Branding and Culture Gender in branding

What brands can learn from JK Rowling

Last week JK Rowling, perhaps a little behind on the movement to make language surrounding periods more inclusive  – poked fun at an article which used the term ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ’women’ when talking about periods.

The reaction was disproportionate outrage, from the transgender community, fans, even Daniel Radcliffe and Hermione Grange (Emma Watson) joined in. Fan blog The Leaky Cauldron called for fans to boycott Rowling, to stop buying her books and watching the movies. The call to ban stories which have entertained and supported generations of confused teenagers, of all genders and races, where ‘bad’ and ‘misunderstood’ were not grouped together and bravery prevailed, is a worrying step in a direction which threatens to stamp our healthy debate and morph us all – or at least the language with which we describe ourselves into one genderless, identity-less, ageless, unidentifiable blob.

But what effect will the latest debate over inclusive menstruation have on brands? And should we be using inclusive terms across all categories? Changing our targeting language to  ‘people with periods, people who shave their faces or people who drink baby formula’ instead of women, men or infants.

Let’s look at both sides of the argument, because they both have a point.

On the one hand, making menstruation a ‘woman’s  thing’, means those who have periods but are not women don’t feel brands speak to them or include them in their communication. When I researched menstruation language on BOSSY – a Facebook group for women and non binary people in the creative arts – for the work we did on Ebb, I learned that more than just excluding non-binary or trans from brand communication, using the term ‘women’ in association with periods means women who do not menstruate feel somehow less feminine.

On the other side of the debate are charities, feminists and brands who are fighting for the right to continue to use the term ‘women’ when referring to a bodily function which occurs in the female body, and products targeted to that bodily function. The counterargument is that by ‘desexing’ periods we silence the right to talk about them – as occurring in women – predominantly. I explore this subject in depth in a case study written after the launch of Ebb reusable menstrual pads for the charity Binti Period.

Brands need to make an important decision on which side of the fence to stand, because there seems to be no middle ground between removing the label ‘woman’ from a product, and silencing the fight of feminist generations to be heard and making products more inclusive of vulnerable groups who might just be learning about their gender identities.

We decided to keep the term women on our brand communication for Ebb, feeling that the struggle women face all over the world to menstruate without shame doesn’t mean we don’t also understand that some people face additional struggles relating to gender identities.

I’ll end by saying the JK Rowling witch hunt shows that misunderstanding, labeling and taking statements out of context can steer us away from having important debates and perhaps coming up with creative solutions that work for everyone.

Branding and Culture Case Studies

Into the Wylde – finally, a lube for ladies

Standing in the ‘sexy’ section of the local pharmacist, dodging the judgemental eyes of shoppers, many women will relate to gingerly reaching for some lube and wondering if this really belongs on our bits. Kathie Bishop – a medical herbalist specialising in female intimate health, founded Into the Wylde with the mission to create a lubricant brand for women, made specifically with women’s physical needs in mind, and not just from a product point of view.  A vulva is not a penis, it has very different needs, and mimicking natural lubricant is about more than just making things slippy. A female lubricant product must work on a psychological, emotional level – connecting with women visually and verbally through the brand design and communication. And so, Into the Wylde set out to cross the slippery category of fem-care with a lubricant that gets women’s needs, inside and out.

The brand and packaging was conceptualised by designer Claire Hartley who set out to create a visual identity that’s a harmonious balance between elegance and play. The hand-drawn logo brings an organic yet sensual feel – a nod to the brand concept of connecting with our inner Wylde One. Paired with a rich colour palette of pinks and greens, the aesthetic is flirtatiously vibrant. The packaging features hand-illustrated nudes seductively wrapped in wylde botanicals – referencing the product’s natural ingredients. It was important the brand’s nude (which, we nicknamed Freda on account of her powerful poses and effervescent confidence) emerge from her botanical backdrop strong and unabashed. So often do we see feminine nudity as either oversexed or somehow hidden and secretive. The visual identity is about presenting a body the way it is, draped in nature, wylde, beautiful and unapologetic. The look and feel expresses femininity through its essence, with a sexy, adventurous tone that invites you to reawaken play.

The brand tone of voice and messaging, written by Siena Dexter, Creative Director at Idea Dolls London, was inspired by Kathie’s straight-talking tone and journey to creating the brand. Suffering for years with thrush, Kathie found the condition disconnected her from her intimate expression. The tone of voice had to approach sexuality in a gentler way, showing respect to the emotional and psychological complexities of female intimacy – all that with sophistication which fitted our visual identity, and a playfulness which articulated being ‘into the wylde’ – the freedom of connecting with a natural flow. The brand tagline ‘reawaken play’ and social hashtags ‘#VulvaLovinCare’ and ‘#FreeTheV’ all communicate the brand’s message of connection, natural vulva health, and between-the-sheets fun.

Creating the brand messaging highlighted some very real issues around fem-care messaging  – we wanted to be progressive, forward thinking, even bold, but can we really say ‘vulva’ on the pack? and will we sound like a GUM clinic doctor if we do?

