Behind the brand: Huel, the rise of the plant-based food retailer

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Huel sold over 100 million meals just five years after launching. Photo: Huel
Huel sold over 100 million meals just five years after launching. Photo: Huel

“It’s a magical combination of nutrition and convenience,” Huel’s chief executive James McMaster says of the plant-based food firm, which last year topped £140m in revenue and follows surging UK and international growth attracting the likes of film star Idris Elba as investor.

Yet, the company’s success harks back to the early consumers who billed themselves as ‘Hueligans’ on online forums. “It caught like wildfire,” says McMaster. “We did things to allow it to happen, like referral offers for both customer and new consumer.”

Huel started in 2015 as a hobby by co-founder Julian Hern after selling his marketing business. Hern launched Huel as a lifestyle business from his garage, taking orders and working a few days a week and today remains its chief marketing officer.

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Three years later, after bootstrapping Huel to a £40m annual run rate, the company took £20m of investment from venture capital firm Highland Europe, valuing the company at £220m. Huel now has its main office in Hertfordshire, with 175 staff, while there are 25 employees in London, along with a tech team housed in Birmingham and offices globally.

McMaster joined two years into the fledgling venture. His career had largely spanned working with fast growth food and drink brands, running the children’s meals company Ella’s Kitchen, and Gu Desserts, having started out as a strategy consultant.

“There was something quite special about Huel, even back then, the look and feel, the logo, the Helvetica font, the simplicity, the minimalist approach to it,” he says.

McMaster had only heard about the brand only weeks before being approached by the company, when he saw a woman having it for lunch. “She had powder, scooped it out, added it to water and started shaking it,” he recalls. “I thought that was a bit different.

Huel CEO James McMaster joined the company in September 2017. Photo: Huel
Huel CEO James McMaster joined the company in September 2017. Photo: Huel

“It struck a chord with people, what we had at the time was lots of different issues in society relating to food and that if you eat more nutritious food that's good value for money, that’s plant based and easy, that’s all the issues we have in the world like food, water and obesity.”

At the time, Huel’s powder formulas had started gaining momentum, McMaster's mindset fuelled by working with small brands and scaling. By 2020, Huel had sold 100 million meals since launch and distributing to over 100 countries.

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Yet the brand was still under the radar, according to McMaster. Today, the consumer remains clearly at the heart of Huel’s rise. Indeed, making customers happy is one of its house rules. “As well as a relentless focus on the ordering, packaging, the website and instructions,” adds McMaster.

The integrated technology can also tell McMaster’s team about data speed on response and how that correlates with happiness of customers when they chat to Huel. It has a nutrition-trained, “quite witty” customer service team, says McMaster, as well as an all-round “quirky and confident” outlook.

“If you do that right, they will tell their friends and also buy again,” says McMaster. “It is that basic journey and our largest driver of new customers is referrals. Do a good job, have a great product and things will work well.”

Watch: Huel CEO on explosion of plant-based products

A digest email goes out to one million people every week, which aims to give a greater understanding of nutrition, while Huel continues to garner success in areas where people are time poor. Take Japan, where working hours are racked up thanks to lengthy commuting times. This has also been entwined by the high level of customer service expectations — especially in Japan — placed on Huel’s staff.

McMaster says: “Growth is really fun and being in a challenger brand is fascinating but the journey can be tough for some people in terms of the strong pace. We have a transparent culture, it's supportive.”

Huel’s CEO spends considerable time on communications internally. Four years ago, Huel wrote a 60-page culture book, essentially a story to be read by staff that attempts to educate on topics such as communicating to the outside world.

“It’s a danger when you grow quickly that things dissipate and you don’t stay tight as a group,” says McMaster.

Huel has launched its daily A-Z vitamins canned drink. Photo: Huel
Huel has launched its daily A-Z vitamins canned drink. Photo: Huel

Thus, he focuses on three aspects: who Huel hires, how they onboard people and how to keep people tight when they join. “If you get those things right you can handle the complexity of omnichannel, countries and products,” he adds.

Every six months, Huel collates all the feedback and McMaster reading every staff comment. “Historically we’ve been the speed boat, not the oil tanker,” he smiles. “When you’re a challenger brand you have to be aware of the world around you and pivot.

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"That’s been strong for us. We’re now at a stage where we still don’t want to be the oil tanker [he cites Blockbuster Video and Kodak as not changing with the times], but we are now introducing the concept of ‘fast ferry’. Yes, we can go faster but when we suddenly make a quick turn, there are more people on a ferry than a speed boat.”

Eight years ago, the novelty of Huel might have left many to ask ‘What, you are going to drink that for lunch?’ From an ecommerce business, Huel is now available in physical stores after turning the industry on its head with its drinks, powders and meal products. It has seven warehouses globally to cope with rising demand, including three in the US. Huel has also navigated steep freight costs over the last two years by holding firm on consumer price increases.

“We feel like we are just getting started,” says McMaster. “Companies should iterate and evolve. For us, no one would have predicted at launch we would be selling a greens superfood powder which was nothing to do with food and drink, it's to help supplement daily lifestyles.”

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