If you were going to design an infant formula intended to appeal directly to the same millennial demographic that clicks on Instagram ads for Away suitcases, Great Jones cookware, Glossier makeup, The Sill plants, Ritual vitamins, Outdoor Voices leggings, or any of the hundreds of other direct-to-consumer, venture-funded lifestyle companies who use on their websites either the familiar millennial D2C sans serif font or have moved to a gentle, low-contrast, sometimes ‘70s-inspired serif font, you would most likely come up with something very closely resembling Bobbie, a “European-style” formula company founded by two Silicon Valley moms that launched in January.
“There was a very, very deliberate process to develop our brand,” Bobbie’s 36-year-old co-founder Laura Modi told me recently. She and Bobbie’s other co-founder, Sarah Hardy, who is 41, were speaking to me via Zoom, with a couple of public relations representatives along on the call. “The mindset was that it needed to feel like food and to spark joy.” The use of Marie Kondo’s signature phrase here felt deliberate, as though baby formula, as an object, has the capacity to invoke the same feelings as, say, a handcrafted whisk broom. “What we were combating was people feeding their babies, without any joy. If this is the only product that you’re giving your child, by darn, you’ve got to feel good about it.”
Everything about Bobbie — from its website, with its soothing neutrals-and-green color palette, to its pasture-raised-cow-derived milk — seems designed not just to make parents “feel good,” as Modi put it, about the idea of giving their children formula, but also to make them feel, perhaps, just a little superior to those parents who have given their kids — shudder — Similac. Millennials have been shown to gravitate to brands that align with their values, and so perhaps there is something comforting for a new parent in the Bobbie website, with its diverse set of parents with mottos like “A Baby Formula Inspired By: European Formulas” and “A Baby Formula Inspired By: Modern Parenting” splashed across its homepage.
As Modi told me, “It's very hard to point to a formula where you can go, ‘They are about breastfeeding, and they're also about supplementing. They're about the working parent, they're about the stay-at-home mom. They're about the gay couples, surrogacy, adoption. They're about the future parent,’ or what we call, ‘The modern parent,’ who is feeding their baby today in a very different way,” she said. “And there is no brand, and no product, that is meeting the modern parent today. Which is why we say we're radically centrist.” In 2021, when the promise of paid family leave seems to have evaporated, abortion restrictions are sweeping the country, and child care has only gotten more scarce and expensive, the notion of “radically centrist” formula feels almost retrograde. And yet, it is one that seems to be resonating.
Is Bobbie actually better, or are these parents getting taken for a grass-fed ride?
These, after all, are the same parents for whom the words in Bobbie’s Instagram bio — “Organic Infant Formula for your bébé/Founded by moms/1st European Style Recipe that meets FDA standards/Shaking the stigma #bottleboldly” — resonate deeply. Even the “bébé” echoes that upper-middle-class parenting bible, Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, and the phrase “shaking the stigma” is also key to the Bobbie identity, a signal to moms who have gotten pressure to breastfeed. It’s a sign that they are safe here, amongst like-minded, educated people who for whatever reason have chosen formula feeding.
If Gwyneth Paltrow had a baby today, this would be the formula she would feed them, because Gwyneth Paltrow, who is arguably now more famous for hawking jade eggs and vagina candles than she ever was as an actor, is also an investor in Bobbie. (As she put it in a recent promotional video for Bobbie, “It’s really time to offer women the space to make choices that are right for them and feel supported in that choice.” It’s a statement that is hard to disagree with and yet subtly echoes the language of “my body, my choice” without explicitly coming out and saying so.)
In a golden age of competitive bourgeois parenting, when parents’ social media posts are parsed for signifiers (do you even have a fully-actualized toddler if he doesn’t have a Grimm’s Rainbow?), parenting gurus like Dr. Becky have more than 800,000 Instagram followers, and parents — but, let’s be honest, mostly moms — spend hours each day on parenting groups on Facebook, giving and receiving advice, the idea that parents must always be providing the best of everything for their children can take on outsize importance.
So the next best thing to breastfeeding, then, is a formula that hits all the organic notes that these parents are used to. And yet, the instant popularity of Bobbie among a certain set of parents raises the question: Does Bobbie’s success go beyond clever branding? Are these parents getting taken for a grass-fed ride — or is Bobbie actually better?
