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By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

May 8, 2020 | 8 min read

If you were to believe Instagram, we’ve all been spending our lockdowns baking banana bread and growing green onions. In reality though, many of us have no interest in food beyond eating it and until restaurants reopen, we’re more concerned with shelf life than feeding sourdough starters. Which should come as very good news indeed to Huel.

The meal-in-a-pill has been a staple of science fiction for much of the past century, promising to rid us of the hassle of eating and cooking and cleaning up dirty dishes afterwards.

And then of course there was the 60s Space Age trend toward powdered foods, from the thirsty astronaut’s favorite, Tang, to Martian-endorsed potatoes in a box.

But while pill-popping power-ups and predictions of a powdered promised land have never quite materialized, you need only look at the sad stale sandwiches that haunt our working weeks for proof that convenience is still a major consideration for many.

And so, since 2014 the entrepreneur Julian Hearn has been busy pushing Huel, his powder-based ‘human fuel’ meal replacement brand, after years spent as a marketer at companies such as Tesco, Starbucks and Waitrose.

Claiming to be “nutritionally complete” with “just the right amount” of protein, essential fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and made from “sustainable ingredients”, Huel sold 2.7m meals exclusively through e-commerce in January this year, bringing in £5.3m in revenue. In 2018, it took £40m in revenue on top of a £20m investment from Highland Europe. To date it has sold more than 45m meal replacements.

So should we all expect to soon be side-stepping the Scotch eggs in order to slurp on powdery shakes? Or is it likely that we’ve found ourselves in the midst of a modern-day snake oil seller? After all, you need only glance at the rulings of any advertising standards body to see that the wellness category is loaded with fraudsters promising miracles and flogging diarrhea pills.

Hearn says every category has its bad actors, and food is no exception. “Lots of restaurants have rats in their kitchens, and chocolate bars and sodas are crammed full of sugar, but you shouldn’t tar everyone the same brush.”

With Huel you’ll find no “dubious claims” or “shoddy ingredients”, he assures us, saying that he has the utmost belief in the product and the problem it solves, adding – in a seeming attempt to convince us – that he never started the company to make a load of money. “I’ve made my money.”

But while it is still early days for the brand built on the notion that some foods could be switched out for a quick, nutritional alternative, the press has largely pilloried Huel with headlines including ‘One Giant Leap for My Bowels’, ‘[Huel] made me feel less spaceman, more idiot’ and ‘My week of Huel’. Clickbait media and taste tests aside though, look back at those numbers and it’s obviously striking a chord with someone – or a lot of someones.

As well as its nutritional claims and the obvious convenience of a powder that needs only to be mixed with water or milk, Huel also contends that it is “affordable food”, with “minimal impact on animals and the environment” – a grand goal that’s more relevant every day as glaciers melt, forests die, people starve and seas rise.

“In an ideal world, we would all live off a wholefood diet that is nutritionally complete, and ideally we would all grow our own vegetables. But we don’t live in an ideal world.”

Leaning into the dystopian theme, he offers up a hard sell anchored in the growing world population. “We cannot continue like this. We throw away 30% of all our food and are very heavily reliant on meat, a very inefficient form of food.”

Unsurprisingly, he positions Huel as the answer. “We’re more environmentally friendly, we’re vegan, we have minimal packaging – we’ve hit a sweet spot.”

And if your dystopian food future stretches to stockpiling food in a fallout bunker: “We’ve even got a very long shelf life. You can’t really damage the product.”

It is likely that I’m falling into the trap of many reporters covering Huel, however, and dramatizing what is simply a handy and relatively mundane meal replacement product.

“Some journalists have just jumped into the deep end and claimed Huel is to replace all of your food, but that’s not what it’s about.

“It’s about replacing most inconvenient meals. We’ve all got those, whether it’s once a month or five or 10 meals a week.”

Huel Hearn

So who actually Huels? Well, sales figures show the UK, US and Europe are its main markets, in that order, although a recent launch in Japan is showing promising early signs. They buy direct from Huel’s website on a subscription basis, although retail trials are under way.

The majority (65%) are male and, for the most part, time-poor office workers aged 25 to 45. But that’s not the entire picture. Also among its advocates are elderly people who prefer it to the rigmarole of cooking.

“One older woman told me how it is a real chore having to cook food two or three times a day just for yourself. When you’re elderly, you don’t want to handle hot pans or boiling water, so sometimes Huel fits quite nicely as something quick and easy.

“Whether you’re young, fit and healthy or whether you are older, we all at times have inconvenient meals and that’s where Huel fits in. It is not supposed to be the sole thing you live off, but a solution for when you are tight for time or away from the kitchen.”

The alternative options, the sandwiches and cereal bars, potato chips and chocolate we thoughtlessly grab on the go and which Huel was designed to replace, are optimized for taste, according to Hearn, which is non-essential, rather than for nutrition, which is.

But that’s not to say Huel is there to displace the “entertainment food” we all so enjoy. “I’ll often have Huel for breakfast and lunch during the working week, but then at weekends and in the evenings I’ll eat more traditional food and go out for social occasions.”

Huel isn’t alone in this space, however. US-based meal replacement brand Soylent, which has raised more than $70m in funding and found its way into 20,000 retail stores in the US including Walmart, Target and 7-Eleven, is seen by many as its natural rival, especially since landing on Huel’s home turf when it expanded into the UK in September. Hearn isn’t particularly concerned and calls the company instead an “ally”, in the short-term at least, with the category still young and both companies facing the massive task of informing the public about the benefits of such products.

Soylent’s advertising, says Hearn, is beneficial for Huel in that it is “educating customers”, who, “when they get into this category, can make their own informed choice”.

“We have the superior formula, ingredients and packaging,” he says, before claiming: “We are the Mercedes of this category.”

Instead, Huel’s “main competitors” are low-quality snacks and meals that have “very high penetration” and which provide “a lot of headroom to expand into”. Hearn is trying to educate the mass market that there’s a different way to eat.

“Sandwiches have run for 300 years and it’s time to move on,” he warns, before launching into a tirade against bread.

“Our powder is less processed, far more nutritious, is completely balanced, contains all the essential vitamins and minerals, is more cost-effective, is better for the planet and has a much longer shelf life.”

Huel’s marketing team will be busy for the next few years documenting the many benefits it claims, mixing the right message with the right consumer. “There are just so many advantages, but that takes time to get across to people.”

For now, Hearn hopes a mix of direct marketing and word of mouth will help fuel Huel’s growth. He foresees a future where we all indulge in a dose.

“It is not a niche product. When the mass market starts to use it, they will realize there is something there. It is a bit of a novel product, a little bit alien, but once people are introduced to it either through friends or family, the uptakes will get going.”

But is the futuristic sci-fi pie-in-the-sky notion of meal replacement – Huel’s gold – something we’ve hungered for?

Well, ask yourself this – in the fairly well-grounded notion that booming population growth is set to ruin the Earth and stretch food production to breaking point, is it too much to ask that we offset a few meals with a cup of liquid nutrition?

Huel Marketing

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