Interview: How to win as a challenger brand

As a relative new kid on the plant-based food scene, The Meatless Farm is something of a challenger brand.

We’re competing against the big players, with even bigger bank balances for a place on your meat-free plate.

A key member of our team responsible for spreading the word about The Meatless Farm is our global marketing director Simran Sablok.

Having worked for the likes of Yum Brands and Adelie Food, from London to Mumbai, Simran has a long history of marketing products that are capable of changing people’s behavior.

She sat down with Food Marketing Nerds to discuss why traditional media strategies might not be enough to build your brand, and how to break through when you can’t outspend the competition.

Listen to the podcast at Food Marketing Nerds >

Or read the full transcript below…


Alex: Simran, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Simran: Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Alex: So tell our listeners just a little bit more about yourself.

Simran: Right. So I am the global marketing director for The Meatless Farm. We are a British based meatless or meat-free product business. We’ve been in the U.S. selling through Whole Foods for about six to eight months now and I have great plans to expand rapidly.

Alex: How’d you find yourself in the current role? What’s your background?

Simran: So interestingly enough, I’ve basically worked across the world. I started up my career in India, worked with young brands for many, many years, nine years actually. And from there worked with a business that was Malaysian that came into the country and wanted to launch.

And from there, I had some form…a business that reached out to me from the UK and basically wanted me to be able to help them with marketing brands both into the UK market and outside UK brands.

I’ve always been in food. Eighty percent of my career has been in food and the remaining spent in media, oddly enough, and I’ve done food in media as well. And somehow when Meatless Farm came up as an opportunity, this really is my job. At the end of the day, most of my career I’ve spent with brands that have been very, very young, or in fairly nascent phases in that market.

Some I’ve started up from scratch and almost all of them have been brands that have required a change in consumer behavior or mindset. And I’ve found working with that kind of a challenge very interesting and the Meatless Farm is exactly in line with that. I couldn’t pass up those chance.

On the other hand, in terms of food habits, I’m a flexitarian and I’ve always been, which is a bit ironic considering I was marketing KFC for many years. But this brand really syncs with my beliefs, both about the environment and about food and what we put into our body.

Challenges of marketing meat alternatives

Alex: What are some of the most challenging things when it comes to launching a product that hasn’t yet been part of someone’s lifestyle or worldview?

Simran: I think number one is awareness. People have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Generally, your concept is a bit ahead of its time in that particular space.

The other thing is there is always a resistance to change when it comes to consumers and only because it’s the fear of the unknown. So there’s a lot of education required.

So you’re building on awareness, you’re building on education, you’re trying to evangelize that particular industry or that product.

And then there’s the process of trying to engage with them and communicate with them almost on a one to one basis to make them see that the product does fit into their lifestyle.

With a standard brand, a brand that’s been around forever, it’s very easy. You tend to go for a standard media plan. It’s all about where you put your media monies, how much you advertise, share of voice. This requires a lot more.

Alex: Especially as a smaller company in comparison to others in the industry, the marketing dollars in comparison are much smaller and you’ve got to be more lean and nimble with how you’re spending those funds.

Simran: Absolutely.

Alex: How do you ensure that your marketing spend is hitting the right audience but also evangelizing or creating that awareness around a completely new type of product?

Simran: So what we do is that we don’t go mass. We try and go as focused as we can. So we first look for areas and media that work with our consumer, that is really a millennial and the iGeneration primarily.

So social media, for example, is our number one source. Now, that’s where you can engage, where you can get into a dialogue, where you can show your product, you can demonstrate, you can educate.

The other thing that we do a lot of is on-ground activation because here’s our chance to literally face to face talk to a consumer, explain, get them to taste the product, get them to experience the product, and answer any questions they may have.

So whether that is activation and sampling in a retail scenario or at big events like the Virgin Fest, we’re everywhere.

And what happens is that the relative cost of these media is much less, but the kind of stickiness you get is huge.

How to market a product across different cultures

Alex: So as the global marketing director, you’re obviously overseeing the brand in multiple different countries and different cultures. What does it take to ensure your marketing messaging is true to the culture for all the different markets that Meatless Farm is in?

