In 2017, Atlanta native Hollis Callaway left a career in finance to make his name using a product from his family’s heirloom, a Hamilton, Georgia-based freshwater spring that also produces the nationally-sold Callaway Blue Spring Water. His own product, Montane Sparkling Spring Water, is a LaCroix-esque seltzer water that capitalizes on the recent billion-dollar bubbly water boom taking over market shelves.
While Callaway built his brand around the detailed story behind his family’s spring, he also made sure to spend time in the field, having a presence at farmers’ markets and food events to gather feedback from customers.
“The biggest lesson has been to spend plenty of time with potential and existing customers,” says Callaway. “Sharing my story and hearing direct product feedback informs my understanding of how the product and brand resonates with customers. It’s not easy to spend large amounts of time out of the office, but there are no customers in your office!”
His field work over the past year triggered a branding refresh of Montane. Feedback from customers pinpointed issues like too much wording on the packaging and a brand story that was too technical and difficult to understand.
“A few of the things that I thought were very compelling fell flat, and vice versa,” says Callaway. “I’ve incorporated what I’ve learned into the upcoming branding refresh — enhancing the existing look and feel and honing in on the messaging.”
Now he’s moving toward more focused storytelling with partners as well concise messaging that resonates more effectively and increases visual presence.
Callaway shares how he identified the areas of his branding that needed tweaking and filtered feedback in a way that benefits the brand.
Identify where your customers are
“Out of necessity, as a startup with limited resources, you have to get out there and talk to people. I didn’t anticipate it being as helpful as it was, but one of the things I did regularly last summer was setting up at the farmer’s market,” says Callaway.
“You have direct access to customers to share the product, the brand story, and see what parts of it resonate with them.”
Find the weak points in your branding
“The spring has unique qualities, especially in the geology since we’re not aware of another spring like it in the U.S. I thought it was a compelling story, but it turns out that it’s too technical. It’s got the same impact as us saying it came from a pure local spring. It could’ve been summarized in a better way,” says Callaway.
“For the upcoming round of packaging, we’re moving away from copy. In our old packaging, we have two short paragraphs about what makes us different and now, we’re moving to four icons that simplify and communicate our brand identity.
It’s more direct and quickly highlights our benefits versus the competition. We learned that to get the point across, you need to be direct and skip the nuance,” says Callaway.
Filter feedback correctly
“It’s important to identify the correct audience,” says Callaway. “Some people are not the right audience and their feedback will not be entirely helpful. Customers that are avid users and within the industry have feedback that carries more weight and is easier to integrate into your product.”
Focus your pitch according to your market
“Aside from individual buyers, the stockists have different things they are looking for and learning what resonates with them is important. They are interested in how the business works, distribution details, and margins. When talking to them I focus my pitch accordingly,” says Callaway.
“It’s a lot of trial and error. It helps to relate the product to something familiar to them and offer it as a local, quality alternative. I don’t love comparing myself to LaCroix, but it’s effective in communicating what I have to offer. With a consumer, the messaging is different. I focus on it being from a local source, Southern branding, and unique flavors.”
Learn to balance field work with product development
“It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day operations in the office — from responding emails to coordinating,” says Callaway. “Being forced to stop, slow down and interact with customers is critical for my B2C business. I would be out of touch and not responsive to feedback if I wasn’t out there on the field.”