Being story guys, we’re always looking for examples of brands that seem to be using story really well. It’s pretty self-serving. We hope that these case studies will validate our hypothesis that a great story can absolutely transform a business and that they’ll be useful in illustrating the principles that make a great story go. Fortunately, a new case study has sprung up right at our feet in the form of an Oregon-based brand that has experienced phenomenal growth in the last six years. Even though it’s still regional, there’s actually a fair chance you’ve heard of this brand because it’s being buzzed about as far away as New York and is getting more press than its founders know what to do with. The brand is Dave’s Killer Bread, and we found the story so intriguing that we sat down with the dangerous-looking man whose image and electric guitar grace the packaging, Dave Dahl, and had him tell us the whole thing himself.
The business started with Dave’s dad, Jim Dahl, in 1955. While Howdy Doody was busy flogging Wonder Bread (Builds strong bodies 12 ways!), Jim was pioneering the alternative: delicious vegan whole wheat breads. Literally decades ahead of his time, Jim created a brand that grew slowly but steadily over the years. Half a century later, it was called Nature Bake, and Dave’s older brother, Glenn, had succeeded their father as owner of the business. In 2005, Nature Bake produced a line of healthy, organic breads but made most of its money by providing Trader Joe’s private-label bread.
While that’s a mildly interesting story, it’s not the one that transformed the business. Over its first 50 years, Nature Bake had grown from a one-store mom-and-pop operation into a $4 million business. But by the middle of the decade growth had begun to stall. Lots of small competitors were jumping on the organic-bread bandwagon with their own passionate ideas about what healthy baking meant. And bigger, more mainstream competitors had begun producing healthier offerings in order to keep up with the trend. Nature Bake was getting lost in the category, and Glenn Dahl was worried that he was facing the end of Nature Bake as a brand. “Glenn took the Nature Bake story to marketing people, but although they appreciated the history, they didn’t seem to be able to do anything with it,” Dave told me, his eyes twinkling. “It was too white-bread.” From our perspective, that’s another way of saying that they hadn’t embraced the conflict in the story. Conflict is the engine that makes a story go. Without it, stories just aren’t interesting.
Fortunately–from a story perspective–the black sheep of the Dahl family was about to reenter the picture. Black sheep are all about conflict, and, by his own account, Dave was midnight black. He had worked in the bakery as a kid, but he left the business in the early 80s to pursue a life of crime as a drug addict and dealer. He became a completely untrustworthy four-time loser and spent 15 of his next 20 years in jail for various drug-related offenses, including armed robbery, assault and distributing methamphetamine. He told me that he might well have died in jail except that during his last stint at the Snake River Correctional Institution he was finally diagnosed and treated for depression, which is what all the drug-seeking behavior was trying to fix. That, as Dave tells it, turned his whole life around. Free at last from his depression, he could think clearly and no longer needed to self-medicate with illegal drugs. Time served and feeling transformed, he returned to his family and to Nature Bake, the family business.
Dave brought two valuable assets with him: The first was a creative passion for making great-tasting, healthy breads. Glenn quickly recognized this asset and was eager to capitalize on it. He had always admired Dave’s creativity and saw that his brother had fresh new ideas for breads that could breathe some life back into the business. If Glenn had a worry about all that creativity, it was that the ideas might be too fresh for the solid, well-established Nature Bake brand. He thought they should start a second brand and suggested they call it Dave’s. And that’s what eventually uncovered Dave’s second asset: his story–although neither brother immediately perceived it as an asset.