Our messaging had to be direct, we didn’t want to shy away from talking about female anatomy, but if we were honest about how women communicate, the word ‘downstairs’ is far more likely to be used than ‘vulva’ in everyday conversation.  We navigated uncharted paths of how to say natural lubrication without saying ‘moist’ or ‘wet’ (too gross, too X rated), and whether yoni, vulva or just ‘down-under’ are best suited to describing where the product goes (we went with the latter).

After 6 years of development, and almost 2 years of brand creation, Into the Wylde’s ‘Wylde One’ water-based lubricant is finally set to launch on Monday 13th April, and we hope will resonate with sexually active women of all ages, reawakening play and lubricated lovin’.

Packaging Uncategorized

2020’s top 5 packaging copy trends

Packaging copy – that all-important but oft’ ignored unsung hero of packvertising is set to turn over a new leaf as cutie-pie copy dies a slow but much anticipated death.  The floor will be opened to new creative and relevant ways to engage audiences in the decade to come, and with ‘top design trends of 2020’ blogs in full swing, we thought it’s about time homage was paid to the messaging style and tone brands will be using in 2020.

Wacky copy is on it’s way out

And as on-pack copy everywhere starts to sound like a Frankensitinian patchwork of brands doing the exact same thing, consumers are calling out for something new.

When Innocent started the wackaging trend, it was new and different, personable packaging that doesn’t take itself too seriously replaced over-cluttered messaging that was hard to relate to.

But according to judges at the coveted D&AD Advertising Awards’ writing category, wacky copy can go one of two ways and can just as easily make you laugh as roll your eyes. It’s becoming harder to entertain consumers with whimsical words, and brands will need to work harder to create a wacky tone that truly stands out.

Clean and clear

Transparency is one of the most important drivers to purchase across all FMCG categories.  We care about what we put in our bodies, we also care about what we put out in the world. We care about where our goods come from and the carbon footprint they leave behind.

Functional, fit-for-purpose copy that tells it like it is will engage shoppers who want to know what they’re buying and make their decision quickly.

Across every category, shoppers are losing trust in verbose messaging claims and convoluted pack copy. Succinct, clear positioning and direct language will resonate with no-nonsense back-to-basics buyers – as design goes minimal, so will copy.

Toxic-free terms

There has been a lot of talk about moving towards a more inclusive place of communication, as a packaging agency in London, we pay particular attention to the way we communicate, hoping to avoid offending those advocating for ditching gendered language altogether. However where we lose gendered terms ‘she’, ‘hers’, ‘woman’, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Brands will need to make a call on what their inclusivity sounds like, and where they stand on the binary-free spectrum.

The copy of 2020 will explore gender neutrality, with some brands opting to adopt gender free terms, while others decide their responsibility lies with those who identify as women or men.

That being said, future copy, while moving towards a more inclusive and responsible way of communicating, will faze out toxic terms which stereotype the behaviour of men or women into overly feminine or overly masculine categories, making room for androgynous wording which can say ‘her’ without referencing specifically how ‘she’ should look, or behave.

We’re in this together

Extinction rebellion has brought activism to our daily lives, commutes and news feeds. The emergence of young activists like Greta Thunberg, and that pensioner who glued her hand to a train carriage (only in London), shows that activism is a ‘trend’ which crosses genders, age groups and social classes. In a bid to attract a growing number of politically active consumers, brands will be adopting active language that resonated with informed and increasingly anti establishment audiences.


In a world that changes faster than acceptable PC terms and classification for gender orientation, we are increasingly drawn to reminders of the good ‘ole days.

Nostalgia-rich packaging copy that reminds us of ‘proper communication’ with a nod to the sophisticated classes will replace colloquial heavy messaging – simply put, copy your nan would understand is in. And what better time for it to make a comeback than an era where the gap between the oldest and youngest generations is closing and where the silent generation has never been less silent.

‘New nostalgia’ offers authenticity, grounding and a familiar breath of fresh air after the 2019 ‘sumbro’ trend, which is thankfully (hopefully) over.

Branding and Culture

Stranger Things – Why shopper age, relationship status and gender are irrelevant in today’s upside-down world.

Everywhere I look, something weird is happening. Teenagers are sipping £4 oat milk lattes at Planet Organic and talking about activism. ‘Grown-ups’ are skateboarding to work and talking about polyamory. 

Something weird is happening and not just to packaging design in London, an upside down world (though I hasten to add, a refreshing rather than unpleasant one) where traditional polar divides are being smooshed together into one blurred group that isn’t defined by age, or gender or whatever ‘class’ even means anymore. 

The young are acting old, the old are acting young, married people are polyamorous, gender is blurred and our traditional mode of profiling audiences feels completely out of sync with the zeitgeist. 

Before we explore how we should be targeting audiences more effectively, we must understand if a shift is happening that necessitates a dramatic change in the way we profile. 

