Clif Bar launches incubator to pursue disruptive innovation


Dive Brief:

  • Clif Bar & Co. launched the Trailblazers Incubator, a new in-house group that focuses on innovating to develop new growth avenues for the better-for-you food company. The incubator will be overseen by Clif Bar Chief Innovation Officer Rizal Hamdallah and led by Senior Director Greg Lok.
  • Its first venture, a line of plant-based, clean-label jerky for dogs set to launch nationally in early 2022, will form the basis of a Clif Pet portfolio of products. The incubator will also build a pipeline of products for humans, including “completely disruptive” snacks set to launch soon, Hamdallah told Food Navigator.
  • Growth is a key focus for Clif Bar CEO Sally Grimes, who announced plans to double the company’s sales to $2 billion and expand its “fit for movement” portfolio after she stepped into the role in June 2020.

Dive Insight:

In 1992, Clif Bar was a startup seeking to overturn the norms of the energy bar category with its clean-label oat bars that prioritized organic ingredients. Since then, the company’s explosive growth story has taken it into new segments, including granola and low-sugar cereal, and snacks like low-calorie Clif Thins and savory Pop’n Crunch Clusters.

All the while, it’s been attempting to stay a few steps ahead of its competition, which has dramatically multiplied to include Big Food CPGs hungry to cash in on the better-for-you trend as well as countless startups. The launch of the Trailblazers Incubator to speed up new concepts — and a push into a completely new product category — may be indicators of the pace of the company’s planned innovation in 2022.

“Just as Clif Bar was founded on disrupting the energy bar category nearly 30 years ago, the Trailblazers Incubator is built to consistently deliver our bold innovation agenda and accelerate our growth plan,” Hamdallah said in a statement. “In addition to a rapid, data-driven product development and go-to-market strategy, what makes our approach different is extending the loyalty of the Clif brand. By introducing Clif Pet, we will bring energy to the whole family.”

Pet food has been targeted as a growth area for several food CPGs in recent years, driven by the explosion in consumer spending on companion animals. The trend only accelerated during the pandemic. The growing category has triggered massive M&A deals, punctuated by General Mills’ $8 billion purchase of Blue Buffalo Pet Products in 2018. Mars, which is the parent company of Clif Bar competitor Kind North America, owns several pet brands, including Pedigree and Royal Canin.

But perhaps more intriguing is what Clif Bar could focus on after pet snacks, applying the incubator model to unchartered human food categories. The company’s announcement was light on details, although in his interview with FoodNavigator, Hamdallah said Clif Bar was open to partnering with other companies on new products.

Incubators have been a trend in the food industry for the past several years, making Clif Bar somewhat late to the game. However, the model has largely been the terrain of Big Food CPGs such as Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Chobani and Nestlé. These larger companies are all seeking to trigger and fast-track innovation, while being pressured by the same competitive and consumer forces.

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