“We weren’t thinking in terms of the story,” Dave told me. “The story was actually kind of a pain in the ass. It was easy to think of those 20 lost years as a bad thing–this dark part of our history. It wasn’t a positive thing. How could we feel proud about that?” But the more Dave considered the new brand, the more he felt that it had to tell his story–not just to justify bearing his name but also so that some good could come out of the mess he’d made of his life. Conflict is generally a huge stumbling block when considering story from a brand perspective because it’s so counterintuitive. In order to take advantage of the strength of your story, you almost always have to embrace what you think of as your greatest weakness. That’s where the conflict lies and where all of the energy tends to be tied up. For Dave, embracing the darkness of his past meant he could serve as an example of the power of turning your life around. It opened up the possibility that a Dave’s brand could be about something more than just killer bread. “I started thinking maybe we could make the world a better place, one loaf of bread at a time.” Glenn wasn’t immediately impressed with that idea.
“Nature Bake didn’t really have that kind of vision,” Dave said. “It was about making bread and managing the business.” From that perspective, using the story of an ex-con and calling the product Killer Bread seemed kind of risky. “But if it was going to be about something more, I had to tell my story. So I sat down and wrote it out and then condensed it down to the little bit on the back of the package.” That little bit was like the shorthand of a classic tale of failure and the struggle for redemption. It tied right into another principle of great story. A story is a series of events that suggests a meaning. Without the meaning, you don’t really have a story. For Dave, all the trouble he’d been through was only worthwhile if it meant something positive–that anybody, no matter how far they’ve fallen, has the potential to turn things around.
The bread was launched on that story at a farmers market in August of 2005, and the brand went wild. “We’re worth ten times as much now as we were in 2005,” Dave told me. “We’re actually having discussions about how to slow our growth so we can keep up the quality of the bread and the brand.”
And, to be clear, the quality of the bread is nothing short of amazing. Personally, I do not like foods that are good for me. I am a pizza and Dr Pepper man, a lousy example of healthy eating for my two impressionable kids and a finicky pain at dinner parties. That was why I was so floored by Dave’s Killer Bread the first time I tasted it. I typically expect healthy bread to be like taking unpleasant medicine–something nasty you do only because you’re supposed to do it. But Dave’s is a delight, which is hugely important. The best story in the world won’t do much for you unless you have a great product. There are just too many good products out there to win based on the strength of a great story alone. Where a great story will really make a difference, however, is in distinguishing a great product from its competitors. Dave confirmed that truth for me.
“Our greatest sales tool is just getting the bread into people’s mouths,” he said, “and the story makes that happen. When people at that first farmers market saw the name and the logo, they got pulled in and tried the bread. Then they raved about it to all their friends and relatives.” Within a week, a lady came up to Dave at his farmers market booth and said, “I think there’s a real story here.” Dave thought she looked familiar. She turned out to be a local news anchor and the beginning of a flood of press interest that has gotten the brand so much coverage “we can hardly keep up with it.”
Dave and I mused a bit about why his story might be so compelling for the people buying the bread. The first thing we kicked around was how different the story of Dave’s Killer Bread is from those of other healthy food brands. Most good-for-you brands tend to be focused on purity and values, with principled bakers steadfastly making good food because it’s the right thing to do. Clearly, Dave arrived at his values following a different path.
Beyond standing out, Dave’s life is, of course, also a great redemption story. People have been telling redemption stories as long as people have been telling stories because it’s important for us to believe that redemption is possible. Which led me to speculate that something deeper is going on here in the context of food marketing. We’ve been through a decades-long dark period with regard to food. A lot of the most easily accessible food seems to have been making us obese and unhealthy. Bread has been seen as a particular offender because, while it’s supposed to be the staff of life, much of it seems to be empty calories built on high-fructose corn syrup. Dave nodded. “You know our motto,” he said. “Just say no to bread on drugs!”
So maybe something more is going on. Maybe people are making unconscious connections between Dave’s story and their own relationship to food. That’s the way the best stories tend to work, whether you’re talking about entertainment or marketing. Whatever the specific details or characters involved, a story connects because we unconsciously recognize ourselves in the struggle and are enriched by the truth it reveals. Maybe what so many people are buying from Dave’s Killer Bread is more than a really good loaf of bread. Maybe they’re buying into their desire for a believable redemption story in food.