I’ve focused on three key areas – gender, relationship status and age – which along with spending power form the basis for much of our audience targeting, and exploration of purchase behaviour. 

For the purpose of this article, I will disregard the benefit of using age, relationship status or gender profiling when segmenting our buyers based on a particular need – e.g a dating app for singles or tampons for people who menstruate. It’s just common sense to acknowledge that some products fulfil a need that only some people might have, we can’t really call this ‘positioning’.

 Our job as brand creators, founders and marketers goes far beyond selling water to the thirsty – it’s our job to market a concept, a way of living and a myth that our target audience wants to welcome into their everyday lives. We must ask the question, ‘of the group of people who need our product, how do we communicate better with those who might believe in our vision, and our our brand’. 

Shift #1 - Don’t call us ‘old’ - the rise of age agnosticism

Euromonitor cites ‘age agnostic’ as one of the biggest consumer trends of 2019. The report pointed to the importance of winning and retaining loyalty and trust in brands amongst an older generation that doesn’t want to be seen as ‘old’. 

The baby boomer generation have more in common with millennials and younger generations than we would expect, so it makes little difference if our audience is 25 or 65. In terms of values, morals, ideals and brand relationship desires – a revolutionary startup is as likely to excite a 55 year old as a 25 year old. Euromonitor details the importance of adopting an inclusive mindset that focuses on values – clean living, connection or physical and mental balance rather than an age cut off that talks to 55 year olds like an advert for Saga Insurance. 

Boundaries are shifting – people are taking care of themselves and living longer than ever. Affluent baby boomers are technology and travel obsessed, living their retirement years like an extended gap year. This ‘Peter Pan’ generation of baby boomers are now moving into their 70’s, they have influence, often affluence, do not see themselves as ‘old’ and don’t want to be labeled ‘senior’. 

“The Age Agnostic trend among older generations is strongly reflected in the desire among 35% of baby boomers currently between 54–74 years old who agree or strongly agree with the statement that they want to enjoy their lives and not worry about the future. This proportion is surprisingly even higher than generation Z and close to millennials (38%).”

Two generations down, gen-Z are rebels with a cause. 

A recent research project we undertook for a reusable menstrual pad revealed that 16-24 year olds are most likely to make purchase decisions that support ‘kind’ brands – brands who are working, or appear to work towards making a positive impact on the environment. 

Meanwhile, older generations base purchase decision on price, and at least in this category hold little brand loyalty. If we were to target ‘millennials’ with the typical startup knee-jerk reaction, assuming that generation Z have little disposable cash, or that baby boomers don’t use menstrual pads for incontinence (when in fact the ageing population makes incontinence wear  a more lucrative market than menstrual wear, and often the two needs are met by the same product) – we would be ruling out the two groups most likely to form a meaningful connection with a new, more relatable brand of reusable underwear protection. 

Rather than a linear scale with young on one end and ‘old’ at the other, the path is circular, with the very young and very old connected and actually having the most in common.

Kampung Admiralty in Singapore launched its first public housing project which actually houses senior centres with childcare facilities. The purpose is to develop a more integrated society and encourage cross-generational bonding. 

Zandi Bremner,  Head of Client Innovation at Euromonitor International explains that:

“To win now, it is less about conceptualising consumers in obvious ways but rather embracing the openness of accepting everyone in creating universal design across generations.”

The closing gap and efforts to minimise polarity between even the widest separated age groups represents  a global desire to bridge generational divide.

What if, instead of breaking down your audience into a group of health loving 25-35 year olds (because, snore, isn’t everyone?) you defined your audience in a more creative way? What if you approached your audience the same way you make friends, not discriminating on grounds of age, but bonding over the things you share?


At Idea Dolls, we’ve started using a derivative of the Meyer Briggs profiling system to define our audience personalities based on how they form relationships and friendships. Personality ‘types’ are flexible and may change as a person changes and their priorities shift. We have found this a far more effective way of figuring out what’s important to the group of people we want our brands to connect with.

Shift #2 - Single, and not ready to mingle. Why relationship status is redundant

I want to talk about polyamory, because from a branding point of view (and every point of view really) this subject is insanely interesting. But first, I’ll start with an introduction to this part of my argument – that we need to do away with ‘married, single, divorced, widowed’ as a basis for marketing products or reaching relevant audiences and this is why:

Using marital status to deduce consumer purchase behaviour makes absolutely no sense, even more-so when we consider that single person households will soon overtake any other household (Euromonitor 2019).  

With single living overtaking conjugal relationships, and monogamy, even amongst married couples in increasing decline, it is more important than ever to market to an individual based on individual personality profile. Certain personality types will naturally lend themselves to certain types of relationships, but it is the personality type rather than the relationship that dominates drivers to purchase.

In our new ‘stranger things’ universe, single people are acting as society dictates ‘settled down and happily married people’ would do (staying in, shunning social engagements, feeling complete without the need to, say, experiment with iowaska for a laugh) while married people are becoming increasingly experimental in the bedroom, their relationships – and we can deduce other areas of their lives too. 

