Meal replacement brand Huel recently held an in-person immersive event for its new line of Hot and Savoury meals.
Charlotte Minshell, the brand’s senior marketing manager, talks to us about the event, the Hot and Savoury line and marketing in the times of COVID-19.
This is the first immersive event for Huel. Why did you want to do an in-person event for the Huel Hot and Savoury?
We actually did a very small mix and mingle event back in summer 2017, but that was quite early days for us.
Hot and Savoury is a massive launch for us. It’s totally different to anything else we’ve done before. We get asked by our customers a lot for a savoury option as everything we have at the minute is sweet. We also get criticised a bit for being weird ‘space food’ by people who don’t understand the concept. We’re really excited about the prospect of Hot and Savoury and opening up to a larger audience. For people who are looking for something healthy for lunch but drinking their meal is too out there for them. We wanted to celebrate the launch because we are super proud of the product and have been working on it for a while.
We also wanted to invite some of our customers to come down and be the first to get their hands on it. We have a huge community of customers who are extremely passionate about the brand and the product and genuinely love Julian, our founder, and James, our co-founder. It’s quite rare that companies have the opportunity to meet people like that. We wanted to give them the opportunity to come down, thank them and have them celebrate with us.
Are these in-person events going to be more abundant or do you think COVID will lead you to focus even more on digital?
Digital is a huge space for us. We’re a digital content brand. That’s never going to change. It was interesting to do a face-to-face event and it’s lovely to meet our customers. Whether it is face-to-face or digital, we talk to our customers and listen to their feedback a lot. Our online forum, social channels and our customer service teams are extremely important to us. The Hot and Savoury event definitely opened our eyes to doing other events in person in the future. but digital will remain a huge focus for us.
What were the challenges you faced when putting on an in-person event during COVID? Were you worried people wouldn’t show?
The first thing was “where do we hold it?”. We wanted it to be somewhere that had easy access for our customers. Obviously with the current situation, being outdoors was preferable. We managed to find a location where the doors and windows opened out, so there was airflow through.
We were also lucky in terms of timing that the Government was pushing for businesses to open back up and get people back into London. I think people had had months of not doing a lot, so they were excited to come and do something different. But we were concerned that people would not want to come, or similar to what happens in restaurants at the moment – book but then not turn up. But we are lucky that we have a huge engaged audience that is really excited about the brand. They had no idea what we were launching before they came down but they knew if they came they would get their hands on it and find out first.
What procedures did you put in place for both customer and employees at the event to ensure safety?
We made sure that there was a one-way system and took into account the government guidelines of how many metres squared is allowed per person in a shop. We made sure we had ample room and had fewer people inside than we were allowed to. We had stickers on the floor so people knew where to stand and on the outside as well. All of the Huel team wore gloves and masks the whole time and plenty of the Huel team spoke to people in the queue.
Obviously, it’s totally different, with people having to spend more time outside than they normally would have done. Between 14 and 15 Huel staff spread out to ensure everyone was adhering to the guidelines at all times. We worked with an external health and safety company, to ensure that all the procedures and risk assessments had been done. We had hand sanitiser stations, we did track and trace so we know everyone who was there and took down their details. It was quite a lot of extra work on top of an event but totally worth it.
What lessons can you pass on to other companies that are perhaps considering trying an in-person event?
The main thing is to be a little bit bold. At the moment people are worried about doing the wrong thing.
If you have put procedures to make everyone safe in place, that’s the main thing you can do. Obviously, we would have loved to have loads more people come and have a bigger space, but we had to go with the current restrictions. Ensuring that the event is safe and making sure everyone felt comfortable is important. The worst thing that could have happened was our customers go away and feel uncomfortable.
I also think communication is key, at every point. From when we sent out the invites and follow-ups to chatting to people on the day, all to make sure everyone was comfortable and safe.
Sustainability is a big part of the Huel brand. How did this factor into the Huel Hot and Savoury? Are the pouches recyclable?
In terms of the event itself, we used a company that have materials in their warehouse that can be used again. So if we choose to do anything in the future we don’t have to repurchase them. We also had cans of water on the day rather than bottles.
