents and your passions to lead the way. I promise there's a way for you to use those for good.

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