Simran: So we do this on several levels. Firstly, I have a marketing team in every key market that we have. So that ensures that we are on ground aware of the pop culture, local nuances, the way people speak, what’s important to them.

We do a lot of consumer research and insight in trying to understand lifestyles, especially those of flexitarians who are really who we target.

And then the central core message of Meatless Farm being plant-based being better for you in terms of reducing your meat intake, the simplicity of converting, just swapping in one meal a week.

Those messages then are converted in a context that is locally relevant. So for example, in the UK, there was a concept called Meating March.

This was way in March. The meat industry was trying to basically reclaim what we have of annually equivalent and they were trying to reclaim that space and make it more about meat.

We hijacked that, we went all over it, and we actually got people on ground in a PR stunt tasting the product as burger without actually telling them there was no meat in it and the surprise was phenomenal.

And to add a little more drama to the whole thing, we had a bunch of Chippendale-style topless guys in jeans actually serving these burgers. So they attracted a lot of attention. And the Brits love stuff like that.

They’ve got a sense of irony and they absolutely…it connected so well with them.

How to break through when you can’t outspend the competition

Alex: As an underdog, you’ve got large competitors, especially in terms of marketing or media spend. Do you have to lean more into creativity in order to break through and cut through given you can’t outspend these guys?

Simran: Absolutely. Look, firstly we’re dead sure that the product delivers. We’ve got an exciting lineup of innovation and innovative products lined up as well so the consumer has more reasons and occasions.

And then yes, what we do I think is, it’s a bit like it was used to say way back when we try harder because we’re in that space where we need to make sure that people experience our brand.

That said, at the end of the day, the plant-based industry is growing so rapidly. Consumers are adapting to this lifestyle so rapidly that I think the market’s big enough for all of us. We find our niche and that’s where we go.

We target females primarily, which doesn’t mean men are excluded, but only because they are usually the gatekeeper to purchase for most families and that’s where our focus is.

Alex: So you’re based out of the UK, you are trying to outwork and be as creative as possible. What else separates Meatless Farm from competitors like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods?

Simran: I think our taste and the product itself. A consumer really can tell the difference between real meat and our product. I think our product really delivers on that. That’s one.

The other thing is we’re building a relationship. We’ve got a personality that we’re trying to get across to people. We’re trying to build an engagement and a relationship with our consumer.

So we talk to consumers every single day on social media and it’s not about a one-way monologue. It’s a proper dialogue.

We ask them questions, we listen to the answers, we flex those, we try and fix them and we talk and let them know we’ve done things.

So we’re actually getting into a full blown relationship with our consumers. I think the bigger you get, the harder it is to do that. We have the advantage of being able to do it.

Alex: What does it take to do that kind of social media approach at the global scale of Meatless Farm?

Simran: In-house teams. So we’ve got our own social team in-house, we’ve got our own digital team in-house, and we work across time zones.

If you log into our site or you follow us on Instagram and you ask a question, you will get an answer in U.S time, not because we’re in bed by then in the UK and you won’t listen. Same goes for Asia.

So you’ll always have a touchpoint with the brand and we tend to…we pretty much respond within a few hours. We don’t wait for 24 hours.

Alex: And I’m sure that has a big impact with consumers. That’s a new precedent of what the expectation is to hear back from a brand, which can be difficult to address on the brand side but very important in building that engagement and building those trusting, genuine relationships.

You mentioned targeting the millennial consumer and given that you’re in multiple different countries and cultures that are inherently in those countries, are there similarities in this age group across the different countries and cultures?

What it takes to gain traction in a new market

Simran: Yeah, they are. So at the end of it, human nature is the same. The emotional drivers remain the same. It’s the context that changes. And I’ve marketed to consumers in Asia, Malaysia, in India, in the U.S. of course, and UK and Europe.

They all, at the end of the day, the millennial has got the same needs, the same drivers in terms of recognition, instant gratification, life achievement, things like that. What we do is that sometime the media change.

So in Asia for example, Tik Tok is big. In the U.S it’s now, what, 50% of millennials have logged on to Tik Tok at some point. Those are things that we take care of. Whereas in the UK it’s more Instagram-led.