The pouches themselves aren’t recyclable. This is because the pouch contains a thin layer of aluminium, sandwiched between two layers of plastic, that helps to keep the product fresh with its full nutritional value. But we are working with our supplier on a brand new type of packaging that will no longer contain aluminium and will be 100% recyclable. We hope to introduce our new pouch soon.
Our ready-to-drink bottles (RTDs) are 100% recyclable, including the black plastic lid, which often is not recyclable. The RTDs are currently made from 25% recycled plastic compared to the world’s top six drinks companies average of 6.6%. We want to do better and promise to continue increasing the proportion of recycled material in Huel bottles. We also use vegan-friendly ink for printing and vegan-friendly glue for the box.
Sustainability is a huge part of our mission and one of the reasons Julian came up with the concept. People are eating too much meat and the way we currently consume and buy food just isn’t sustainable. The Hot and Savoury pouches contain seven meals per pouch and they have a 12-month life span. The waste you get from those seven meals is considerably less than you would get from seven separate meals.
Do you see Huel Hot and Savoury competing in the supermarket space?
At the minute Hot and Savoury are only available online in a pouch format. Retail allows us to capitalise on the impulse purchases of people going into a shop, the grabbing and go experience. With the Hot and Savoury pouch, you can take it wherever you go but unlike a Huel bar or an RTD, you can’t immediately drink or eat it.
However, we have recently just had a significant increase in distribution in Sainsbury’s. We have increased the depth of our distribution from 650 Sainsbury’s stores to 900 Sainsbury’s stores and have also had a new SKU listed, the berry flavour RTD. The chocolate flavoured RTD is also in more stores so distribution is actually doubling as we’ve increased the breadth of our distribution with some stores only having one SKU now having three. It’s working really well for us but for now, retail is focused only on our ‘grab-and-go’ items. We are a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand and always will be.
Who do you see Huel Hot and Savoury appealing to?
A lot of our existing customers have asked for a savoury type product, so we are really excited to give them this. But we are also really excited to appeal to a wider audience. People who either haven’t heard about Huel or have but have been put off because drinking their lunch is too far from how they normally eat their food. With Hot and Savoury, you eat with a fork or a spoon and it feels much more normal. In terms of demographics, Huel goes out to loads of different people, because it answers loads of different challenges people have.
Are you moving away from the powder line into more conventional food products?
We will always have the powder line – that’s our bread and butter. What Huel Hot and Savoury allows us to do is talk to different people about complete nutrition and why Huel is such a great product. Hopefully, bringing them into the brand and introducing them to our different products. They then can purchase our other products in the future after they understand the Huel concept more. As well as introducing them to complete nutrition which is still a huge education piece we have to work on.
How has COVID impacted your business model?
We had a big peak when lockdown first happened. Perhaps some of our customers were worried we would sell out at some point. But we did really well in making sure we had sufficient stock and got everything out to customers on time. There were a few delays to the distribution when some people were working at home and everything shut down. It didn’t impact us too negatively, in the first month in terms of sales it was really positive for us.
In terms of the business itself, we all worked from home, we started to phase back into the office, but now are working from home again. But as we are a D2C brand predominantly it hasn’t affected us too much either. We still have projects in the pipeline. We were working on Hot and Savoury before lockdown and we managed to get that out when we wanted to.
We have been fairly lucky but we are also a fairly reactive brand. At the minute we are trying to work out how we talk to our customers in the current situation. Huel answers those people who are at home and don’t know what to cook or are still busy at work. But now people may face different challenges. There’s been lots of news about people gaining weight during the lockdown because they have access to their fridge all the time. So Hot and Savoury is exciting because it means people can have something in their cupboard at home that is good for them.
What does the rest of 2020 and 2021 hold for Huel?
We have lots of exciting stuff coming up in 2021. Hot and Savoury is going to be really big for us, so watch this space over the next few months. We are an innovative brand and we want to make sure we have a suite of products that keeps our customers coming back to us.