Jennifer's father John Ross came up with the idea of reviving the vanilla growing industry on Vava'u in Tonga, 10 years ago after helping to rebuild a village up there. Her husband Garth, who has a background in horticulture, has researched and cultivated vanilla plants best suited to the climate. Heilala Vanilla has a range of award-winning 100 per cent pure vanilla products, including vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla sugar and vanilla syrup. The family want to make Heilala Vanilla be to Tonga what Fiji Water is to Fiji.
What storytelling are you doing to inform consumers about the product?
Heilala Vanilla is a range of 100 per cent pure vanilla products for the retail, food service and food manufacturing market segments. Heilala Vanilla is globally unique in the world of vanilla - the only vanilla brand in the world that is direct from 'plantation to pantry'. Vanilla is typically like coffee and cocoa, where it goes through many sets of traders before reaching the final consumer. Heilala Vanilla has its own plantation in Tonga in partnership with the local community and all the processing, marketing and distribution is completed from Tauranga, New Zealand.
How big would you like to be?
Heilala Vanilla's mission statement is to be a globally recognised premium vanilla brand - to be in all the best restaurant kitchens around the globe, used in the best food products and available for purchase for home cooks in the best food retailers. The Heilala Vanilla Paste was runner-up in Cuisine Magazine's Artisan Awards two years ago. That same year we won two categories at the NZ Food Awards with our Vanilla Syrup. The previous year the Vanilla Paste won the Gourmet Award at the NZ Food Awards. And last year, the Heilala Vanilla Syrup won the Confectionary Award at the Australian Food Magazine Awards.
Who are your main competitors? How have they responded to your product?
Over 98 per cent of the world's vanilla consumption is that of artificial vanilla flavour so that is our main competitor. The challenge is making consumers aware that all that vanilla ice cream or yoghurt they see in their supermarket is actually a natural flavour - not made from vanilla beans at all but made from a by-product of the pulp and paper process. The $3 bottle of vanilla essence has no actual vanilla in it!
How are you introducing the product to consumers?
Our retail consumers are introduced to our product through trade shows, social media campaigns, in- store tastings and by seeing Heilala Vanilla used by celebrity chefs and on TV shows.
How big is your marketing budget? How are you spreading the word about Heilala Vanilla?
We have a very limited marketing budget so we are always looking for cost effective ways to communicate our brand to consumers. Social media is a perfect platform for this - Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram for instance.
This area is always evolving and changing so the challenge is keeping up with the changes in this area and remaining effective.
How have NZ consumers responded to Heilala Vanilla and what other markets have responded well?
We were very fortunate that the Heilala Vanilla story featured on Country Calendar in New Zealand two years ago and we have also been in the pantry on MasterChef NZ. This has given our brand great exposure. We have grown significantly in New Zealand over the last two years as consumers understand more about real vanilla and the unique origin of Heilala Vanilla.
We also export to Australia and the USA and our newest markets are Denmark, Brazil and Japan. The Japanese consumer is very discerning and our importer in Japan respects the quality of Heilala Vanilla and being able to promote the unique traceability and sustainability aspects of our brand.
How else have you set yourselves apart from the competition?
We have recently launched the Heilala Vanilla Foundation which is all about giving back to the community of Vava'u in Tonga where we are established. This recognises the unique and special partnership we have formed with the local community since we established the vanilla farm over 10 years ago.
What tips would you give to other challenger brands at the beginning of their journey?
Invest early on in key staff - you can't be all things to all people and having key staff as part of your team elevates your business to the next level. You move on very quickly from the Ma and Pa mentality in the garage when you are paying rent and employees. In addition establish an advisory board and meet regularly - objective external advice is invaluable in moving forward.
How should you make trade shows work for your business? Why they can work so well for SMEs especially those trying to make new contacts overseas. Email me, Gill South at the link below: