Few companies face as many marketing and corporate reputation questions as those in the food and beverage category, which must address concerns over safety, nutritional value, sourcing, packaging, and the ethics of marketing to children on a daily basis in a hyper-competitive marketplace and an ever-changing regulatory environment. Few firms are better equipped to help them deal with those issues than FoodMinds, a five-year-old Chicago-based firm that specializes in food, nutrition and wellness issues.

FoodMinds principals Laura Cubillos (a registered dietitian and former senior vice president at Edelman), Bill Layden (former director of the nutrition practice at Porter Novelli) and Susan Pitman (another registered dietitian and Edelman veteran) all have big agency experience, and share a conviction that a smaller, specialist firm can provide the same depth of expertise in an environment that is more attractive to employees and more cost-effective for clients. They have built an agency with about 20 employees supplemented by a consulting network of 40 people with specialized knowledge and connections.

The firm looks at every project from a science, communications and public affairs perspective, with a focus not on helping clients tell their stories better but helping them discover and tell better stories, stories that resonate with and engage their customers and other stakeholders. To accomplish that end, FoodMinds uses a suite of services it calls Food Compass, including a strategy development process called the Outcome Driven Workbench and a Science Management Lab that helps clients manage their nutrition and food science programming.

The firm’s largest client consolidated its communications activities at the end of 2010, and FoodMinds was forced to restructure as a result, but by the end of the year it had a better balanced portfolio of business (40 percent commodity groups, 40 percent brands, 20 percent associations and others) although fees in 2011 are likely to be down somewhat from the $5.6 million recorded in 2010. Major clients include Anschutz Health & Wellness Center, Applegate Farm, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Dairy Marketing Inc., Haas Avocado Board, Kashi, Kellogg, McNeil Nutritionals, National Confectioners Association, National Potato Council, and Welch Foods, with new business in 2010 coming from the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Marketing Institute Nutrition Keys, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for nutrition strategy and research, Earthbound Farm, American Pulse Association, World’s Finest Chocolate and Clemmy’s Ice Cream.

FoodsMinds serves as lead counsel on stakeholder relations for The Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Marketing Institute nutrition keys campaign, a new voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling system launched by the national trade associations, is designed to help busy consumers make informed choices when they shop. The firm also worked with Kellogg on a strategy assignment to establish the company’s position around marketing and advertising, nutrition and public health, and the National Potato Council on an assignment to reaffirm the role of potatoes in national food and nutrition policy.

“FoodMinds is instrumental in forging strategic partnerships with leaders in the food and nutrition community,” says Ann Marie Krautheim, senior vice president, nutrition affairs, National Dairy Council. “They understand our business and have the ability to interpret and apply nutrition science for meaningful impact. And they’re great to work with.” Adds Jose Luis Obregon, managing director, Hass Avocado Board: ”FoodMinds’ knowledge, expertise and connections have been instrumental in developing the foundation and setting the strategic direction of our nutrition research program.”

The firm’s network of consultants includes representatives in 13 countries, and the firm has handled assignments in Latin America.