We are living in unpredictable times. This sounds like an obvious statement when the entire world is reeling from two years of pandemic and social and political unrest, and it seems as if everything is spinning out of our control. We are indeed living through precarious times, but what I am referring to specifically in this blog is the nature of business and industry. The herbal products industry has changed enormously over the last few years, and in my opinion, it’s not been for the best. Most of the herbal companies that we have worked with, that we have known and admired for decades, have now been acquired by private equity firms, investment holdings, and venture capitalists. I have never witnessed anything like this in the 22 years I have been at Mountain Rose Herbs. Our community has grown significantly smaller, and the industry is pushing hard towards a profit-driven business model that is the antithesis of everything I believe in. This disturbing reality has made me think a lot about permanence: permanence, and predictability, and being a brand that people can trust.I confess I am at heart a sentimentalist—I prefer things how they were. If something works well, I don’t want to alter it. The people who know me know that I am deeply embedded in tradition. This explains why Mountain Rose Herbs is largely unchanged after 34 years in business. Our roots run deep, and I consider that to be both a point of pride and a challenge to stay this course, no matter what.
Building a Company vs. Building a Brand
These days, many startups begin with the intention of building a business that can later be sold at a profit. In other words, this intent-to-sell-in-the-future is built into the very foundation of the business from its earliest days. In my mind, this is the difference between a company (a thing that can be sold like any other commodity) and a brand.
“Branding” is a new term for an old challenge. How a business carves out a niche in a busy, cluttered marketplace to directly reach their customers and community is what fashions their brand. If we look at the original meaning of branding, which dates back to the 1500s, it meant to mark livestock to show ownership. However, this concept evolved during the industrial revolution. For the first time in history, humans could mass-produce goods, which in turn provided consumers with more choices and options than they’d ever had before. The flip side of this new coin was that businesses that had been around for seemingly ever now had to hustle to distinguish themselves in a newly crowded and often confusing marketplace. Businesses were going to have to figure out how to leave their mark so their customers and community could find and easily identify them.
Some of the oldest, most trusted brands in the United States have been with us since the 18th and 19th centuries. Multiple generations have relied on these companies to provide goods and services. They might evolve in terms of a product line or service industry, but they have remained the same at their core and in this way have built generations of faith in what they offer.
Although we weren’t using branding terminology back in the beginning days of Mountain Rose Herbs, we were striving to create something more than a company. We wanted to build a business that was living, breathing, and organic. Something so much a part of who we were and what we believed that it would be an extension of ourselves. As I was putting all of my energy into creating this ethical, organic business model, Mountain Rose Herbs was simultaneously becoming part of me, part of my DNA. This, I have come to believe, is the definition of a true brand. Mountain Rose Herbs is now as much a part of me as I am of it.
Balancing Growth and Ethics
From my first days with Mountain Rose Herbs (when I was overseeing the shipping department from a 2-car garage) and particularly when I became co-owner, I wanted to grow the business in an ethical, respectable way because I recognized three things:
- Every environmental issue we deal with today is dictated by commerce. More succinctly: businesses dictate how our planet is treated or trashed!
- I wanted a voice in the conversation about how business interacts with the planet and the environment.
- To have that voice and influence, Mountain Rose Herbs would have to be a major, successful employer.
Profitability is of course imperative for a business to survive. Currently, we employ more than 200 people. The size of our business is what gives us the clout that allows us to maintain our seat at the table as advocates for the planet. But this is always a balancing act. Maintaining our current size and profitability gives us a necessary voice, but to hold to the ethics that are the foundation of our brand, we cannot care about profitability if it means putting the people, plants, or planet at further risk. We balance these two imperatives by working ethically with our suppliers, investing heavily in employee benefits, and donating to organizations doing real work for the plants and the earth.
The only way to ensure that the Mountain Rose Herbs brand continues to be one that people can trust is to never sell out, either figuratively or literally. I would like to take this opportunity to say that I have promised my employees and I promise all of you reading this that Mountain Rose Herbs will remain staunchly independent and run by real human beings that care. We will always be privately owned. We will stick to what we know and what we do best. And our focus will always be on protecting and enhancing the delicate ecosystems that we rely on while delivering the same exceptional products and services that you have come to know us for. This is the essence of permanence.
Want to read more about Shawn's Business Ethos?
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