An Iconic Brand
Poll one hundred Louisianians about which brand of dried beans they prefer, and 85 will tell you it’s Camellia Brand. If those Louisianians are all from New Orleans, that number jumps to 99. So iconic is Camellia Brand in South Louisiana that most households have at least one of the 19 types of dried beans the company currently offers. (Before interviewing Vince Hayward, CEO of Camellia Brand for this article, I checked my own pantry and found five pounds of red kidney beans, one pound of navy beans, and one pound of blackeye peas.)
This staple of Louisiana kitchens is, in fact, not limited to Louisiana or even to the United States. Caribbean and Latin American countries have been major international markets since the company’s inception, but prior to 2005, Camellia’s core domestic market was confined to a circle encompassing Louisiana and parts of Texas and Mississippi. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed large swathes of Louisiana in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Louisianians, especially New Orleanians, evacuated to other states, and a large percentage of those never returned home. CEO Vince Hayward and his team recognized the opportunity to reach those who once called Louisiana home and also people who were not familiar with their brand. Today, Camellia Brand Beans can be found across the country, with a large concentration in the Gulf South and the Carolinas.
A Bold Position
Despite its popularity outside its home state, Camellia is perceived as a decidedly New Orleans, Louisiana, brand. The choice to position itself that way was deliberate.
“It goes against every fiber of my being to not try to be all things to all people,” Vince explains, “but we have to be who we are – a family-owned company with deep roots in New Orleans.”VINCE HAYWARD, CEO OF CAMELLIA BRAND
Camellia’s choice of brand position was no small consideration for Vince and his marketing team. It took hours of intense discussions around a conference table to land where they did. But they put in the time because they knew what all good marketers do: that positioning – the way a company differentiates itself from the competition and how it’s perceived by its target customer – is probably the most significant aspect of corporate branding. Getting brand position right can mean the difference between being memorable and being forgotten, between customer loyalty and customer indifference. So Camellia claimed its New Orleans legacy with pride.
Putting a stake in the ground and deciding who they are and – as importantly – who they are not, has paid off. Vince says, “Yes, we’re a Louisiana brand, and people see us that way, but that doesn’t limit our reach. Just the opposite, in fact. People know New Orleans as a great culinary city with cuisines from around the world.”
“If anything, positioning ourselves as an authentic New Orleans brand has given us more credibility.”VINCE HAYWARD, CEO OF CAMELLIA BRAND
Authentic is the key word there. It’s easy for a business to pose as a kitschy Cajun company with pictures of alligators and accordions strewn haphazardly throughout its marketing collateral. It’s far less easy to convey the richness of the New Orleans tradition – one that’s been shaped by diverse cultures. “It’s not hard to be a New Orleans brand when New Orleans represents so much more than just crawfish etouffee,” Vince says. “It’s got influences from African and African-American cultures, from Cajun and Creole traditions, from its French, Spanish, and Italian heritage.” When New Orleans itself encompasses so many cultures, an authentic New Orleans brand naturally resonates with a diverse market.
A Strong Message
Camellia uses robust content marketing to solidify their brand’s position. With the advent of social media, marketing became more of a two-way conversation with the consumer. One of Vince’s great joys is hearing from his customers. “They share their recipes and stories with us,” he says. Those customer interactions allow Camellia to see the person behind the data, and they allow the customer to see the human side of Camellia.
With so much content, there is a lot of data to parse, which Camellia uses to its benefit. “We learned, for instance, that we have to put out quality content,” Vince says. “It can’t be just chest beating, or we’ll turn customers off. It’s really about a balance between authentic and professional. You can see all over our blog and social media.” Indeed, Camellia’s blog features frequent posts about culinary trends, articles about Camellia customers, and exciting recipes – all with exceptional photography that shows the product at its best.
Those high-res photos aren’t just beauty shots, though; they’re sending a message. “We’re trying to convey that we’re more than just beans in a bag,” Vince says.
“Anyone can be beans in a bag. We’re family reunions with a pot of red beans. We’re school lunches. We’re memories on a plate.”VINCE HAYWARD, CEO OF CAMELLIA BRAND
And those recipes they share? Vince tests many of them himself. “I’m doing a lot right now with vegan and vegetarian options,” he says. “Smoked paprika is turning out to be an amazingly versatile ingredient.” As for which bean is Vince’s favorite? “Well, of course I love all my children,” he says with a grin, “but I suppose it has to be Great Northern beans.”
A New Challenge
Asked how COVID-19 affected Camellia Brand, Vince explains that the change was dramatic. “The restaurant and wholesale business essentially evaporated overnight,” he says. “But the retail side exploded. We had to add a second shift and source beans even more aggressively.”
Sourcing is no small matter for Camellia Brand. “High-quality beans” is not a throwaway line in a commercial; it’s an absolute requirement and one about which Vince and the entire Hayward family are passionate. “Ask any of our growers – some of these are people we’ve had a relationship with for several generations – and they’ll tell you they sell us only the best beans. They call it the ‘Hayward Standard,’” he says.
The pandemic also presented another challenge: adapting to new consumer buying habits. “I read that consumer trends that would normally develop over ten years have changed in three months,” he explains. “And we have to be aware of that.” Specifically, Vince and team are trying to find ways to maintain strong relationships with their customers while taking into account their new, largely online shopping styles.
A Clear Direction
With loyal customers and a clear direction, Camellia Brand will certainly find its way in the post-pandemic world. It’s confidence in Camellia Brand’s position in the market that makes Vince optimistic about what lies ahead. “Some of our marketing decisions – the positioning, going all in as a Louisiana brand – were a little scary in the beginning,” he says, “but in the end, the hard call was the right call.”
And Vince Hayward doesn’t shy away from making hard calls. If he has been bold in positioning Camellia as a New Orleans brand, he is even bolder about what is perhaps the most contentious issue in Louisiana today. No, it’s not politics. It’s even more divisive: “Short-, medium-, or long-grain rice?” I ask him.
“Long grain,” he says, emphatically. “I don’t even know what they do with that other stuff.”
And that is the boldest position of all.