2020 Brand of the Year: The making of Maple Leaf 2.0

How and why the company adopted CSV, instead of CSR, as part of its sustainability mission.

Maples Leaf All Natural 4

This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2020 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

It was the soggy summer of ‘08. Cities sat under water and beneath grey skies as Eastern Canada saw its wettest months on record. The water torture test, as one climatologist called it, set the tone for the worst days of CEO Michael McCain’s life.

That year his company, Maple Leaf Foods, was linked to the biggest Listeriosis outbreaks in Canadian history. A compassionate man, McCain shouldered the tragedy. He would later tell his sustainability VP Tim Faveri that “23 Canadians died on my watch.”

Issues surrounding food safety came to a head as a result of the incident, and McCain vowed to do better. “The buck stops here,” he said at the time. The next eight years were about “fixing” the company, says Faveri, as it reinvested in its systems to make good on McCain’s promises.

Maple-Leaf-Foods_Michael McCainBut this isn’t a story about containment nor crisis management. It’s about reflection and looking to the future, taking the defining moments of a crisis and using it as a catalyst for change. It’s a story for any brand living through 2020, the year of the great reset.

Share value, not checkboxes

After the health crisis, Maple Leaf Foods experienced a turning point, taking on the “responsibility to give back to our communities and to work with others to enhance food security and sustainability.”

Over the years, the company reported its sustainability data and rolled out some pretty ambitious energy conservation programs. But it wasn’t until 2016, when the leadership team came together to discuss Maple Leaf Foods’ place in society, that it adopted what Faveri calls “CSR 2.0.” Among academics, it’s referred to as “creating shared value” or “CSV” – where companies don’t look to tick a generic set of sustainability checkboxes, but rather they solve core issues for the benefit of the company and society/the world – a term coined by Harvard theorists Michael Porter and Mark Kramer.

The creation of the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security is just one example of this root-fixing approach.

Many wonder why one in eight families in Canada – among the wealthiest countries on Earth – are food insecure. “It’s not that there’s not enough food,” says Faveri. “What we heard loud and clear from grassroots organizations was, ‘Hey, Maple Leaf Foods, we appreciate that you want to do good, but sometimes big food companies are a part of the problem. You throw all this food at food banks to feel good, but guess what – we don’t have the infrastructure or resources to distribute it, so it ends up going to waste anyway.’”

So now, through the foundation, Maple Leaf Foods donates 1% of its pre-tax profits to orgs to help build their capacity and remove those types of barriers to food security.

“Michael’s belief, fundamentally, is that the current food system is broken – and that we should try to fix it,” says Faveri. He explains that the food system is at the hub of many other societal issues: climate change, water scarcity, animal welfare, obesity, the list goes on. To reap the shared benefits of addressing systemic issues in the food system, the company has since reconfigured its products to address health and eco needs: raising meat without antibiotics and removing artificial flavours and preservatives while simplifying ingredient decks. Then came the next step – investing in plant-based proteins.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc--Maple Leaf Foods becomes First Major Food

With the objective to capture a $3 billion share of the $25 billion industry (projected for 2030 in North America alone), Maple Leaf Foods looked stateside for its entry into the meatless category. In early 2017, the company acquired Massachusetts-based Lightlife, which at the time had a 38% market share of the U.S. refrigerated plant proteins market and came with a $140 million price tag. A year later, Seattle’s Field Roast was picked up for another $120 million. Sitting comfortably in its new position, in late 2018 the company combined the brands under a new subsidiary, Greenleaf Foods, based out of Chicago and co-led by president Dan Curtin and COO Adam Grogan. Meanwhile, the rest of Maple Leaf Foods’ brand portfolio is led by D’Arcy Finley, its VP of marketing, in Toronto.

“The plant proteins category is actually more developed in Canada than the U.S. as a whole… but it’s still very nascent,” says Grogan, who cut his teeth at the company 22 years ago, when it was looking to “inject new blood” through a management trainee program or what he calls a “real-life MBA.” He’s held ten roles at the company over the years, many in marketing, experience he’s used to differentiate Lightlife and Field Roast in a category that’s being invaded by tech startups, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.

When Maple Leaf Foods purchased Lightlife, the brand that was founded in 1979 along the east coast “had gone out of love for a while… It was started 40 years ago by two hippies making tempeh,” Grogan explains. It’s a lot more traditional and competes in the meat alternative space by promoting itself as “nourishing,” he adds. Field Roast, on the other hand, was created by chef David Lee in 1996 and goes after those more keen on “indulgence” and “taste.” Both have their own distinct lane, but how they’ve learned to compete against encroaching competitors is, once again, by creating shared value.

Lightlife Foods Product BoxesTalking to 11,500 consumers about the plant protein space last year led Grogan’s team to dig up an insight that Maple Leaf Foods knew all along. A third of those who eat alt proteins say they have some concerns: “There were questions like, ‘Why do plant burgers have to bleed? How does that even happen? And why do they still have an ingredient deck that’s 20 items long?’” he says. “It’s the biggest thing holding the category back.”

Greenleaf decided to strip its plant protein SKUs of syndicated compounds and fillers, whittling the ingredients down to 11. With creative from Jackman Reinvents, it recently placed ads in the New York Times, with an open letter to Beyond and Impossible stating that it’s taking “a clean break” from superfluous additives. “We’re pretty bullish on how we go to market,” Grogan says, adding that OOH and online ads have also been promoting Lightlife’s simple ingredients and new packaging in time for its entry into KFC and Harvey’s.

Maple Leaf is also hoping to grow the category by working with Sid Lee to convince hardcore carnivores to try its 50/50 product, which is made of 50% plant-based protein and 50% meat, acting as a gateway for consumers to enter the meat alternative category. “It provides a great launching point for them to at least give it a try,” says Grogan.

When you look at social purpose, Faveri says it should break down why your company exists: “You need an aspirational shining star that you live and breathe.” That’s why, in 2018, the company announced its mission “to become the most sustainable protein company on Earth” and “Raise the Good in Food” under four pillars: better food, better care, better communities and a better planet.

It’s since hit some pretty big environmental goals, like going completely carbon-neutral in 2019 (the first food producer in the world). It was also the first major food company in Canada to set UN and Paris Agreement-backed science-based targets to reduce emissions by 2030 (one of only six consumer brands in the country). Performance goals were achieved in food safety and quality. Even consideration is given to the care of its animals: 77% of its pigs live in an open-house system and enrichment toys sit in 90% of nurseries.

“It’s important to note that all of this didn’t just suddenly happen a few years ago. If you want to change your food system, that kind of thinking started to happen over 10 years ago… it takes a long time to get things in place to be able to pivot,” says Grogan. “We’ve had an incredible leader in Michael McCain. He’s invested a ton of capital into the future of the company and he’s not prepared to let short-termism get in the way of the long-term game.”