Startup teaches a lesson in "advocate advertising"

Photo: Skeeter Snacks

(MoneyWatch) If you told people you were going to launch a small, independent snack food company, with essentially no marketing money, most would tell you to get your head checked. Going up against the likes of Nabisco and Keebler for supermarket shelf space is -- and this is a gross understatement -- a very low odds proposition. But that's exactly what two concerned dads did with their niche-market munchies, and their business is taking off, thanks to the unstoppable social power of an audience with a very personal, vested interest in their success.

Dave Leyrer and Peter Najarian (who refer to themselves as "The Two Bald Dads") both have very successful careers and no particular need to start a small business. But they also both have children who are among the estimated 6 million people with Tree Nut and Peanut Allergies (TPA). TPA is one of the most prevalent and serious food allergies -- I know from my own family's experience -- and it affects many more than just the people who have it: There are millions more who care for, feed, coach, play with, teach and otherwise interact with them.

Leyrer and Najarian were frustrated with the standard, vague labeling of products with disclaimers like "may have been produced in a facility that processes nuts," and their kids didn't like the look or taste of existing allergy-sensitive snacks. The Dads felt there was an unmet need for guaranteed-safe munchies that tasted at least as good as "mainstream" products (their goal was to make them so good that non-allergic people would want them). They also wanted them to be packaged in a fun, attractive, stigma-free way, and yet easily identifiable as 100 percent nut-free, produced, tested and certified to eliminate the need for any warning labels or disclaimers.

The result was Skeeter Snacks, which launched last summer with a variety of cookies and an ironic, memorable brand mascot: A squirrel (Skeeter) who's allergic to nuts.

The Two Bald Dads wanted Skeeter to be as easy and desirable to buy as any other snack, and at competitive prices (medically-marketed foods are often much more expensive). And as critical as it was to eliminate any doubts parents have when selecting food for their allergic children, it was equally important to make it easy for those who are not used to "allergy shopping;" people who are often nervous and unsure when buying for play-date friends, parties or even Halloween.

Skeeter's message is that it's possible to make snacks that everyone can eat (and as importantly, will want to), whether at home, at a party or in a school cafeteria. A true nut-free environment, with no downside; no need to worry, single out the allergic kids, or penalize the non-allergic kids with food they don't like. Everyone wins.

Explaining the benefits was easy, but getting stores to consider the products -- much less stock and display them -- was the challenge. The Dads didn't have the contacts or leverage of the cookie giants, much less bottomless pockets for marketing and slotting fees, so they didn't even try the front door. Instead, they made the retailers take notice by reaching out to the people who really care: Parents, doctors, teachers, coaches and others who have to deal with the risks and realities of TPA every day.

Through social media, targeted PR, sampling, disseminating educational information to influencers and active participation in allergy advocacy groups and events, Skeeter built a very vocal audience of more than 20,000 passionate evangelists on its Facebook page alone... in less than seven weeks. And you know how word can get around with a start like that. Parents of children who have an illness or similar challenge are a force of nature: Their hue and cry was quickly heard by supermarkets and other retailers around the country, and Skeeter got its shelf space. Even Walmart and Costco started buying by the truckload.

In marketing parlance, the Two Bald Dads relied entirely on consumer "pull" rather than wholesale/retail "push" to get distribution. They skipped the middleman and appealed directly to the people who immediately identified with the product and the hole it filled in the market. Those people became advocates, advocacy became advertising, retailers got the message and the brand is off and running. A wide range of new products are in the works, and sales are forecast to more than double this year and next. Skeeter has got his little squirrel foot firmly in the door. This is social marketing put to its best and most effective use.

Apparently, for these two Dads, starting an independent snack company wasn't (I have to say it) nuts after all.

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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at