Growing up, it was rare to see Filipino food outside of my own home or on family occasions. I had no problem finding Japanese or Chinese restaurants, but it wasn’t so easy with Southeast Asian flavors. Going to the Asian market with my mom was a vastly different experience than going to the regular grocery store – we always went to both since certain items were too niche at the time.
Now I’m proud to say some of my favorite kitchen staples are owned by fellow Asian-Americans and can be found at Target or Whole Foods. For the record, I still make time to go to the Asian market because I love it and there’s usually better snacks.
As the child of Filipino immigrants, one of my favorite things about working at the intersection of brand building and culture is seeing the rise of AAPI-owned businesses. This blog post is dedicated to two of my favorite growing brands successfully led by Asian-American founders. We’ll get into how they’ve grown and what makes them stand out in the sea of CPG.
The Vietnamese phrase itself means noisy, rambunctious, or riotous. First generation sisters Vanessa and Kim Phan started Omsom because they saw an opportunity to make authentic full flavor Asian sauces more accessible. From my experience, these items were often only found at Asian groceries and you had to know where to look. This made it harder for those unfamiliar with the culture but wanted to learn how to cook dishes they’d had at restaurants or through friends.
After moving out on my own, I remember craving certain dishes and being (constantly) disappointed by muted or watered down options from mainstream stores. If there wasn’t a good Asian grocery nearby, it was impossible.
Leaning on experience in management consulting (Vanessa) and brand creative direction (Kim), Omsom’s “proud + loud Asian flavors” proved to be a DTC win with undeniably exponential growth since its launch in May 2020. The brand’s organic success seemed to come from its high-quality product, ease of use with the “rip and pour” style packaging, and bold brand persona. To bridge the knowledge gap even more, each sauce is accompanied by a recipe recommendation for proteins or produce – hinting at the flexibility of the packets. As of August 2022, the Pham sisters announced an exclusive partnership with Amazon-owned grocery giant Whole Foods.
Less than a year later, Omsom is celebrating a new category offering – Saucy Noodles! Keeping in theme with the brand’s mission, they’ve made it easier to create signature dishes from Thailand, China, and Vietnam right at home. What I love most about this launch is that they’ve once again partnered with Asian tastemakers in the food and restaurant industry. This allows them to highlight other AAPI-owned businesses while reinforcing the authenticity of Omsom’s latest items – building community credibility simultaneously.
As a strategist and someone raised in an Asian household, here are a few more reasons why Omsom is memorable.
- Vanessa and Kim often feature their parents in content and it’s clear how integral they were (& still are) to the Omsom story.
- Other parents of the brand’s staff are also highlighted (we love this Barbie meme example) – showing strong respect for elders in a way that’s genuine and relatable.
- Turning cliche into curiosity – they challenge societal expectations around themes that could be considered taboo in some Asian cultures. Their brand tone is the opposite of the quiet or shy Asian persona.
- To commemorate Saucy Noodles, Omsom threw an eXXXtra rave “all about centering Asian American pleasure.” This included a dance party, sensual performances with a Korean drag queen, and even a shibari (Japanese Rope bondage) suspension.
- Throughout the launch month, content efforts focused on adding context and dimension to “getting exxxtra saucy” with a full schedule of relevant topics.
- Education and community are noticeable pillars of their brand identity. Their audacious tone and dedication to pushing Asian culture forward is unmistakable.
- Tattoo Tour with Chef Chaht Suan, owner of Fish Cheeks in New York City and whom OmSom collaborated to create the Coconut Lemongrass Curry Saucy Noodles.
- How to top your noodles helps the community stay inspired when using their products.
- What not to do for Lunar New Year, which breaks down cultural dos and dont’s ahead of the important holiday.
To say the Pham sisters are shaking up the ethnic aisle is an understatement. By making truly authentic flavors more accessible, Omsom has helped people like me continue to embrace their heritage. While I didn’t grow up in the Philippines, I’ve always tried to learn more about where my family came from – mainly through food and community experiences.
Queens-born Sandro Rocco is a nuclear engineer by trade who worked in finance and tech before starting the sparkling water brand Sanzo. Spending a reasonable amount of time in New York City and New Jersey, Sandro connected with other groups of Asian Americans – creating a newfound appreciation for his identity. It was 2018 and the demand for Asian-inspired pieces of culture was high. BTS had just started the Love Yourself World Tour, Crazy Rich Asians was #1 at the box office, and it was the summer of LaCroix’s seemingly unstoppable popularity.
Rocco knew nothing about the consumer packaged goods industry. Still, he methodically approached this challenge by reaching out to the founders of other small, independent beverage brands he found in specialty stores in the city. These actions allowed him to create an initial information base on manufacturers and distributors. His “keep learning, keep moving” philosophy plus a good amount of life savings, was the start of Sanzo in May of 2019.
The brand’s mission is to bridge cultures by connecting people to authentic Asian flavors like lychee, calamansi, pomelo, and mango. Rocco saw how they were barely represented on established beverage shelves and aimed to create something different than the old school sugar-packed offerings from legacy Asian brands. Each can of Sanzo is made with real fruit, zero added sugar, and no artificial or natural flavors. Fast forward to now and you can find Sanzo at high-traffic locations across the United States like Whole Foods, Panda Express, and Erewhon.
The sparkling water space is competitive. Maintaining competitive share of voice and sustaining growth requires a good product and a noteworthy brand.
- Find partners to grow with. Pickleball is growing exponentially in the United States and Sanzo is now the official Sparkling Water partner of the Carvana PPA Tour.
- This aligns them with new markets and exposure to large audiences due to the traveling nature of the tournament.
- Asian representation in the media is important to Sanzo. Last year they collaborated with Jeremy Lin on a limited edition flavor, Asian Pear, to recognize the release of the film ‘38 At the Garden.’
- In 2021, they partnered with Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on limited edition cans of lychee sparkling water.
- As of February this year, Sanzo was the #1 flavored sparkling water and the #2 sparkling water at Erewhon.
By increasing Asian-American representation at the grocery store, Sanzo is actively reshaping the consumer perception of these flavors and the countries where they come.
While in different categories, there’s one common thing with OmSom and Sanzo – they have founders building in public. The Pham sisters and Rocco actively use social media to share their journey, personal stories, and the highs and lows of building a business. This challenges the widespread belief, especially within Asian communities, that we shouldn’t talk about difficult things because we could appear weak. Founders are deeply tied to brand persona and genuine accessibility can drive a deep connection with other Asian-Americans or business owners who can relate and will likely support.
It’s crazy to think that until a few years ago most people didn’t know what ube (purple yam) was. Today Trader Joe’s Ube pretzels and pancake mix are crowd favorites, often hoarded when they’re in season. We’ve seen our first Hollywood feature film about an Asian superhero and K-Pop, J-Pop, and even P-Pop obsessions are running strong.
What have you learned about AAPI culture through a recent purchase or experience? Drop me a note on LinkedIn to chat