Entrepreneurship 101 dictates that your company has to find a need and fill it, and for the founders of Bobbie, that need felt very personal. It began in 2016, when Modi had a baby. While on maternity leave from her job as director of hospitality at Airbnb, she had trouble breastfeeding. “I thought it would be easy and beautiful,” she said. It was not. When Modi started using formula, she said she felt like a failure. She was even more horrified when she picked up a can of formula — which seemed to her “like a medical solution,” not a naturally occurring food — and she read the list of ingredients on the back. “The ingredients that are in U.S. formulas today are not the ingredients that we ourselves, as parents, would feed ourselves. Here we were with our first kid, turning around the back of the can and going, ‘Why is corn syrup the first ingredient that I’m going to give my week-old baby?’ Doesn’t that feel wrong? It’s something I wouldn’t feed myself!”
And so she did what so many of the women in her peer group did: she ordered European formula, which is illegal to import and sell in the U.S., through what Modi described as “the underground black market that was well across mother's groups. Every forum, every Facebook group, people were looking for European infant formula, here in the U.S.”
Modi’s co-worker Sarah Hardy was sympathetic. In 2014, Hardy was the first Airbnb employee to come back from maternity leave (the company was founded in 2008), and when she returned to work, she was dismayed to find that the image of the working mom who cheerfully pumps during the day and breastfeeds at home broke down very quickly. “I was one of those folks who breastfed very easily, for my entire maternity leave, and it was going back to work that it all fell apart for me,” she said.
For years, affluent parents had been turning to European formulas, even though the nutritional benefits are inconclusive, because it was seen as “better” than American formulas.
Hardy and Modi started talking. When Modi brought up the idea of starting a formula company — one that would take inspiration from popular European formula companies like HiPP and Holle — Hardy was in. “It was a no-brainer,” she said. They decided that the European formulas “should be the bar we should hit, and exceed it.”
So they got to work, meeting with food scientists, figuring out suppliers and ingredients and production facilities. There were some hiccups in the development process — infant formula in the U.S. is heavily regulated by the FDA, and getting FDA approval is expensive and can take ages, but toddler formula does not have the same level of regulation, so if you call yourself “formula” and not infant formula you can sort of get around the regulations until the FDA catches wind of what you’re up to and shuts the whole thing down, because a Silicon Valley-esque mentality of moving fast and breaking things doesn’t necessarily work when you’re talking about food for newborns, which is what happened to Bobbie.
Chastened, but undeterred, they retooled and got the FDA approval for their new, organic, pasture-raised, $24-a-can formula, and they called it Bobbie. It launched in January, along with an editorial site called Milk Drunk (with posts like, “Me and my boobs: a love hate relationship”), and coverage in Vogue. Silicon Valley, for its part, seemed impressed: In June, Bobbie announced a $15 million Series A funding round, bringing its total VC funding to $21.5 million.
The fixation with European formula was no accident. For years, affluent parents had been turning to European formulas, even though the nutritional benefits are inconclusive, because it was seen as “better” than American formulas. And then there were parents who turned to European formula as a last resort, like 40-year-old fashion writer Leslie Price, who used European formula after struggling to find an American formula that her now-5-year-old daughter would tolerate — even though the cost was around four times that of American formulas. “You’re like, maybe this fancy thing will solve my emergency, and then when it works, you’re like, now I can’t stop buying this because this is the only thing that works. I need this desperately. And yes, your formula is expensive but this is enabling me to have a full-time job.”
For the Bobbie founders, then, the bar to hit and, said Hardy, “exceed,” was the European formula that parents like Price were so desperate to import, at prices that can run to $26 for a 400g box. (That’s around $1.80 per ounce; in contrast, Kirkland brand formula at Costco is 48 cents per ounce). Bobbie uses EU sizing (another unsubtle nod to the consumer they’re targeting) and costs $24 for a 400g box; they recommend 10 boxes per month for an exclusively formula-fed baby under 6 months old.
It’s hard to describe that sense of abject desperation that new parents feel when their babies aren’t getting enough to eat.
For that $24 a can, you’re getting the only organic and pasture-raised formula on the market in the U.S., and Modi and Hardy decided to focus on sourcing ingredients from suppliers they trusted, like Organic Valley — “they’re a supplier we both know, we love, we have fed our toddlers,” Hardy said. “We work with hundreds of co-ops — they support local farmers. It’s small batch. It is really difficult to do that. For us it was important, not only for the high-quality ingredients, but also to get to know the names and the faces, and to support locally as well.”
