July 28, 2015

How Sweetgreen Hit the Branding Sweet Spot


“At sweetgreen, we believe in quality ingredients – and not just for our food,” reads a recent job description for a position at Sweetgreen, a DC-based salad chain that is quickly spreading pan-coastal roots. With an annual, multi-headliner live music event (Sweetlife Festival) a fitness program (Sweetgreen Passport) and a commitment to thought leadership (like elementary food education programs and a recent trip to Milan with FLOTUS), Sweetgreen is a sweet study in branding and proves that with the right approach, anything — even a fast-casual salad chain — can transcend food and beverage marketing to become an entire lifestyle brand (or, as they’ve so successfully branded it, a “sweetlife”).

What began as one location in DC’s Georgetown, founded in 2007 by three graduates of the University, is quickly expanding westward (to several California outposts as well as Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Texas, if other open job descriptions are accurate) on the heels of a 2013 $22 million investment by AOL co-founder Steve Case, a Series E round to the tune of $18.5 million at the end of last year and, as of July, an additional $35 million by T. Rowe Price New Horizons Fund, Inc.

Said Case to the Wall Street Journal in response to the Series E: “Its success will depend on getting millions of people to fall in love with it and make it a regular part of their day.” The key: a comprehensive brand strategy that sells not just salads but an entire lifestyle experience with steadfast commitment to the core brand.

The branding strategy that makes Sweetgreen about much more than food and beverage marketing:

Brand-Aligned Locations: Quoting co-founder Jonathan Neman in WSJ’s Venture Capital Dispatch, Lizette Chapman wrote: “’It may look like we’re a food business, but we’re really an experience,’ said Mr. Neman, noting restaurants near yoga studios and gyms outperform those that aren’t.” An informal look at some of Sweetgreen’s DC locales proves it true – locations in the lobby of the 14th Street YMCA, a block from DC’s first SoulCycle and around the corner from VIDA’s Metropole, City Vista and Yards gyms makes for a nicely branded neighborhood experience and lends some creed to the ol’ maxim that you are the company you keep.

Consistent Brand Voice: Going on to describe the Head Coach job position, the LinkedIn description reads: “They are our most valuable ingredient – the heart of our business, the face of our brand, and what truly make the Sweetgreen experience special and unique.” It’s that commitment to brand voice — evident in everything from job descriptions to menus — that lends Sweetgreen its undeniable brand personality: a little bit healthy, a little bit hip, and a whole lot of “local love” even as the brand expands nationally.

Commitment to Local Love: At the same time, Sweetgreen has hit the sweet (no pun intended) spot between brand consistency and paying homage to the communities they inhabit. Describing their approach to expansion in one recent blog post, the co-founders wrote: “We meet farmers before we meet landlords.” It’s brand consistency at a local scale, requiring both a stellar brand strategy leading the way and trust in committed regional staff who know their communities.

Symbiotic Partnerships and Content: This month, Sweetgreen and equally on-brand SoulCycle are teaming up for SOUL & SALAD rides, truly expanding the hip and healthful brand experience to a perfectly targeted audience and expanding the “content” that constitutes the sweet life. Similarly, they’re not afraid of developing content that is truly interesting for consumers while also reinforcing brand values. What does LA-based singer-songwriter Banks have to do a with a DC salad chain? On the surface, maybe not much — but her thoughts on combating negativity and living with passion in a joint interview with the FADER do speak to Sweetgreen’s values of “passion x purpose” and make for some interesting video content that a young demo might actually enjoy.

Recently, when paying for my tasty Harvest Bowl at the register, I stopped to ask the always happy-go-lucky guy behind the counter what he loved best about working at Sweetgreen. Taking a very genuine and very on-brand cue from the strategy book, he replied: “Interacting with people like you every day. It’s my passion  — and it’s all about passion.”