The idea that we might one day replace breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a pill or powder that provides the same amount of nutrients used to sound like something out of science fiction — but in 2021, the global meal-replacement industry was estimated to be worth 11.9 billion US dollars.
Huel is one of this industry’s leading brands (although they reject the term “meal-replacement”), boasting a product that offers busy consumers vegan-friendly powders, protein bars, and instant meals — all of which have a low carbon footprint.
While real food probably isn’t going to fall out of fashion any time soon, for many consumers there’s a definite appetite for a quick, easy, and environmentally friendly solution to the stress that cooking and grocery shopping often presents — and Huel has quickly filled this gap in the market.
Since its founding in 2015, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. By 2021, it had sold over 150 million meals and was the seventh fastest-growing private company in the UK. With its products available in a range of markets across the globe, the company expects to be valued at $1.25 billion by the end of 2022.
But how did Huel manage to achieve such rapid growth in such a short time, with a new and unfamiliar product that has some critics unconvinced that it’s the future of food? What can other brands learn from their stratospheric rise and the strategy they employed?
In this Brand Deep Dive, we take a closer look at Huel.
How Huel Fuelled its Global Takeover
Founded by Julian Hearn in the UK, Huel (a combination of “Human” and “Fuel”) is a market leader in meal replacements. Their flagship product, Huel Powder is, in the company’s own words:
“a nutritionally complete powdered food that is high in protein and fibre, low in sugar and salt, rich in phytonutrients, and contains a balanced macro split of 37:30:30:3 (carbohydrate, protein, fat, fibre) and all 26 essential vitamins and minerals.”
The product was formulated by nutritionist and dietitian James Collier, and the company is very vocal about the benefits of Huel powder — what it is, and who it’s for. As previously mentioned, they’ve resisted any association with the larger meal-replacement industry, as they’ve tried to position the product as a new type of food that has a place in everyone’s diet, rather than a substitute for the real thing.
The brand’s main target audience is those consumers who are time-poor — too rushed to source and shop for ingredients or cook healthy meals regularly, especially during the working week.
Huel is envisioned as a solution for these people and an alternative to unhealthy fast foods, ideal for times when consumers are “on the go, in a rush, and away from the kitchen.” It isn’t envisioned as a complete replacement for freshly prepared meals, and Huel specifies this as part of its brand messaging.
Huel CEO James McMaster explains that “Huel is about tackling your most inconvenient meal of the day” — for most this is breakfast or lunch, leaving room to “enjoy a more ‘traditional’ meal with family and friends in the evening or at the weekend.”
The brand’s rapid growth suggests that many consumers fit Huel’s target audience and share a distaste for inconvenient meals. But the company’s marketing strategy has also been a key factor in its success.
While Huel products are now increasingly available in supermarkets, the company’s core D2C business model, with subscription packages for customers, has allowed them to cut out the middlemen and supercharge their brand growth. Huel paired this with a digital-first approach to their marketing strategy and backed this up even further with a strong social media presence.
Its core product lies at the intersection of a range of sub-cultures, from tech-industry influencers to vegans and those concerned about the carbon footprint of their diet. However, Huel’s similar taste and function to protein shakes has enabled it to resonate most effectively — especially on social media — with fitness enthusiasts.
To that end, the brand has created an inclusive community around the product on social media, with consumers who have integrated Huel into their diet endearingly known as “Hueligans”. A quick look at the brand’s Instagram account proudly shows off its lively community.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Huel’s growth was strong, but many consumers changed their behavior during the subsequent lockdowns of 2020. Thus, many were open to experimenting with new products like Huel. The company’s D2C focused business model allowed it to continue trading throughout the pandemic — and with restaurants shut and many consumers vowing to prioritize health and fitness, the brand found itself growing at an unprecedented rate.
However, not everyone is convinced that Huel is the food of the future.
Critics and columnists have been quick to point out that Huel’s taste isn’t something that everybody will enjoy. Indeed, the powder’s lingering aftertaste, porridge-like consistency, and intense sweetness (at least in the flavored varieties) had many reviewers looking for ways to cater the product to their own tastebuds.
Whatsmore, many consumers have struggled with the product’s inherent lack of variety and the resulting “taste fatigue”. Online reviews and forums discussing Huel and its main competitor Soylent are dotted with customers complaining that the product doesn’t hold upwhen consumed as a regular part of someone’s diet.
Despite the brand’s vocal messaging about the nutritionally complete nature of its offering, not all dietitians and nutritionists are convinced either. And for many, Huel’s long list of highly processed or technologically altered ingredients makes them dubious that it could replace real, fresh whole foods.
