Marketing officer explains how a frozen dessert caught fire
Mochi — a pillowy, Japanese rice dough — has been around for centuries. But now it’s one of the fastest-selling items in your grocery’s freezer aisle.
The popularity of the bite-sized treats is due in part to The Mochi Ice Cream Co. The company was founded three years ago after the private equity firm Century Park Capital Partners bought Mikawaya, a 105-year-old Los Angeles-based Japanese confectioner.
Mikawaya is credited with inventing ice-cream filled mochi in the 1990s. The treats were sold in ethnic groceries, but Century Park saw an opportunity to expand. The company’s new brand, My/Mo, is now in 12,000 U.S. and Canadian grocery stores. Some even have My/Mo-branded freezers in the deli department, where shoppers can grab individual mochi. My/Mo’s Chief Marketing Officer, Russell Barnett — who was also the salesman behind Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Popchips — talks about what’s next for My/Mo. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q. Why did you think the time was right for mochi ice cream?
A. What we set about doing was making mochi ice cream accessible to the masses by doing a couple of things. One: Keep the weird, man. Chewing your ice cream. Dough and ice cream is nirvana! And then, it’s getting rid of the things that are hindrances. I didn’t grow up with the yuzu. I didn’t grow up with the red bean paste. But I did grow up with vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. So we adjusted the flavor profiles. And then lastly, we gave it a name people could pronounce. Think about what Chobani did with Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt’s been around. It’s not like it was new.
Mochi ice cream is in exactly the right space. It’s hand-held, naturally portion-controlled. Three bites, 110 calories and you’re out. When I take three or four bites of something, all of a sudden, I’m a snack. And you’ve got Millennials, who snack more than any other generation. They snack four times per day. They snack more than they eat.
It was really just taking and triangulating all of the ideas that are happening in the world right now.
Q. How will you keep sales growing?
A. We’re doing all this on still very, very low awareness of mochi ice cream. So there’s a lot of runway there. The other piece of this is we really believed early on it was important to not just create a single product, but really create a snack platform. We came out with My/Mo mochi ice cream, which is a full dairy experience. We also knew that there’s a tremendous amount of movement toward meatless and reduction of meat and traditional protein, so it was also important to come out with a non-dairy and vegan line. And then we thought, “Why don’t we deconstruct our ice cream as long as we’re at it.” So a few months ago we launched our My/Mo ice cream with mochi bits. So that’s how we continue this. We’re an antsy bunch. And we love this stuff.
Q. You’ve had a varied career. What’s the common thread between selling mochi, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Popchips?
A. All of them had a real vision, all of them had an exceptional management team and all of them had the belief that they were really truly creating more than just a product, and truly understood the responsibility of creating a new category. The other thing is, all of these brands celebrated lifestyle. It’s really about taking all your cues not from what you believe to be the right answer, but really spending time with consumers. This year I’m probably going to travel just about every week. There’s a lot of time being spent with our retail partners and a lot of time being spent with consumers, just observing. When you really take your cues from the consumer, it’s less about your own ideas.
Q. What advice would you give to your younger self?
A. Give yourself the chance to breathe. Because there’s so many things to do. You’re never going to get caught up. You’re never going to be perfect. Inevitably there’s something wrong. So for me, marketing is not about the right answer. It’s more varying degrees of wrong. It’s OK to make mistakes. Learn from them, because you’re going to really, really expand upon that learning.