Accept substitutes
Editorial

Accept substitutes

Soylent is the instant food substitute that’s playing well in the US tech sector. Allowing customers to shape its product is proving a key part of the marketing strategy.

An appetizing prospect? Maybe the core product of food substitute company Soylent isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s finding a niche among time-poor Californians who need a quick, nourishing fix.

Soylent Co, a Los Angeles-based start-up, has created a powdery food derived from staples such as dairy, grains, fruit and vegetables. It was intended to be mixed with water as an instant replacement for a balanced meal, but many customers now include it in all sorts of recipes.

Selling this concept has revolved around dialogue with the customer base, which initially consisted of Silicon Valley professionals interested in applying the efficiency principles they learned in tech to food. Soylent was created after company co-founder and CEO Rob Rhinehart, originally a computer engineer, studied data on nutrition from the American Institute of Medicine and US Food and Drug Administration websites. He used himself as a guinea pig – aiming to find out what the human body needed to survive and then reduce this to a minimal form.

Rhinehart’s online diary gained not only readers, but investors willing to offer seed-corn funding – concepts such as good health and sustainability still have plenty of mileage. He raised US$3 million initially to take the product from concept to production in the largest crowdfunded food project in history, which led to more conventional venture capital investment.

Soylent’s web presence is still pivotal to progress. There’s a crowdfunding site run with CrowdTilt.com, and one for readers to create and tweak Soylent recipes, diy.soylent.com. Each operational aspect is constantly scrutinised, from the formula to the packaging. The process is driven by customer feedback.

Co-founder David Renteln, a Harvard graduate in biology, runs the business partnerships and sales channels side. So how did he get Soylent’s marketing concept off the ground?

“We started by answering the questions our community had, first via our discourse forum,” he says. “This has now grown to include a lively subreddit.  In getting the message out, we use both conventional press and social media.”

Soylent has been criticised for its blandness. Renteln claims that over half of his customers add flavour to the powder – “something we encourage, and a reason we try to keep the base flavour as neutral as possible. There are many threads on our forums about recipes.”

In selling Soylent to potential investors “we treat them as we treat our customers – they're mostly one and the same,” Renteln adds. “Our investors all consume our product regularly, and are well-suited to provide advice.” 

Key learnings

  1. The success of Rob Rhinehart’s diary illustrates the ability of a clever concept to gain traction in a niche market through the use of online tools.
  2. In the age of crowdfunding, consumers are also potential investors in experimental products.
  3. Equally, enthusing investors about the product can be valuable to ensure continuing support.
  4. Maintaining web presence as a key aspect of the brand has enabled Soylent to stay close to its fan base, which encourages continued purchases.
  5. Keeping close to fans has also added value to the product itself, as consumers can now find thousands of user-generated recipes online.

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include business topics, the rail industry, education and mental health. He is also the author of several books about football. 

Andrew Mourant CPL Freelance Journalist
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