With Rebrand, Ice Cream, and New Ownership, Mauna Loa Looks to Mainstream

With Rebrand, Ice Cream, and New Ownership, Mauna Loa Looks to Mainstream

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The company that owns Mauna Loa feels there’s power in the “mighty mac.” With a goal to transform the Hawaiian macadamia nut line from occasional treat to nutritional powerhouse, the brand’s leadership team has embarked on an ambitious plan, launching a new look, marketing campaign and innovation strategy earlier this month. The change follows yesterday’s sale of parent company Hawaiian Host Group to a consortium of private investors who acquired the group from the trust that has owned it since 2015.

It’s a new chapter for a 74-year-old brand, and leaders hope that new marketing efforts, a capital infusion and new product launches will help change the idea of macadamia nuts from extravagant gift to mainstream product.

Company leadership will remain the same under the deal, with HHG CEO and president Ed Schultz remaining at the helm (he’s also an investor) and Danielle Laubenstein, director of global brand & innovation, continuing on at Mauna Loa. Until this month, HHG was owned by a trust that benefitted education non-profit The Mamoru and Aiko Takitani Foundation.

HHG first looked to simply raise funding, but the Covid-19 pandemic (which resulted in travel restrictions to Hawaii) and the non-profit ownership proved to be tricky. HHG’s new owners are a group of family offices and individual investors who will operate under the collective HHML Acquisition. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but as part of the deal HHML also made a one time donation to the Takitani Foundation, according Schultz.

The new owners see potential for the brand in recasting the macadamia nut as a base ingredient for a variety of better-for-you product types. It’s a shift from previous strategies, which focused on just the snacking or confection categories. HHG currently has 80% of macadamia nut sales across Hawaii, but because of supply chain and pricing constraints, products focused on the nut alone can’t ever help the company achieve mainstream success, according to Schultz, who was brought on in 2018.

Rather than split attention between HHG brands, which include chocolate covered macadamia gift boxes from Hawaiian Host and other chocolate treats from newer brand KOHO, the new ownership will devote most of its attention to Mauna Loa. “This is bigger than just nuts. We are where almonds were 20 years ago,” said Laubenstein. “We’re not just thinking about how to sell more macadamia nuts globally, it’s about how do we become the wellness brand of Hawaii and take the macadamia to where it’s never been before?”

Step one was refreshed packaging and reformulated products, which debuted online last week. The rebrand will slowly roll out in stores during the spring, Schultz said. With brand strategy from Purely Righteous and design by Moxie Sozo, the new look features illustrations of Hawaiian landmarks, Mauna Loa’s signature blue background and a new logo that is meant to evoke the movement of waves, Laubenstein said. All of Mauna Loa’s existing SKUs have been changed to appeal to natural products consumers, trumpeting non-GMO certification and a switch to vegan sugar (in some SKUs) and macadamia nut oil.

The brand’s first new product is a macadamia milk “nice-cream”. With an MSRP of $6.99, the line’s six flavors include other classic Hawaiian ingredients like liliko’i (Hawaiian passionfruit), mango, and Kona coffee. Launched first in Hawaii — including in Whole Foods Market, Albertsons and Safeway — in February the ice cream line will roll out into Albertsons and Safeways in California, Texas and New Mexico, and in Sprouts nationwide.

The company plans to also explore future low-sugar chocolate items, vegan chocolate products and more functional foods are also on the docket. Still, for now, the brand plans to emphasize indulgence. “For 70 years where it’s just been this gifting and snacking relationship. So we wanted to go into something that it’s easier for people to see the pivot into,” Laubenstein said “It needed to be a logical first step.”Hawaiian Host, will also be refreshed and refocused as boxed products that can be shared and gifted, Schultz said. He added the line is not meant for grocery (though it’s been a warehouse mainstay) and will largely be sold via ecommerce or from stores on the Islands, with seasonal placement on the mainland as a holiday item. New boutique line KOHO, originally launched for the holidays, will serve as HHG’s premium offering, expanding into caramels and tablets as well.

It’s a new chapter for a brand whose roots go back to 1946 with the first planting in Hawaii of macadamia trees transplanted from Australia. For the past 20 years, Mauna Loa has bounced between different ownership groups. It was sold to HHG in 2015 by Hershey’s, which had purchased it from TSG Consumer Partners in 2004 for $130 million. TSG (at the time called the Shansby Group) made $90 million on the deal.

Looking forward, Schultz and Laubstein said, they believe Mauna Loa can ultimately now achieve the mainstream success that has eluded it for decades, by relying heavily on its heritage “You don’t have to go to Hawaii to find paradise,” Laubenstein said. “You can find it within as well and Mauna Loa can help fuel you to find it.”

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