Most brands would consider themselves to be building a company for the future, but businesses like Sustenir are building businesses that they hope will protect the future. The question is, does it require a different approach?
It certainly requires a different frame of mind in terms of how the business is developed and run from a logistical standpoint, as Sustenir is creating consumer-facing food brands out of vertical farming technologies. Its products, such as ‘Kinky Kale’, can already be found in major supermarkets across Singapore but after appointing ad agency Iris, the brand wants to really break the mainstream.
Building a Sustenir-able brand
The Sustenir story, as with many inspiring start-up tales, begins with founder Benjamin Swan having a eureka moment while he was still in a corporate job.
Dreaming of a job in which he can create a more sustainable future, he stumbled across a Facebook post on vertical farming and it “was the bread crumb he needed to kickstart his vision”. After bringing in co-founder Martin Lavoo, the pair started the business from a basement, experimenting with technology until they found the right solution.
“Growing a plant requires a combination of light, water, air and nutrition,” Swan says. “We used technology to replicate the best combination of all four elements indoors so that we could grow even cold weather crops in warm climate countries like Singapore.”
“We replicate what happens naturally outside with science and technology to make our kale less bitter than traditionally farmed kale. The stalks are also less fibrous so you can consume the entire product, unlike traditionally grown products.” Swan adds.
From a technology point of view, Sustenir uses vertical farming, hydroponics and CEA (controlled environment agriculture) to bridge the gap of space shortage and climate limitations in Singapore. The brand says it creates 170 times the yield of outdoor environments in its 12,000 sqft warehouse on the outskirts of Singapore.
The next stage is making this a real selling point for consumers, when many may not be aware that verticle farming exists or why it is potentially better for the future of food. Swan says the awareness of the technology is increasing as big name investors get in on the trend.
“It’s slowly gaining awareness in the region, especially with recent investments made in the industry from Jeff Bezos, SoftBank and Google Ventures. With the boom of social media, many people are made more aware of not just vertical farming but the sustainable lifestyle that comes with it,” he explains.
However, it is quite a new approach for a vertical farming business to be creating a consumer-facing brand, rather than just supplying the technology in a more traditional business to business set up. This, he explains, requires a new way of doing things.
“We are one of the first ‘fresh produce’ companies in Asia to take a brand-centric approach to our communications. We believe in marketing good choices to our consumers and promoting a more sustainable food ecosystem that even goes beyond Sustenir’s produce," he says.
"For us, it’s not just about picking up a great pack of Sustenir’s produce that’s grown in 100% clean environments – it's about communities understanding the impact their selection in shelf has on the environment and choosing to ‘do good’ with every purchase."
He continues: "To reduce carbon footprint and food waste, that means buying local! We educate our consumers on sustainability by providing options that will do good for their bodies, as well as for the planet."
To do this it’s decided to seek outside help and find a more creative way of telling the sustainability story, by hiring Iris. “A partnership with an agency like Iris allows us to spread our message and story in a more creative and engaging way," says Swan.
"Having a strong visual language and brand strategy rooted in research and a firm understanding of what consumers want and need is what a brand like ours need. We look forward to working with IRIS not just on brand campaigns but innovations as well.”
Partnering on innovation is a key tenet to bringing on an agency and Swan says that any partnership the company embarks on requires a close relationship and respect.
“We are strong on partnerships at Sustenir. We treat our agencies as business partners and collaborators. It is very important for us to partner with an agency that believes in what we do, what we stand for and is also moving towards sustainability in their own way. We thrive in a client-agency relationship that is fluid and collaborative. We always encourage our agency, like us, to not just create ads but to think of innovative ways to change the world alongside us,” he explains.
The brand doesn’t plan to stop in Singapore, as it says it wants to “keep farming impossible produce in impossible places”. With many countries and locations needing alternatives for locally produced food, brands like Sustenir could become a regular on supermarket shelves across the world.