Let’s look at singles first and how what we expect from ‘single living’ is being replaced with JOMO –  and instead of a Fear of Missing Out, single-by-choice-or-otherwise people actively relish the opportunity to stay away from the action and switch of.

“The fear of missing out has now given place to the re-appropriation of self-time as people find joy in missing out.” (Euromonitor) 

By re-empowering the time we have for ourselves, this intentional disconnection is symptomatic of the trend to live alone, work alone and travel alone – solo travel trips have increased by 80% in the last two years, especially solo female travel. 

Across the world, the number of single person households overtakes any other type of households with a shift from the high divorce rate of baby boomer generation to an outright rejection of marriage and cohabitation in generation X and Z. 

Consumers are embracing an independent lifestyle, and marketers must listen.

Now let’s talk non-monogamy.

The polyamory scene which first exploded in America among the nouveau-bohemian experimenters, quickly filtered into Tel Aviv’s ‘sex positive’ and ‘polyamorous’ movement. Psychology Today reports that one fifth of the US population has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point. This year 4-5% of Americans would class themselves as polyamorous, while Rolling Stone estimates that one in five people have engaged in a consensual non-monogamous relationship. Based on this, choosing a non monogamous lifestyle is more widespread than veganism and almost as commonplace as vegetarianism. 

Where in the past there were those in relationships and marriages, and those either divorced or single, we now have a collision of categories and a growing number of people who exist on a complex spectrum of relationship preferences – the split of ‘single’ or ‘in a relationship’ seems not just simplistic, but pointless.

Would it not be more interesting and effective to consider not whether an individual is cohabiting, married or single, but what motivated their lifestyle choices?

If brands are to communicate meaningfully and create long lasting loyalty, they must understand the flexible nature of the modern consumer, and connect based on values and lifestyle rather than relationship, marital or habitation status.

Shift #3 - adapting to gender fluidity

This is probably the biggest challenge for marketers, and for me – the most challenging to overcome in a hypothesis of under 600 words – but here goes!

I was talking through my theory with a marketer at Lola’s cupcakes recently and they challenged my assertion that gender divides when targeting consumers are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

“Well”, they said – our research shows women aged 25-35 buy our cupcakes. Organic, not targeted reach, so how would you explain that?

This is a question is valid and must be addressed but first we must evaluate the significance of the rise of non-binary gender types.

New Scientist recently reported a rising number of non-binary attendees at the Tavistock Centre, London. The centre saw a rise between mid 2018 and mid 2019. Those who identify as non-binary or queer-gender were not necessarily looking to transition from one gender or another. 

Polly Charmichael, director or Gender identity Development explains the rise of queer-gender and non-binary (who don’t identify as either male or female, and now make up 11% of referrals to the clinic), may be a response to being categorised or boxed into one gender or another and a desire to challenge traditional stereotypes.

The group of people who identify as non-binary (and the many other alternatives to male or female) is growing, this is a fact. But can we really do away with gender differentiation entirely and is this a feasible future for marketers? 

What about the brands who know as a categorical fact that they are suited to women aged 25-35?

I’ll call on the work of Foucault to answer this question. Let’s explore the thought that rather than brands targeting groups, brands or society are in fact creating the idea, or to use foucauldian terms the ‘discipline’ that women aged 25-35 must like this particular product or brand. So if you’re a woman aged 25-35 you’ll see a brand you’ve been told is ‘for you’ and you buy it. 

I use the term ‘discipline’ in the foucauldian sense as the unspoken rules and social expectations which force you to conform to society you’re in – a woman is a woman, a man is a man, an old person is an old person etc. etc.

So rather than a monodirectional targeting, or a force that goes just one way, we have a push and pull in society – a chicken and egg situation where marketers give consumers what they want according to their definition of what that group wants, and at the same time a group adhering to the socialisation they’ve been indoctrinated into which tells them – you’re a girl therefore you will like pink unicorn cupcakes. 

According to foucauldian thought, we apply the technology of discipline on ourselves to fit into a specific category. 

On the note of gender I don’t want to in any way imply that ‘femaleness’ needs to be eroded to make way for a gender fluid category, reattribution of brand identity to certain non-gender-specific profiles should in no way impact those who identify as women. The aim here is to be inclusive, not exclusive, to welcome, not dictate, to market responsibly not reinforce gender stereotypes and polarisation.

There is still, clearly a place for gender polarised categories, just like there is also a place for age differentiation and marital status distinction but we cannot ignore the shift in masculine women, feminine men, non-binary, ‘young at any age’, non-monogamous and everything in between. Gender, just like predisposition to adventure or experimentation  exists on a spectrum that isn’t necessarily defined by your given or self-assigned set or genitalia, your age or whether you wear a wedding band.

So I make the case that in order to adapt and more so, reinforce this social change and the growing number of individuals who do not fit into their assigned ‘box’ we must find a new way of targeting, perhaps based on psychological and personality types. 

