The Surprising Rise of Hummus in America

06/05/2015 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Even now, mere mention of Sabra causes veteran food marketers to stand in awe. For good reason. Eight years ago, the brand held less than 10% of the US hummus market well behind Nestle's Tribe and Kraft's Athenos. At the start of 2015, the brand which is co-owned by PepsiCo and Strauss Foods, had overcome the competition dwarfing them with a whopping 60% of the US hummus market, according to a recent article in Fast Company.

Everyone knows about Chobani and the rise of Greek yoghurt in America. But how many know the incredible story of Sabra Hummus.

The trajectory of hummus in general and Sabra in particular would be astonishing in any industry, but especially in the food-marketing business, where short-lived brands are depressingly common. Sabra's durability raises a question. How did the brand grow so quickly? How did it succeed where the competitor's could not? All three competitors - Kraft, Nestle, and PepsiCo - have strong distribution. I'm hardly courting controversy by asserting that a vital difference was the marketing and brand management.

The brand strategy was a point of difference. Whereas traditional food brands rely on advertising, success here is explained more by the fact that Sabra led a Cultural Movement rather than a traditional ad campaign. That was the difference.

As every brand manager would surely agree, good brand management is explained more by process than by strategy. In this case we adopted a Movement Marketing approach where the process identified cultural shifts in America and connected those shifts with the brand purpose and benefit. This explanation, I believe, will provide the framework for understanding Sabra as the story unfolds. Movements move brands to move people to move product.

From a Visionary Start...
Some brands are on a mission, and from early days Sabra was one of them. Ronen Zohar, the former Sabra CEO, held the vision that Sabra had to stand for something meaningful in people's lives. He wanted to connect with Americans where and how they already eat, instead of trying to bring Americans to the Mediterranean. This inspired the thinking around a movement that challenged the status quo and changed habits. Full disclosure, he hired my agency StrawberryFrog and set out to build the brand until 2015.

To the average American consumer hummus was an alien concept. Plus, there were no hummus habits in the country. Unless your mother had been a hippie or had travelled to the Med, you had no idea how to eat this food. The Cultural Movement had to create the habit. But more it had to get people off mayo and spray cheese and into a beige pasty food unlike anything they had eaten before. Not an easy challenge.

Several brands of hummus had been trying for years but no one seemed able to break through. One marketing campaign from Athenos Hummus featured an authentic and lovely Greek grandmother but it only reinforced the idea that hummus was not easy to relate to.

Remembering Ronen's vision to bring the hummus to Americans and not the other way around, the brand Sabra decided to break through and really put hummus on the US map in a big way, this was the launch advertising bringing Sabra to meet Americans on their own turf.

In the Fast Company article, the history of Sabra was described as follows: "Sabra has been around since 1986, launched in Queens, New York, by a rabbi named Yehuda Pearl. Israeli food conglomerate Strauss Group eventually bought half of the company, convinced of its international potential. Meanwhile, PepsiCo had purchased Stacy's Pita Chips in 2006, the ultimate Americanizing of another Mediterranean staple. In Sabra, it saw a beautifully arranged marriage--"a great opportunity for that premium chip-and-dip combination," says Frito-Lay VP of marketing Dave Skena. At PepsiCo, "premium" is the future: The category--which it defines broadly to include Smartfood popcorn, Simply Lay's, and basically anything with better ingredients--is "growing at a significantly faster clip than other snacks." PepsiCo bought the remaining half of Sabra, to run it jointly with Strauss. So began the great hummus expansion."

Instead of just doing ads, this brand needed Cultural Movement. There was a desire among Americans to live in a bigger world and to try new taste sensations, just not too far out for their tastes. The Cultural Movement centered on this insight, and it rallied people who wanted to experience a food adventure that was fun and which brought new food habits that were pretty close to what they already had. The result, Sabra blossomed.

From a TV campaign entitled 'Share the World' the brand moved into fermenting direct intervention in people's lives. Success hinged on dislodging Americans from their comfort foods and their life long habits of eating spray cheese, pizza, burgers and Chinese take away and instead inspiring the eating hummus (video). Not an easy task. The next step was the 'taste intervention' which was flooded across digital and social, as well as in mass advertising - all of it asking Americans to join the intervention.

The brand continued to rise as new people joined in and consumers became passionate fans.

From 2013, the Cultural Movement evolved (as all great movements do) into "Dip Life to the Fullest". From our imaginations came series of campaigns to educate Americans about how to eat Sabra Hummus. "A Guide To Good Dipping" did the simple job of showing people, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, how to eat Sabra hummus.

Sabra became the "official dip" of the NFL, to take the brand even further into the heartland of America, and inspire hummus at Super Bowl parties, including a TV commercial featuring Jeffrey Tambor.

Smart marketing combined with a vision for a new kind of brand accelerated the trajectory of this wonderful challenger. And all of this, according to the article in Fast Company, grew Sabra hummus at an accelerated rate. Since the PepsiCo deal, Sabra's revenue has grown 400%.

Today, the market has matured. Consumers are a lot smarter and more comfortable with hummus. Brands such as Cedar's and Eat Well are gaining greater penetration and share. Marketers are wiser. Last year, store branded hummus grew over 30 percent according to Nielsen. One thing for certain, it's an interesting time to be in hummus.