Marketing’s Changemakers: How a snack bar brand is delivering food to starving children

Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a series from The Drum that tells the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, we feature a Q&A with Ryan Devlin, co-founder of This Bar Saves Lives.

Rarely does a brand’s name effectively explain what it is and why it exists, but such is the case with This Bar Saves Lives, a snack bar brand that donates nutrient packets to malnourished children around the world each time one of its products is purchased.

The brand was founded by actors Ryan Devlin and Todd Grinnell following a humanitarian trip the two took to Liberia. While abroad, the pair realized the impact of Plumpy’Nut, a “ready-to-use therapeutic food” that’s used to treat severe malnutrition. Upon returning home, the two decided to create a business that would help Plumpy’Nut get into the hands of those who need it most.

In the five years since it was founded, the company has donated more than 3.5 million of these nutritional packets around the world in countries including Haiti, the Philippines, South Sudan and Mexico.

The brand has also added actors Ravi Patel and Kristen Bell as co-founders, both of which Devlin says play an active role in helping shape and grow This Bar Saves Lives.

Where did you get the idea for This Bar Saves Lives?

The seed of the idea for This Bar Saves Lives came about when myself and one of our co-founders, Todd, took a humanitarian trip to Liberia. We were in between jobs, and one of our friends was building a bridge and an orphanage in this remote village. So we took the trip and helped complete some of these projects.

While we were there, we toured this refugee clinic that was treating children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. It was really heartbreaking, but it was also incredibly inspiring because we saw how easy it was to treat these kids and completely turn their lives around through a variety of types of nutritional aid, the most well known of which is called Plumpy’Nut. They call it the penicillin for malnutrition. We’d actually heard of Plumpy’Nut, and now here we were seeing it in action, taking these kids from near death to healthy and able to return back to their diets. That was one of those experiences that really rocked us. We came back to LA and decided that we wanted to do something to get this clinic more food aid.

Why did you want to create a snack bar as opposed to a different product?

Honestly, we didn’t consider anything else. We wanted to as closely connect consumers of our product with the aid they were giving away as we could. These ready-to-use therapeutic foods - that’s the technical name - they’re like these little packets of nutrition. You tear it open, you eat it, and it gives you everything you need until your next treatment. In our case, the closest thing that you can get to that is a snack bar. So that was immediately where our mind went. We wanted to make sure we were connecting people emotionally and physically through our giving model.

How do you determine where and who to donate to?

One of our driving pillars since starting this company is that we want to be very transparent, traceable and accountable on how we deliver our food aid. We really wanted to create a brand to make it easy to eat well and do good. We’re selling the best-tasting snack bars here domestically so that we can send the best types of nutritional aid abroad.

In doing that - building out the philanthropic side of the business - we knew there were going to be great organizations out there that would be able to do it better than us, so we partnered with them. So we have a network of giving partners that have boots on the ground.

How would you describe the company’s marketing and advertising strategy?

Scrappy and disruptive. When you start a company, you don’t have deep pockets, so you really have to find ways to break through the noise. Our brand name was the biggest lever in that strategy and continues to be one of our strongest assets. Beyond that, you just can’t beat word of mouth. Because our product is so damn good and because our mission is so clear and effective, we just need to get people to know about us. So we do a lot of guerrilla samplings, event support and demos where we know somebody who is going to be pretty perceptive to our brand will be. We get the product and the message to them. Beyond that, we’ve got a pretty disruptive and playful voice. We’re super positive. We tend not to hit the negative guilt side of things, which can be a pitfall. People get cause fatigue, so we stay really positive.

On the retail side, we want to make sure our products are in the coolest places where they will create early adopters and drive adoption through that. We’re in a lot of really hip places like WeWork campuses, Google campuses, and Starbucks We’ve got partners big and small that really vibe with the brand that we’re building.

Have you done any online advertising or more “traditional” ads?

We do now. For the first couple years, we didn’t do anything paid at all. We basically bootstrapped what we could to get the message out, and then as we got into retailers, we’d do a lot of retail marketing programs. Only now are we incorporating some of those more traditional tools, but we still go about it in our own way.

Digital’s been huge for us cause you can really target your audience, particularly on Facebook and Instagram. With Amazon, we have a really great partnership. We’re part of a program with Amazon called Small Business Spotlight, where they took just seven companies nationally that they identified as having huge potential for the Amazon platform. They took us under their wing and helped shepherd us through the Amazon process. We’ve got a team at Amazon that we’re working with to really drive awareness and trial on the site.

We’re diving into all of that now, and fortunately we have a great team that does that. It’s always the best surprise when I’m cruising through social media or buying stuff on Amazon and I see one of our posts come up.

The “buy one, donate one” model has famously been used by brands like Toms, but it hasn’t come without criticism. Has This Bar Saves Lives dealt with any criticism since it was founded?

We haven’t really. I really welcome scrutiny on social impact models and businesses, because it is a little bit of the Wild West where you wonder, ‘is a giving component just a marketing stunt or is it truly a core of the brand?’

The big thing that I would say that differentiates us from a lot of other giveback companies out there is that what we’re giving away is considered medicine. It’s administered by doctors and nurses to get a child who is suffering from a life-threatening condition like severe malnutrition back to their diet, so they can then switch off the medicine and be back to their normal way of living. So it’s a little bit different than if it were clothing or footwear. There are people dying, and this is what they need. Fortunately, we’re able to help them get that.

On a high-level point of view, I think we aren't at risk of as much blowback as some of the other impact companies because we’re super transparent, traceable and accountable on how we give, and what we give is not disrupting any economies or anything like that.

As the founder of a purpose-led company, do you think all brands need to have purpose?

I absolutely do. I think that social entrepreneurship and this trend that we’re seeing is the future of all business. Not because brands like Warby Parker are doing great, but for a simple, more basic reason: it feels good to do good, and that’s good for business. The ‘greed is good’ age is thankfully I think behind us in large respect. I think any company that ignores that is doing so to their great detriment.

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