Change is happening whether we like it or not, and we must adapt because the ramifications or continuing as we are, targeting ‘women aged 25-35’ with unicorn cupcakes are  worse than simply being ignored, and becoming irrelevant, we may actually be reinforcing harmful divides with a dam of discipline.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything and everything I’ve suggested in this article, if you’ve made it to the end – yay congrats, you must be a single, vegan, baby boomer (kidding… kidding).

Thanks so much for reading, if you’d like to hear more of this sort of stuff, send us a hello and we’ll add you to our soon-to-be-created mailing list.

How to

How to Write a Converting App-Store Description

I’m on the app store. I need a new dating app/ removal company/food delivery service… I have no prior knowledge of the service, no referral from friends, nothing at all to go by.

Dear developer….I need you to tell me why I should hit download, I want to use you, really, I do, but see I have the jitters, I’m going ‘no reviews?’, ‘no pictures?’ no endorsement by well-known news publications? This is a scam! We’re negative like that, even positive humans who like to support startups and be at the cutting edge of the next great app.

Your app store description is your elevator pitch, your Dragon’s Den moment in the spotlight, and the stakes are high. You get 4000 characters, and a few words before the ‘click more’ button to convince your future customers you’re not just legit, but can actually change their lives for the better.

If you thought writing website copy was hard, this is another level. You don’t get to optimise your app store copy. You can’t split-test it and work out the highest converting formula. All you have to go on is whether or not it works. A simple yes or no, download or don’t.

Your app store copy makes all the difference. And every single word counts.

Ok, let’s get to it. I’m going to use some copy we recently wrote for a newly launched app as a case-study.

We worked with the founders of Loafly to create their visual ID, name, website and tone of voice so we already had a head start on finding the right approach for their app store description.

But before we could start selling this awesome service, we had to create initial engagement.

You get two chances to say what you do before your visitors need to make the decision to hear more about you:
1) The subhead under your app name:
Restaurant food, delivered.

2) A one-line description before the ‘read more’ button

Before I get onto the actual nitty gritty – what to include, spacing, bullet points etc, we need to talk about tone.

If no one’s heard about your app before, you need to make it super clear what it does. Loafly is fun, light and energetic. Their app store copy reflects that but also makes it super easy to understand.

When I wrote the app store description for Moonpig’s new stickers app, my rules went out the window. When you’re writing for a brand that’s an established household name, you can get a bit more playful.

If you’re the new kid on the block, play it safe. Even big fish like Ocado and Uber say it like it is.

Uber is “a ridesharing app for fast, reliable rides in minutes – day and night. There’s no need to park or wait for a taxi or bus”

See how they use 3 features (fast, reliable, 24 hours) and 2 benefits (no need to park or wait).

If you’re launching an app as a brand extension to your main brand, or want to do something a bit kooky because you’re already known and loved, go for it. It’s a risk you can probably afford to take.

OK, while we’re on the first impressions part of this tutorial, screenshots or app previews are a great way to showcase usability, keep your app store page on-brand with your palette and add a few engaging lines of copy to the main screen (2000 characters do not account for copy you add to your app preview slides – so there’s a cheeky hack, but keep it simple and impactful).

By giving your previews a bit of love and a splash of brand identity, you can turn something like this:

Into something like this:

OK, so you have a catchy app ‘subhead’ you’ve got some kick-ass previews with added features and benefits, you’ve got sticky, slicky, can’t-wait-to-read-more-about-it preview copy…

Let’s write this description.

But first, let’s stop calling it a description, because you’re not writing a description, you’re writing a sales page. It’s got to hook, engage, captivate and sell your app to unaware browsers who found you through your marketing or promotion.

● A sales page draws the reader in with a compelling intro
● It uses images sparingly
● It uses features and benefits to overcome objections
● It supports the statements it makes with testimonials and reviews

When you’re writing an app store ‘description’ or a sales page, follow the same format.

Oh, but as an aside, and maybe his is stylistic, but if you want to tell your story and it goes something like ‘I was almost broke, yada yada, I hated my life, I hit rock bottom and considered eating my sofa for sustenance, then I discovered (insert life changing service you’re trying to sell here) and now I sit in my pants all day watching the 0’s in my bank account multiply’ – it’s probably not going to get approved as an app store description, also maybe just stick to actual benefits for your users.

Things to do:

● Say who it’s for: parents, professional singletons, hedgehog owners etc.
● Say what you do – your value proposition
● If you’ve been mentioned in the press, or by influencers add a snippet like “as seen in The Guardian”, or “Tony Robbins recons it’s sick”
● Include the number of downloads (if significant)
● Include star ratings and reviews (if you have them)
● Give all the details your customers will need, e.g: delivery, payment or in-app upgrades
● List all your benefits – especially if you’re light on reviews. Try scribbling down all your features (delivery before 1 pm, reusable packaging, supporting social programmes, variety, latest fashion… you get the idea), then for each benefit jot down how it will change your customer’s life for the better. The trick is if you’re saying ‘so what’, it’s not a benefit yet.
● Use symbols >>> or *** to break the text up
● Add ‘get in touch’ information

Something like this:

Things not to do:

● Talk about yourself and your journey
● Focus solely on features
● Make it too cheesy or salesy
● Write nothing at all – people like to be sold to, just not in a pushy way

So there you have it! Appy-days, you’re well on your way to writing a great app-store description.

