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A view on the vegan sector – Paul Brown, Founder of BOL Foods.

BOL Pot Range

A view on the vegan sector – Paul Brown, Founder of BOL Foods.

After our recent Thoughts from the Frontline interview with Paul Brown of BOL Foods, we wanted to ask him for his sector insight on marketing vegan food and any specific considerations around vegan customers. We’re always interested to learn specific insights on a particular sector and how they might differ from the broader category.

Can you provide us with a brief “potted history” as to how BOL became a vegan product?

We started BOL on 29th April 2015, with a mission to create healthy, convenient food for people on the go.

In 2017 I was convinced, overwhelmingly, that we need to make our product range vegan. Overnight we dropped all of our products that contained meat, halving our product range.

It then took us to the Summer 2018 to become fully vegan, when we removed the last of the diary ingredients from our products.

We now have a 100% plant-based range, that we believe delivers delicious, nutritious, plant-based food.

How have you seen the market change over the last few years (5) in terms of new producers and brands coming into the market?

Massively. The growth of the flexitarian market has been vast. But we only need to look at the actions of some of the leading supermarkets in the UK to see how much it’s changed. Tesco’s, (the UK largest retailer), creating the Wicked Kitchen vegan range is a clear indication of the commercial viability of the meat free or vegan market. Their appointment of Derek Sarno, as Plant Based Innovation Director, to the board was a clear action of intent. Waitrose now have 134 stores across the UK with a Vegan Bay – another clear, big market move.

Wicked Kitchen

Image courtesy of Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen

Without necessarily talking about BOL’s specific target customers, how have you seen the vegan consumer profile(s) or the wider “flexitarian consumer profile(s) change over the last few years (5)?

The flexitarian market has grown enormously over the last few years. We now see 50% of the UK population classing themselves actively looking to reduce meat in their diets, i.e. flexitarians. At the same time, the number of vegans in the UK has doubled from 2016 to 2018, from 276,000 to 600,000*,  embracing a much wider audience. We expect this to continue, seeing further growth in the flexitarian market and from that pool, more people opting to be vegan.

What do you believe the scale of the market opportunity is for a vegan market, vs a flexitarian market?

It’s complex. Around 75% of our customer base at BOL are flexitarian, but our vegan customer base is much smaller. That said, our brand values are very much aligned with veganism and these lead our commercial decisions for our product development. It happens that these vegan values also appeal to the flexitarian market. Inevitably the flexitarian market is going to be stronger than the vegan market for the foreseeable future, but vegan ethics will lead our decision making going forward.

How are the supermarkets (and other retailers) responding to this change and what do you think they could be doing better?

On the whole, they’re making great in-roads to changes that relate to the growth of the meat free market. I’ve mentioned a few examples earlier as to their actions to create a stronger platform for plant-based foods in store, creation of Vegan Bay at Waitrose and Wicked Kitchen at Tesco. That said, there’s still plenty more than can be done. We still get feedback from our customers that they can struggle to find our products in-store. In one store we’re in the Healthy Eating section, in another we’ll be in the Free From section. The whole sector is going through evolutionary change and during this change it’s going to create issues with customers trying to navigate this evolution; supermarkets need to be able to adapt and change with the market as it moves.

What do you envision the meat free category to look like in 3-5 years time?

While we’re seeing greater numbers of products and producers in the market, we’re still in the minority when it comes to shelf space. I see this evolving eventually to have the reverse, where it’s the animal-based products that’ll have their own section in the supermarket and everything else will be plant-based. During this time, we’ll move through this change with plant-based foods getting further integration into stores and wider ranges, until eventually we’ll reach a tipping point, where they’ll be in the majority. This will mean that more and more products currently available in store that are animal-based, will be adapted to become plant-based only.

What is the biggest challenge facing the vegan (or vegetarian) producer in the market or those looking to start-up today?

Shelf life is a real challenge – but this is a challenge to anyone entering the food sector. With our brand values, we want to keep our food as fresh as possible, but at the same time ensure we eliminate the need for waste. We have a 0% waste to landfill target to meet at all times. In order for us to achieve this we need to really engage with our retailers when they run reduced to clear offers etc. Opting to use a frozen product development route could eliminate some of these issues, but not all.

The conversations that we have with our customer base about our use of plastic in our product range is complex and not as simple as it might seem on the surface. All of our product packaging is recyclable, and wherever possible upcyclable. This has very much been a conscious decision. I believe the UK, as a whole, could have much better infrastructure in place to support recycling for producers and retailers, but I could rant about this all day (you can read more about Paul and BOL’s thoughts on plastic on their blog – #plantlife). We need to continue to work hard at ensuring we as a sector exemplify positive values.

As a well-known vegan producer, what would your words of advice be to someone else looking to enter the vegan market?

Be genuine.

We’re going to see a backlash against vegan and vegetarian brands that aren’t healthy over the coming years, I believe. Being able to claim that your product range is vegan or vegetarian isn’t and shouldn’t be enough.

BOL Clear Pots

In a similar vein, our aesthetic is important in our product packaging. Using clear pots to allow our customers to see all of the ingredients in products helps us to deliver on our brand values about healthy looking, nutritious, tasty food – but it also helps us make the most of one of greatest assets, plants are beautiful to look at.

What are the considerations when marketing to millennials?

We don’t consciously market to millennials. We market to likeminded customers that share our values, it just so happens that a segment of these are millennials. In terms of channels such as social media, we don’t use these because millennials use them, we use them because most people now use them and it’s a great way to get closer to our customers and get direct feedback.

What brands or organisations have you learned from in terms of creating amazing customer experiences?

My time at Innocent definitely influenced the way we approach customer engagement and experience delivery. But lots of new start-ups put much more focus on delivering great customer experiences these days.

Research Sources

*The Food & You surveys, organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the National Centre for Social Science Research (Natcen) and Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned by The Vegan Society, 2018