Suburbanizing Survivalism

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

As the disaster preparedness phenomenon spreads from the rich and eccentric into mainstream America, survivalism is becoming big business. One leader in this sector is Wise Co., a manufacturer of shelf-stable food packed in Mylar pouches. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Amanda Little examines how Wise Co. CEO Aaron Jackson is steadily growing the business by targeting who he calls Mr. and Mrs. Smith in everyday America.

Rather than focusing on niche survivalists and evangelicals who believe in end times, Jackson is focusing on Target, Home Depot and Walmart, where survival foods are positioned as purchases just as practical as fire extinguishers and bottled water, and consumer habits are shaped by mounting global paranoia about natural disasters, terrorism and climate change. So far only 2% of Americans buy survival foods. He intends to change that. The whole approach seems a bit strange, though, since as a CEO who wants what he calls “stable customers” and “predictability,” his success has everything to do with global instability. Also, he doesn’t really believe the world will end, because if he did, why would he work so hard to make money he won’t be able to spend?

Then again, it’s the fear behind the idea that you should be prepared, just in case, that nags at you as a potential consumer. It can’t hurt, right? Because what if you’re wrong? Maybe it won’t matter. When the world has been devastated by warlords and ecological disaster, and you’re hiding in a bunker in the burned out woods, eating shelf-stable beef stroganoff mixed with radioactive rainwater, the flavor will probably make you feel like the rest of the world can’t end fast enough.

Jackson first connected with Wise in 2012, when a headhunter tried to recruit him from Post to run the fast-growing startup. He declined the offer, but commenced some research. “My aha! came in mid-2012 when I read that more than half of American homes have first-aid kits on hand, along with fire extinguishers and flashlights. I realized then they haven’t added the food component. I saw incredible growth potential.” When the headhunter extended the offer again a few months later, Jackson accepted the job of CEO and cautiously started to shift the marketing focus to his ideal customer, one who looks less like Ted Kaczynski and more like himself, his wife, who’s an attorney, and their two tweens: someone who isn’t entirely convinced that humanity is hurtling toward annihilation but who’s willing to stock the pantry with a Mylar-fortified food supply just in case. “This is the food equivalent of life insurance—staples that every American household in this age of uncertainty should have,” he says.

Jackson hired a young designer who’d been at the surf company Quiksilver to revamp the packaging. “We’d been selling our products in large, black plastic tubs. We needed something that doesn’t scream doomsday, so we moved to clean white boxes, contemporary fonts, high-quality food images—packaging that makes sense on a Target shelf,” Jackson says. As orders came in from big-box stores, he added a manufacturing facility a 15-minute drive from the office (production had previously been outsourced) that can produce 25 million pouches a year.

In the past four months, the spate of natural disasters combined with the specter of nuclear war with North Korea has pushed up Wise’s total sales 40 percent from the previous four-month period. Concerned suburbanites as well as disaster responders have contributed to the increase. The factory has made it possible for Jackson to meet both sudden surges and steady growth in demand. He ultimately managed to ship the 2 million servings to FEMA in a matter of weeks, with only a brief disruption to his regular customers’ supply.

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