Still confused about where to start? Drop me a line for a free 15-minute consultation and we can chat about how Idea Dolls can help.

Good luck and thanks for reading!


13 Questions with Nick Bildner – Co-Founder of Pulsin

I knew the co-founder of Pulsin when the brand was in its market-stall days and am proud to say I’m fairly confident to have tasted every bar to bear the Pulsin name (even some of the secret ones I’m not supposed to talk about) I remember the proud moment I saw the bars in Tesco, and Sainsbury’s, and well, they’re everywhere now. I feel invested in their journey and how far they’ve come, so I thought, who better to ask about what it really takes to make it as a food startup than the Pulsin gang.

Co-founder Nick agreed to answer my questions because he’s not just an entrepreneur extraordinaire, but also one of the most decent, humble chaps I know.

So without further ado, let’s get to the good bit.

Hey Nick, thanks for getting in the hot seat – here are your 13 questions!

You started up the business with friends you already knew (I think!) do you have any tips for a startup looking for a business partner? 

I met Simon and Ben back at University in 1997. We had shared a student house together. We have always trusted each other inherently and this has been fundamental in our ability to run an effective business together. So my recommendation would be to work with partners you can trust.

Of course, money is always a big problem when starting up, did you get help from government grants? Or do you know of any funding available for foodies looking to start their food business dream?

When we started, we got help from the government loan guarantee scheme (EFG) 

We put up £24k between us in 2007 and Barclays Bank match funded our business plan with another £24k. That gave us enough money to buy some basic machinery and get a small lock up unit in East London to start making the products. Angel investors also exist who support brands with funding and take shares in your business from the start but I think giving away too many shares at the beginning is a mistake. In addition, you can get funding from a few crowdfunding sites now. Before the funding stage, however, we had tested some mockups at a few festivals and our friend’s lunchtime eatery in London. We even sold hand made stock into a few health food stores to get rate of sale information and therefore test the feasibility of the product. My advice is to test your idea out first before looking to get funding. For example, create product at home and get a market stall to get real feedback from consumers or sell hand made product into a few health food stores.

Let’s talk actual realistic figures, how much do you actually need to start a food brand? Of course this depends on your manufacturing costs, but what’s the initial hit to even get a product ready to sell on market stalls?

We did it on a shoestring initially, buying enough ingredients to make a few hundred products with hand made packaging. This cost us a few hundred pounds. This is the important testing phase to gather feedback, and use your empirical data to guide your recipe development, packaging design, pricing and how you stack up compared to the competition. If you can get the products into a few health food stores, then you will get real sales data which will help you form your business plan. Depending on your route to market, product type, and whether you make your own product in house or outsource manufacturing, the costs of launching can vary significantly. Most manufacturers will have minimum orders and these are likely to run into the thousands. It’s difficult to make a general assessment across categories but within bar making, somewhere between £5k-£15k would be a normal minimum order value per product SKU.

How important was your branding and packaging to your product when you started? Would you recommend startups go with a simple brand/ packaging design and then rebrand as you did? Or start with really clear brand identity?

We started by hand rolling energy balls and placing them into individually wrapped cellophane bags. Then we stuck a label on the bags. The label was printed from our printer and the designs were initially created by us on Adobe InDesign. Over the years, as we’ve grown, we have reinvested profits back into the business and it took us several years to afford our first professional graphic designer. We were lucky in the sense that the category for bars was in its infancy when we launched so time was on our side. However, brand cycles are shorter today across most categories so I wouldn’t wait several years to get your first graphic designer. If your budget is tight, it’s still better to test the market out on a small scale, discover who your customers are and build a branding strategy around these findings. This will inform your packaging design. Build the product, Test it out on your customers, Learn from the data collected and then either go with it or pivot in a new direction!

Do you need to have your brand in place before pitching to supermarkets? Or can you just pitch as soon as you have a tasty product to tempt them with?

It took us several years before we approached the supermarkets. We always had a plan to build our “customer pyramid” where the bottom layer equates to hundreds of independent health food stores and other premium outlets, the middle layer relates to wholesalers and premium London chains such as Wholefoods Market, Planet Organic and As Nature Intended. The top layer of the pyramid are the supermarkets. In this way, you build a brand and a following before you approach the supermarkets. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, you are in a better position financially and from a human resource, level to support marketing your brand in a supermarket. Secondly, because you have a following, supermarket buyers will naturally be more inclined to take on your products and negotiations are less difficult. Thirdly, you are less likely to lose a supermarket listing if you’ve already got a customer following in the independents and small chains and more likely to achieve the rate of sale (ROS) that buyers are looking for on shelf. You get one shot to make it work with supermarkets and therefore the time has to be right for you and your business otherwise it is likely not to work. Remember, getting into a supermarket is easy compared to managing a supermarket account and making a success of it.

