The Gladwell challenge
When Malcolm Gladwell wrote a 2004 New Yorker story about how it's impossible to compete with Heinz ketchup, Brown University seniors Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan took it as a dare. One problem: They couldn't make ketchup. "We had never really cooked anything," says Norton.
Before even tackling a recipe, Norton and Ramadan brainstormed branding ideas. "For us, the lesson from [Gladwell's] article was, If you only try and compete on taste, you're going to lose in the ketchup world," says Ramadan. To establish a strong identity, they came up with Sir Kensington, a (fictional) merchant who would represent the company's quirky sensibility.
After settling on two flavors, Norton, Ramadan, and cofounders Win Bennett and Brandon Child set out to actually start a business. "There's no guide to creating a category-disrupting ketchup," says Norton, so they had to figure it out themselves. One of their key marketing points was a distinctive "scoopable" wide-mouth jar.
In June 2010, the company debuted its creation at New York's annual Fancy Foods Show. Dean & DeLuca and Williams-Sonoma both placed orders, and within a month of stocking the product, Dean & DeLuca came back for more. Other stores soon followed—most important, Whole Foods. In its first year, 10,000 jars were sold.
Popular New York eateries started serving Sir K.'s in 2012, including the Spotted Pig and P.J. Clarke's. "It didn't taste like I had eaten some smooth-textured sugar," says Michael DeFonzo, executive chef at P.J. Clarke's. "It wasn't this intense sweetness, which is what turns me off ketchup." He now buys three times more Sir K.'s than Heinz.
Sales have tripled since 2012, and last year the company tweaked its formula in an attempt to broaden its customer base. It's now available in more than 3,000 stores and restaurants, and last year the company launched three flavors of mayonnaise. So, have they proved Gladwell wrong about Heinz's invincibility? "I think it remains to be seen whether his theory is true or not," says Ramadan. "We made progress, but we're not there yet."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.