Presidential Candidates Respond to Food CEO's Quirky New York Times Campaign

Sustainable Food Firm Hampton Creek Takes Unorthodox Marketing Approach

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Four presidential campaigns contacted Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of sustainable food company Hampton Creek, since Sunday. They weren't begging for campaign donations though, at least not directly. Instead, their calls -- two of which came from well-known Republican presidential candidates themselves -- came in response to Mr. Tetrick's full page ad in the Aug. 2 edition of the Sunday New York Times.

"You have an opportunity to solve an epic problem," he wrote in an open letter addressed, "Dear Presidential Candidates."

"Our outdated food system is the thread running through our most important problems, from diabetes and obesity (health care), to food deserts (race relations), to the decline of our family farms (economy). Folks don't believe good food for everyone is possible."

Like most full-page ads that show up in national news publications, this one was intended to prompt a conversation, or at the least plant the notion that for politicians and elected officials, addressing the flaws in our food system should go beyond talking about federal farm subsidies while on the campaign trail in Iowa. The paid letter placement is one of a series of New York Times full-page ads purchased by the firm and directed to groups such as CEOs and "Great Grandma."

"No one is talking about food as a system," said Mr. Tetrick, noting that as of Monday afternoon he received phone calls from two Republican presidential hopefuls, the chief of staff of a Democratic presidential candidate, and a lesser-known independent candidate. In general, he said, the candidates said his missive was compelling, and he told them how they might incorporate more meaningful food issues into their existing platforms. Some asked to set up times to discuss the matters further with him and campaign staffers. Mr. Tetrick declined to name the candidates on the record.

"I thought sometimes when you poke life, something comes out the other end," he said, explaining his reasoning behind the letter in the Times.

Hampton Creek counts some of the country's most massive corporate food sellers among its partners, including Walmart, Target and Kroger. Dollar Tree also sells Hampton Creek fare, which includes cookies, pancake mix and an eggless, mayonnaise-like spread called Just Mayo.

"We're not into food elitism; we're into food as a force to try to solve a lot of problems," said Mr. Tetrick regarding the firm's decision to distribute its products where the majority of people on tight budgets shop, rather than only at higher-priced food markets specializing in sustainable, organic goods. Hampton Creek uses ingredients such as navy beans and sorghum, which is used as a grain and sweetener, and manufactures all its products in the U.S.

The company, which is backed by $120 million in venture capital funding, spends "roughly 60%" of its marketing budget on cause-oriented paid communications which include the full page New York Times ads. Mr. Tetrick declined to state the price of the Times ads on the record. The company also produces content for Facebook and works with other organizations to get the word out. All the marketing efforts are conducted in-house by a marketing team of seven people.

The letter to presidential candidates has generated "far and away" the most responses from consumers in addition to the presidential hopefuls. Mr. Tetrick said "hundreds and hundreds" of people have thanked him for the letter on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and through email.

A full-page plea to great-grandmas who have "seen this country oscillate from pinching rations to drowning in crappy food," also drove lots of responses, he said. Their advice for helping to strengthen our food system? Teach people how to cook again.

Displaying Mr. Tetrick's unorthodox approach to his CEO role, each of the six New York Times ads published thus far include his email address and phone number. He said the number listed is for his sole cellphone.

The Times buys are just the beginning, said Mr. Tetrick. "We're going to be doing a lot more of it -- a lot more of it….Things that are really unexpected."

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