But despite these concerns, many consumers have been open-minded enough to try Huel, and — evidenced by their booming sales and rocketing growth — many customers can fit Huel into their diets and lifestyles.
Let’s take a closer look at the techniques Huel employed to fuel its growth to see what you can learn in an effort to improve your own campaigns.
What Can You Learn From Huel?
1. Don’t just promote your product, promote a lifestyle
Huel’s social media strategy has successfully created a community around their brand, and they’ve done this by playing to the channel’s inherent strengths. Rather than just rigidly promoting their core product, Huel engages with their followers and loyal customers (Hueligans) to promote an aspirational lifestyle.
The stories they are telling on social media draw from the brand’s main selling points but they elaborate and personify these paint-points and ambitions, showing real people happily incorporating Huel into their diets and healthy lifestyles.
On Instagram, their posts include recipes, workout tips, stories on environmental activism, and messages of positivity that are designed to resonate with consumers looking to get fit, live more sustainably, or use their time more efficiently.
This ethos is present in Huel’s only TV ad to date, in which a narrator speaks over a series of clips showing first-person viewpoints of a range of activities such as cycling, bouldering, and surfing.
What can you learn from this? There’s no such thing as a boring product, and there’s no reason your brand needs to feel boring. Huel’s core offering is a powdered food comprising oats, pea-proteins, and a range of other processed ingredients — but their brand feels like so much more because it focuses on the types of lifestyles that Huel can help customers’ achieve.
When thinking about your brand strategy, try to personify your most satisfied customer. Ask yourself: what has your product allowed that person to achieve? Using this to flesh out your brand identity can resonate with consumers on an emotional level, especially on social media.
2. Address consumer concerns in your brand messaging
As mentioned earlier, consumers do have concerns and misgivings surrounding Huel’s core product. From the divisive taste likened to cold runny porridge to the highly processed nature of the ingredients, Huel certainly hasn’t won over everyone.
While some brands choose to sweep negative reviews or consumer concerns under the rug, it’s only possible to hold back the tide for so long — and with Huel powder representing an entirely new type of product, consumers are more likely to do their own research before making a purchase.
As a result, Huel chooses to meet these concerns head-on, and as a D2C brand, its website is perfectly placed to address any misgivings or misconceptions at the point of purchase.
Fostering a sense of trust is given pride of place across the brand’s homepage, which features its Trustpilot score, logos from publications that have given it coverage, and testimonials from dietitians and nutritionists.
The brand clearly understands that consumers may have their own misconceptions about what Huel is and seeks to confront this, with messaging that defines exactly what Huel is and, more importantly, what Huel isn’t.
By being straightforward and open in this way, the brand has quickly built trust and been able to remedy the slow and cautious takeup that can often plague unfamiliar products or services.
What can you learn from this? Put simply, it is best to be open with your customers and even better to have an answer at the ready for their most pressing concerns.
To do this, it’s really important to know what your customers think of your brand and what perceptions they might have. By measuring brand associations, you can get a clear idea of both the positive and negative things consumers relate to your brand — which you can then remedy in your next marketing campaigns or build into your core-brand messaging.
3. Your customer’s success is your success
With acquisition costs rising, it’s more important than ever to put customer experience at the forefront of your marketing and branding efforts so that customers keep coming back for more.
In order to grow its loyal base of Hueligans, Huel has created a wealth of content that supports customers beyond the point of purchase, to ensure that their lifestyle goals can be reached and that the product can be integrated into their daily life.
Whether a customer wishes to lose weight, gain muscle or simply save time, the brand offers content that can help them achieve these goals, including a quiz found on the brand’s homepage that helps customers find the Huel product that is right for them.
It doesn’t just stop at content. One of Huel’s main selling points is how easily it can fit into the busiest of schedules. Increasingly aware that their D2C model might not fit into everyone’s busy schedule, the brand has expanded into supermarkets and airport vending machines to support its less organized customers and those who want to make impulse purchases “on the go.”
What can you learn from this: By putting customer success at the heart of everything your brand does, you can ensure that your product or service finds a place in your customers’ lives and stays there. Again, think about your ideal customer and everything they can achieve with your product — now take a step back.
What help might they need to get there? Are people using your product correctly? What other services might support your customer in their goals?
Remember that your customer's success is your company’s success, so do everything in your power to help them succeed and you’ll build a loyal customer base for your brand.
Huel has demonstrated that, when it comes to new and unfamiliar products or services, it is important to build a sense of trust and community, especially if you want your brand to grow quickly.
With a clear understanding of who their target audiences are, they’ve masterfully crafted messaging that addresses concerns or misgivings while promoting the types of lifestyles that their customers aspire to — and that has been a recipe for success.
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