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Lee Zalben - spreading his brand around

Lee Zalben
spreading his brand around
by Anthony Zumpano
June 1, 2009

Lee Zalben has developed Peanut Butter & Co.—his Greenwich Village restaurant in New York City—into a popular, ten-year-old peanut butter brand with a loyal fan base, including celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld. Recently, Zalben spoke to brandchannel about the branding of the Peanut Butter & Co. brand and why peanut butter brands offer more than just crushed nuts in a jar.

Define the Peanut Butter & Co. brand. You’re obviously not looking to topple giants like Jif or Skippy, so what does your brand try to communicate?

Peanut Butter & Co. is a multifaceted brand. Our products are all natural, and a lot of our charitable partnerships have a lot of synergy with causes our customers care about. At the same time, as a specialty or gourmet product, we stand for a high level of quality, so we develop recipes that showcase the indulgent and delicious nature of our products. The third, and perhaps most important, part of our brand is about fun. Peanut Butter & Co. has been described to me as youthful, quirky and even a little punchy at times. We try to communicate with our customers in ways that encourage them to let their guard down, enjoy life and feel like a kid again.

Is the brand today the brand you envisioned when you launched it?

A lot goes into a brand: the brand name and product names, logos, packaging, communication style and so much more. Peanut Butter & Co. developed over time. We started out as a sandwich shop serving nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. Over time the look and feel of the brand evolved, in part due to my own ideas about the company I was trying to build but equally as a response to the tastes and preferences of our growing customer base.

When developing the brand, how much research involved other peanut butter brands, other gourmet food brands or other brands that are not food-related at all?

I think it’s interesting to try and chart different brands in a product category and to graphically examine which brands are reaching which segments of the market, and how. I wish that I could say that I was that objective and calculated when creating Peanut Butter & Co., but to be honest, the origins of the brand were really more gut driven. We discovered—by accident, really, by watching the people coming into the sandwich shop—that there was a hole in the market. No one was making peanut butter that was formulated and packaged in a way that would appeal to adults as well as kids…and the whole thing took off from there.

What are the challenges as the brand begins its second decade?

The most important part in stewarding a brand over ten-plus years is knowing when to take chances with new products and new designs, but at the same time being able to identify brand extensions that aren’t true to the brand’s core values and the company’s mission, as well as being disciplined enough to either pass on those opportunities or find ways to exploit them without overextending the brand.

Do you make most of the branding decisions yourself, or do you have an agency that you work with? Do you have an in-house team of people you work with on these things?

We have a great team of people working on the brand on a full-time basis. I find it thrilling to watch them develop and push the limits of this thing I created. It’s a very collaborative process that I am involved with on an ongoing basis. I personally approve all materials before they go online or to press.

Any surprises as your brand has evolved?

The thing that most intrigues people about Peanut Butter & Co. is the monkey featured in our logo. He was created by a wonderful designer named Pippa White, who was friends with a photographer who shot our sandwiches for a magazine story shortly after we opened. Back then, we would just glue our business cards on glass jars after filling them with peanut butter, and I hired Pippa to create our first label. She used our existing logo, but we knew it needed something more. I had asked her to add an elephant to the label, since elephants have a reputation for liking peanuts. She came in a few days later with a monkey on the jar, and I was like, “Where’s my elephant?” I didn’t “get” the monkey at first. She replied, “You know, like in the park…” Again, I was confused. “You know,” she said, “organ grinders: in the park, selling peanuts, with a pet monkey hopping around.” I admit it was a stretch, but when we showed people the label, they fell in love with that little guy. I learned an important lesson that day about working with designers, and to being open to the “little surprises” that might actually improve upon your original idea.

Any major partnerships with other brands?

We have a new partnership with Wasa crispbreads that involves demos at Whole Foods and Kroger locations, as well as co-branded signage, recipe cards and coupons. It’s our first foray into this sort of thing, and we’ve found the experience to be really rewarding so far!

How important is the Web (not just in general but also its blog, as well as other online resources such as Facebook, etc.) in delivering your branding message?

The Internet is becoming a larger and larger part of our marketing efforts. The thing about the Internet is that it allows the brand to extend throughout so many different channels: our own website and blog, food retailers, social media and food bloggers. It’s very pervasive. The Internet offers so much opportunity, but once something’s online, it never goes away, so it’s even more important to get it right.

Discuss the role of your brand ambassadors.

Our brand ambassadors are passionate about Peanut Butter & Co. and can be found at supermarkets, specialty food shops and natural food stores across the country, handing out coupons and free samples and spreading the word about our products.

Where do you see the brand headed over the next five or ten years?

We’re looking forward to seeing what kind of trouble that monkey of ours is going to get into next! Right now we’re working on a number of peanut butter–related brand extensions—it’s really interesting to see what the brand looks like on a box of cookie mix or on a granola bar.

What advice do you have for someone trying to develop a brand?

At the end of the day, branding is the sum of every way a company communicates with the public. I think the most successful brands have a clear point of view, a unique selling proposition and are consistent in their message. If you’re not clear, unique and consistent in your communication, consumers will have a hard time connecting with your brand. More and more I think a company’s involvement with social causes, its carbon footprint and how it treats its employees is becoming part of the brand, which is an interesting development and a great opportunity for businesses like Peanut Butter & Co., which have really positive stories to tell.

As “The Peanut Butter Guy,” you—or at least that persona—are part of the brand. Did you always want to be the “face” of the brand?

Well, I really tried not to become a part of the brand. I briefly toyed with the idea of calling the restaurant “Lee’s Peanut Butter Shop,” or something like that, but quickly decided that wasn’t what I wanted. The media started referring to me as “The Peanut Butter Guy,” and it just kind of stuck (no pun intended). I don’t mind it, but being the face of the brand means that it’s even more important that I stay true to the brand!


Anthony Zumpano lives and works in New York.

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Lee Zalben - spreading his brand around
 Lee's a man with a vision. The company's graphics are particularly eye-catching on a grocery shelf. Kudos. 
Donna - June 17, 2009
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