OK you have a product, now you’ve got to produce it on a mass scale.

What advice would you give startups looking to find a manufacturer that will work with small businesses? 

Have a good business plan that you know well. Who are your potential customers? What will be the RRP?  What is the cost to wholesalers? What is your trade price? Is the product Vatable? Who are your competitors? What are the USP’s of your product compared to others in the category? What is your vision and can you sell it to a prospective manufacturer. It’s worth gaining data from market stalls, festivals and a few health food stores first before approaching a manufacturer.

Would you sign your contract with a manufacturer before pitching to supermarkets?

If you’re not making your own product and have chosen to work with a manufacturer, do not pitch to a supermarket unless you have got the means to supply them. If you pitch successfully but then cannot supply for any reason, you are likely to upset the supermarket buyer. It’s possible that you make an agreement to work with a manufacturer based on a supermarket’s decision to take on your products. However, citing my earlier answer, it’s best to build the customer pyramid first before approaching supermarkets. By that time, manufacturing MOQ’s will be easy to achieve anyway!

You have your product and packaging – How do you start getting it into supermarkets? What’s the best way to connect with a buyer?

You can contact buyers in a number of ways. An email introduction is good with a short 1-3 page presentation that leaves the buyer left intrigued. A follow-up email and/or phone call is useful to better understand when the review dates are for the category and to arrange a meeting. Be persistent as you probably won’t get a reply first time around. Taking a stand at various trade shows is useful for meeting buyers too once you are set up as a proper business. If a buyer uses social media you can connect this way e.g. Linkedin but I’ve had little success in this way. Sometimes sending a presentation in a beautifully designed box with samples and handwritten note can make an imprint on their memory.

What advice would you give to yourself as a startup when you first started pitching to supermarkets?

Do your research on the category first. If you cannot buy data, it’s important to get access to some sort of evidence to show what is happening with the target demographic, people’s buying habits, and the category you are focusing on including competitor data and NPD. Various data analysis organisations exist to provide this info and they can be obtained in the British Library. Mintel, Kantar, Euromonitor, YouGov are a few. The Grocer magazine is a useful publication to read too. Buyers need to convince their bosses that the brand they are listing has a good category argument backed up by evidence to show it will help them grow basket size in £. It’s about providing the buyer with an argument to show your brand will provide incremental value to the fixture and not just move the same customers from one brand to another.

How long did it take you to get in front of a buyer?

My first experience in front of a multiples buyer was at H&B around 4 years after we launched (2011). Then it was a Tesco buyer in 2015 so we did this quite slowly. However, supermarkets particularly Sainsbury’s, are more interested in small brands now than they were in 2007. They need to provide a point of difference to their competitors so agreeing “exclusivity deals” with smaller suppliers is something we are seeing now in the grocer’s marketplace.

What advice would you give startups who are about to visit a buyer at say Whole Foods or Planet Organic for the first time? (like, should they prepare trade presenters?)

It’s important to really understand who your competitors are in depth. If you have had your products sold in independent health food stores, establish what your average rate of sale is per SKU per week per store. Do your research on the route to market (RTM)-what wholesalers have you spoken to that can supply WFM or PO? Marigold, Tree of Life, CLF and The Health Store are a few that do. Understand your UK trade price list i.e. what your RRP, price to trade (less VAT), and wholesaler price point are. What are your key USP’s? Buyers at these outlets are genuinely into health food and will be keen to learn more about your brand so relax and be yourself! A trade presentation can be useful but not essential. It’s more important to have a great quality premium product that has a real point of difference and a discussion on how you will support the brand growth through promos and tastings. Not being sold in the supermarkets is seen as very attractive to these particular buyers.

What about the major supermarkets? Is the pitch a totally different ball-game from the independents and health supermarkets?

Yes, as mentioned before, the category argument is essential. You only get 30-45 minutes to do your pitch so there is more of a time pressure. It’s useful to have a printed and bound presentation for everyone that is coming to the meeting. Exchange pleasantries as you are walking to the meeting room with them. Ask a few questions at the beginning around their plans for the category as their answers will shape your discussion. If it’s a proper pitch, a rough example presentation structure could include the following: 1. Short introduction on what your company does and who runs it. Any accolades or certifications. Where the products are currently stocked with company logos to show this. 2. Category argument including data to back it up 3. Your products and key USP’s 4.Analysis of their current fixture with photos taken of it at an example store (shows you’ve gone out of your way and really understand their category). What this fixture might look like with your products superimposed on it. 5. Proposed Commercials and how you will support the brand through store marketing and promos. 6. Appendices -includes more detailed data and slides that the buyer might want to look at in their own time.

A good book to read on pitching is “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff

Thanks so much, Nick, that was so incredibly insightful. What’s next for you guys? Anything exciting in the works?

