Three years ago University friends Greg Duggan and Damien Kennedy set out on a mission to bring protein to the masses by creating Wheyhey, the world’s first healthy, high protein ice cream. Today the business is taking on some of the world’s largest ice cream manufacturers and is stocked by major retailers including Ocado and Holland and Barrett. Wheyhey is also currently trialing at well-known cinema chain Odeon in 12 of their sites.
We spoke to Greg and Damien about how changing consumer trends have impacted people’s perceptions of high protein foods, how they’re marketing Wheyhey, and some of the biggest lessons they’ve learnt from the last three years in business.
The Fitness Network
Why is the market for high protein foods and drinks growing so quickly?
Education – people are hungrier for information than they used to be. People no longer listen to the claims made by some of the large commercial brands on what they deem as ‘healthy’. Now people do their own research and recognise that a high sugar, high carbohydrate, low protein diet that demonises fat is actually a load of rubbish. The only reason why that’s ‘sold’ to the consumer is because it means these food companies can charge a higher price for a cheaper product – sugar costs almost nothing.
For us it’s taken a while for consumers to become more educated in terms of the benefits of protein. We’re no longer met by the stigma of “protein is just for bodybuilders” anymore, which is kind of what we were met with when we started this almost three years ago. Now everyone wants to learn more about the benefits of protein and the importance of having less sugar in your diet.
Protein has gone mainstream, whereas just a few years ago it was deemed as a fad or a trend. The companies trying to make a quick buck in this space will be found out very quickly. The long-term plan in terms of where we’re going is being at the forefront of taking protein mainstream and to the masses.
How have you seen the mentality of the consumer change?
There used to be a very English mentality around it, this awkward humour, where anyone who is trying to do anything with their lives got teased. Now that sort of Western, capitalist culture has spread over to the UK in a big way. People aren’t afraid to say that they’re attempting to achieve a goal or aspiring to something but they’re not quite there yet. As a result these people now have very loud voices, both socially and in the retail spaces out there.
It was almost like there was an embarrassment around taking protein, whereas now it’s almost seen as a badge of honour. People are saying, “I go to the gym, here’s my protein shaker, I want to look good and want to be physically fit.” People care about how they look.
The Fitness Network
How have you been marketing the business?
We focus massively on experiential marketing and bringing people underneath the brand. With a product like this you have to educate people; you must have face-to-face interaction with the consumer to explain what is quite a complicated product. It’s not something you can simply do online.
It’s an oxymoron in itself – a healthy ice cream! Having the opportunity at these events to be able to explain what it is, why it exists, and why you should include it in your lifestyle is really important to us.
We also do a lot on social because it ties in naturally to the events. We can reuse the content we develop at these events, and again educate the consumer at another touchpoint. Other than that it’s about executing well on the site and with the retailers, and making sure the product looks good on their shelves.
In this space we have very social consumers. People who are at the gym are generally more outgoing and communicate and share ideas more. Fitness people join group fitness classes to share their experience, and we want to be part of their experience. Lots of the things we do aren’t overly branded because people are tired of having brands shoved in their face.
We were quite lucky in that 3 years ago, pushing digital marketing to the forefront of business was a reasonably new attitude, whereas now the digital marketing space in terms of pushing products and attracting consumers is very competitive. We’ve already got the grassroots foundations of mavens and fans. Talking to other startups today, it’s very difficult to have your voice heard in the digital space.
The Fitness Network
Your website is clean, modern and easy to navigate. What was the thought process behind it?
Throw people too many balls and they drop them all. That’s why our websites are clean, have sufficient white space, and show one message at a time. It took a long time to get there though; we started off building the brand from a bedroom with a copy of Photoshop.
It’s developed on from there and we’ve been able to take a step back and realise what it is we’re trying to convey to our consumer, rather than being reactionary. There’s bound to be some tweaking, unless you spend 12 months building your brand book before you launch, but we wanted to get out there as soon as possible so no one else did it first!
The Fitness Network
What are some of the biggest business lessons you’ve learnt so far?
Slow down. I’m very impatient and as a result would have made some very hasty decisions and, as a result, pushed the business places it wasn’t necessarily ready to go. Damien is much more strategic and analytical about making decisions.
When we look back on decisions we’ve made, I don’t think we’ve ever regretted taking our time to make a decision. The only ones we’ve regretted are when we’ve decided that we have to do something really fast when we could have waited another 4 or 6 weeks.
It takes time – today’s culture means people expect immediate gratification. We thought we’d be where we are after three years in one year. It takes 7 to 10 years to build a sustainable business. People are watching Dragon’s Den and think it’s easy to get access to retailers. We’ve won contracts with some of the biggest retailers in the world, and it’s taken 18 months just to get through the paperwork and get our products on the shelf.
People are trying to get in and make a fast buck, but they will be found out very quickly. The key for us in building a great British brand is making sure that everything we do is strategically thought out and fits in with where we want to take our brand in the next 10 to 20 years. Otherwise it’s a ‘no’, no matter how good the opportunity is.
People called Vita Coco an overnight success; they’ve been going for 14 years! Quest Bar has been going for over 10 years.
My final point is that many of the buyers in the food industries need to change their mentalities. These people might be the gatekeepers to 200,000 consumers, but there’s a real lack of education and knowledge in terms of where the market is going, what the consumer wants, and up and coming trends. They’re very risk-averse, but this needs to change.