It’s hard to describe that sense of abject desperation that new parents feel when their babies aren’t getting enough to eat. I tried exclusively breastfeeding my son when he was first born, even though my flat nipples meant I had to use nipple shields that made it difficult for his tiny mouth to suck enough milk out, and when we went for his 2-week checkup, his doctor told us he hadn’t gotten back to his birth weight yet and we would have to start supplementing with formula. There was a sense of personal failure there for me — I had already struggled to get pregnant via IVF, and it felt like my body was letting me down once again. Why couldn’t I just do this supposedly “natural” thing that women have been doing for millennia? I didn’t feel a stigma about formula feeding, exactly. It was more like I had failed in some very primal and fundamental way.
And so I can imagine that, two and a half years ago when I had my son, I would have found this language about bottle acceptance and formula feeding being OK because you are feeding your child the best possible formula very appealing, especially as an Xennial mom with the means to afford expensive formula. “Their brand copy is really cheeky,” said Bobbi Banks, a 37-year-old grant writer in Marquette, Michigan, who has been feeding Bobbie to her daughter for five months. “It’s just very much like, it’s OK to formula feed and we’re going to make it the best we can. Maybe it’s all marketing, but it gave me back some of the choice or ability to make a decision that was good for my daughter.”
Although organizations like Fed Is Best and Facebook groups like Evidence-Based Feeding & Parenting take a firm line that whatever method you use to feed your baby is the best one as long as they get fed, the pressure on moms to breastfeed is still intense — CDC guidelines say that “good nutrition starts with breastfeeding exclusively” for about the first six months; in 2018, the same CDC study found that nearly 58% of moms were still breastfeeding at 6 months at least some of the time, up from 35% in 2000 (a national two-year campaign in the early aughts to promote breastfeeding probably helped raise these rates). The message, whether it comes from pediatricians, lactation consultants, or other moms, tends to be that breastfeeding is better for your child than any other method of feeding.
For Banks, who had a breast reduction as a teenager and was unable to breastfeed, the decision to use Bobbie came after using donor milk for her daughter’s first month of life, and then Enfamil — which, along with Similac and Gerber, is one of the "big three" American formula brands. “I was never comfortable with it,” she said. “There’s sugar in it, and palm oil, and et cetera et cetera. So I wanted to move away from that without getting into the territory where I needed to ship something in from another country. I’m really happy with [Bobbie] — I feel like it’s a better choice, in a situation where I don’t feel much choice.”
But some in the infant world take issue with the idea that there is an objectively “better” choice when it comes to formula. Bridget Young, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the founder of a formula information site. “It seems to me there's a lot of FOMO used in formula marketing,” she said. Young told me that the panic over ingredients like corn syrup more broadly is overblown, explaining that it’s used as an alternative carbohydrate in formulas that are not 100% lactose (lactose is the carbohydrate in breast milk, but some babies can’t tolerate lactose, so they are better off on a formula that is not 100% lactose). So when parents are concerned about “sugar” in formula, that’s a misnomer, because lactose is, itself, a sugar — one of the only carbohydrates that babies can actually digest.
Besides, she added, the corn syrup used in infant formula is not the same as the high-fructose, chemically modified corn syrup that is found in many processed foods. “I end up talking a lot about corn syrup out of this fear capacity,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking for a parent to feel fear over what they’re feeding their baby, and when I see fear-related discussions about corn syrup it breaks my heart. Corn syrup used in formula is glucose-based — a fuel the body recognizes. And you can’t feed a newborn baby more complex carbohydrates, like in vegetables! You have this really small list of carbohydrates that are allowed in formula.”
Lani Harrison is a mom of three and a certified child passenger safety technician who advises parents on car seats. “Obviously, my specialty is car seats, but I’m invited back to a lot of people’s houses to check the fit of the car seats, and what I usually meet is a freaking out, sleep-deprived, desperate mom where everything is going wrong,” she said. “And these formula companies just prey on parents who are sitting on their phones and laptops wondering why their baby is screaming, trying to figure out what’s wrong. Is it the formula? Is it what the mom’s eating? They say, ‘We’re going to help you, this is all natural, this is unprocessed.’ They use buzzwords that mean nothing. There’s no medical evidence for this.”
But perhaps the medical evidence is beside the point when you see yourself as part of something, even if that something is a brand of formula. Perhaps in 2021, that's what matters most.