We have just launched our new Supershakes range of protein powders in 3 flavours. These are designed by our nutritionists to provide a mix of vegan protein powders with superfoods, vitamins and minerals. They’re used for either boosting your immunity, energy or vitality and have the added benefit of being quick to make at home or on the go by just adding water in a shaker.

You guys are really shaking things up! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

We also just recently launched our Fruit and nut bars that contain 30% less sugar and twice the fibre of other fruit and nut bars. We are the proud main sponsor of Veganuary this month so are encouraging people to switch to a plant-based diet, even if it’s for a few more days than usual.

Can’t wait to try them out! 

That’s all I think, thanks for taking the time to answer in so much detail. I really appreciate it and I know lots of founders will too.  Do you have any final advice, words of wisdom or tips to up-and-coming food founders hoping to one day be where Pulsin is?

Believe in your vision and stick to it!

Amazing. Such a legend.

Really great chatting to you Nick.

Case Studies

Loafly Case Study: Adapting Brand Identity For International Markets

Following the success of the premium breakfast delivery app Milkman in Israel, founders Omer and Jonny wanted to bring their ‘healthy brekkie at the touch of a button’ service to the UK.

We worked with the team in Israel to understand their offering “breakfast you want to jump out of bed for”, and their target market “families and professionals who want to provide the best for the breakfast table but don’t have the time to scan artisan markets to source ingredients”

Our challenge was to position the brand in the premium category while adding warmth and fun – speaking to busy foodies who crave variety, convenience and a top-notch breakfast every day.

Lost in translation…

The transition from a premium service in Israel to a premium artisan brand in Europe wasn’t straightforward. In Israel, playful design is the stuff of children’s brands, and brand values of loyalty, comfort and wholesomeness are articulated through the product rather than the ‘symbol’ or logo.

Designs which tested well with a European target audience were completely lost on an Israeli market test, who didn’t understand the playfulness, and wanted to see the product more.

How culture relates to branding is a fascinating subject and one covered at length in Torelli’s Globalization, Culture and Branding, but even understanding the fundamental difference between how brands leverage cultural values cross-culturally to build lasting and scalable brand equity, didn’t at all prepare us to answer the question: “why does everyone in Israel not get the new design, while everyone in the UK absolutely loves it?”

Why don’t Israelis get ‘playful branding’?

We posed the question to Ido Bercovier, an award-winning artist from Tel Aviv. Ido doesn’t paint in the lines (so to speak), his art is controversial, and his vibe typical of the Tel Aviv artist scene.

The problem, he explained, wasn’t that Israelis didn’t get quirky, it’s a difference in the history of Europe and Israel. Europe has a long history of romanticism. Israel has been around a short while, we don’t want stories, we want action – we want practicality. Branding in Israel is functional, and even though founders of Iconic brands (like WeWork)  have their roots in Israel, when communicating to an Israeli market, the brand story is secondary or completely nonexistent.

But also, it’s about connection, Israelis are more connected and get out more. There’s a sense of community.

Branding creates a relationship between a consumer, a product and an idea so it’s completely logical that in cultures where there is a strong sense of community, the need to build a relationship with the brands you buy isn’t as strong.

Europeans need the story, we have more time for building a relationship with the brands we consume and the difference is the value we place in romanticism over practicality, and ‘perceived brand value’ through the connection we feel with brands.

Anthropologically, understanding this fundamental difference was fascinating and presented a new challenge – launching the brand in the UK meant we couldn’t use any of it’s existing ‘brand values’, the existing product needed a brand story, a look and feel and name that would give us story-loving Europeans the brand connection we crave.

Step 1 Name

The first challenge was to name the brand – Milkman wasn’t premium enough for the UK market, where the milk-round isn’t anything exciting or new.

After rounds of names, playing with various articulations of words that said ‘morning’ and ‘happy’, Loafly was chosen as the favourite – an ownable brand name which combined the main product offering ‘loaf’ with ‘lovely’ – we love how satisfying it is to say, like the feeling of that first bite of the perfect breakfast sarnie.

Step 2 Design

Then we set about exploring colors, fonts and tones:

Before settling on a warm colour palette that injected a bit of fun and energy to the typography, with the ‘O’ bringing energy and warmth, while creating a market-relevant, ownable wordmark that can be used on its own as the brand icon.

The final font  was slimmed down from the earlier, chunkier versions for a sleeker, more premium look and feel.

3) Launch

Loafly’s visual ID was rolled across social @loaflyuk, the Loafly app and the new website, where we explored more ways to apply the new identity through playful assets and illustrations. An illustrated ‘burst’ of breakfast ingredients in the hero panel creates a sense of energy and excitement, as if all those great goodies are just waiting to jump out the bag and onto your table. A rounded sans serif and thicker, bolder headline font complements the section panels adding colour and fun without looking too childish.

Loafly rolled out the design onto their new delivery bags…. Ready to land a breakfast of champions on lucky Loafly doorsteps.

Hurray! No more soggy cereal and stale old bread.