Interview: Rizal Hamdallah on Innovation and Ocean Spray's First DTC Product

Ocean Spray's Global Chief Innovation Officer talks to us about the company's product incubator and Atoka, its newest concept.

Welcome to Direct-to-Conversation, a recurring interview feature from DTC Magazine. These conversations will highlight insights, advice, and innovation strategies from leading thinkers in the DTC, eCommerce, and retail space.

We talked with Rizal Hamdallah, who is the Global Chief Innovation Officer at Ocean Spray. Hamdallah previously worked at Tyson Foods, Unilever, and Nestle and has been no stranger to dialing up innovation and bringing agility to very large companies. Hamdallah's latest coup is the launch of Atoka, an herbal tonic and shot line. It's also Ocean Spray's first-ever DTC product. We discussed Ocean Spray's internal product incubator and the company's embrace of digital.

DTC Magazine: You've worked at some of the biggest companies in the world in strategy and innovation-centered roles. Do you generally find a resistance toward innovation baked into the structure? And if so, how do you convince everyone around you to experiment?

Rizal Hamdallah: With over 18 years of experience, I have dedicated my career to creating impact through innovation; encouraging the start-up mindset, taking nothing for granted, and challenging the status quo as a matter of course. As the lead for Ocean Spray’s Innovation, Research and Development teams, I am charged with developing the next generation of health-focused products for our historic farmer-owned cooperative. 

At my core I am a creator, and throughout my career I have been guided to understand and build empathy with consumers. Ultimately, that's how to develop and deliver innovative products that consumers didn't even know they needed. 

The goal of my position is to push the cooperative outside of its comfort zone and I have not found resistance towards innovation. The entrepreneurial mindset has helped the company navigate and agility is more important and recognized than before. 

Atoka Wellness

DTC: Speaking of innovation, you now lead innovation efforts at Ocean Spray which, for many of us, is synonymous with juice, soccer practice, and maybe strong drinks. What was the process like to bring Atoka, an herbal tonic and shot line, to life?

RH: Innovation has been a driving force at Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. since our internal Lighthouse incubator launched last fall. The goal was to push the cooperative outside of its comfort zone by ideating and bringing a variety of health-focused food and beverage products to market in a five-month timeframe.

Mindful of meeting people at different stages of their wellness journey through innovation, the Lighthouse launched Atoka, a line of herbalist crafted plant-based drinks offering a variety of health benefits. Atoka’s herbal tonics and herbal shots are the first new brand to be incubated through the Lighthouse incubator, indicative of our emphasis on an intensely innovative and agile approach to product development and cultivating a culture of innovation throughout the organization. 

DTC: There's no way you could have predicted that the grocery aisle would become so inaccessible to consumers in 2020. (You must feel like a genius.) What informed the strategy to launch Atoka as a DTC product?

RH: Our go-to-market strategy has shifted much of our focus to digital platforms and allowed us to focus on helping our consumer through this tough time. For example, our Atoka™ brand that was tested through our Lighthouse Incubator accelerator program last year has now launched with a Direct-to-Consumer online purchase option on, as people are looking for ways to expand their holistic health and wellness habits while at home. 

Now more than ever, we are asking how we can reach those who need nutrition most and making sure that every aspect of our new launches has an impactful social cause tied to it. For example, our new Atoka™ brand is working with #FirstRespondersFirst to nourish first responders across the country with herbal tonics and shots to take care of those who are taking care of us. 

Overall, we have seen this situation accelerate the shift toward eCommerce, doing good and being authentic, and we’ve seen e-commerce platforms respond with innovation themselves, moving quickly and efficiently to fill demand and reach people worldwide.

DTC: What advice do you have to small-scale tinkerers out there who are eager to create products that feel personalized to their markets?

Go for it! We have one, short life, and we must each do something meaningful with our precious time. Now is the time for innovation and agility and your products might have a solution to problems addressing the world today. 

We very much feel for small startups who may be struggling to keep their companies going at this time. We partner with Plug and Play on a variety of projects, with a focus on solutions. Recently, the Plug and Play community has really come together to support small, innovative startups that have solutions to problems due to COVID-19 across the supply chain, the healthcare system, and more. We are proud to be a part of this network that is helping not only solve today’s problems but also help those minds who are trying to solve the problems. 

As a farmer-owned cooperative, the importance of innovation is in our heritage. We have farmers that go as far back as 8 generations who have been creating their tools and processes to continue to harvest our superfruit in the face of climate change, recessions, and—you guessed it—pandemics. We drive forward and so can you.