So we flex depending on who the consumer is. The other thing we do is the language we use. So if it’s Mother’s Day in the U.S., we do Mother’s Day in the U.S. whereas in Europe and in UK, Mother’s Day actually happens in March. It’s a completely different calendar.

Alex: Really?

Simran: Yeah. So ours is on the last Sunday of March. So those are the things we have to really take care of. There’s no such concept as Cinco de Mayo on the Eastern part of the world.

So we have calendars for every single market that we actually then plan our lives around. Sometimes the content remains the same, the context changes.

Alex: So when you are building a marketing team or looking at what the media strategy should be for a given country, how do you approach that differently, or maybe it’s the same?

Simran: It’s pretty much the same. What does happen is where it changes a wee bit is depending on the evolution, the state of…or how ingrained the brand is in that market.

So obviously I’d have a larger team in the UK. I have a small team in the U.S., I have a small team in Asia. I’ve got a fairly medium-sized team in Europe. So that part flexes. Secondly, there are some things, for example, managing websites which can be done by a central resource.

We don’t necessarily need a local person on ground. But the key important ones like brand managers, your marketing managers, your social media manager, we have one in every market.

Alex: It can be challenging building a tight-knit company even when you’re located in the same building or the same state. Is there any internal marketing that goes into keeping that message coherent and keeping your team tight-knit?

Simran: Oh, absolutely. So regardless of where we have weekly meetings, everyone logs in. So that bit we’ve been doing even before the COVID days. And everyone’s aligned on what’s happening.

We share everything. Everyone has access to the marketing calendars. There’s a lot of communication that goes on.

So key to this is really to make sure that everything is communicated. Some promotions, some activities may not be relevant in a market at that particular time, but they go into a central repository, and then people know they can dip in and use it in their market when they need.

Alex: Diving further into this differentiation between the different markets, before the interview, we were talking a little bit about how the media strategy for Meatless Farm differs between say the UK and U.S.

Where UK has TV advertising, whereas U.S. is a little more focused on the digital side and building those one-to-one relationships. What kind of information are you looking at to assess what’s the right avenue for building that engagement and awareness around the brand?

Simran: So the number one thing we look at very frankly is availability in market. You can create all the noise you want, you can do whatever you like, but if a consumer can’t access your product, you’re wasting your time.

And for us, the trigger is when we’ve hit national distribution, that’s when we go start looking at television or the really wider scope media.

That said, different markets are very different. So in the U.S, regionally you could do regional splits by media. You don’t have to necessarily wait for national coverage. But that’s the joy of being a small startup. When we hit those milestones is when we start unfolding the larger, more mass media avenues.

But that said, the U.S. is a slightly different market and it is so widespread and so much bigger that we would potentially even look at different types of media depending on penetration and reach within different parts geographically or different states within the U.S.

Alex: You’re targeting female millennial. What are the subsets of that target demographic? You mentioned flexitarian. Did I recall that correctly?

Simran: Yeah. So we’re basically focused on, as a brand, we’re not about preaching to anyone about their lifestyle.

We don’t think anyone should change into anything. All we’re trying to do is to talk to people who are already actively considering eating a bit better firstly, reducing their meat intake, but finding it a little hard to do because they’re a bit confused, one, about the options available.

Second, when they think, “Ooh, if I don’t eat me, do I go to veg and don’t particularly care for vegetables, but how do I now find a middle path?” It’s a nice space for us. That’s one subset. So that’s one lot.

The other lot is people who genuinely care about the environment, who care about animal welfare, who care about health per se. That’s the lot within. For us, they are the people we look at.

Alex: It’s not that the diehard meat lovers that churn vegetarians?

Simran: Even for them honestly. I think sometimes with a lot of diehards, it’s just lack of awareness, not knowing that there is an option out there. Then there’s a bit of resistance or feel/doubt about, “What is this plant-based stuff people are talking about these days. I’m sure it doesn’t taste like anything or tastes like a mushroom patty or something.”

But it’s when they taste it, it’s amazing how surprised they are. They’re not our active users, ultimately. At some point, I think people…the environment is doing enough to get people aware of the fact that you can’t always eat meat-based diets and people are changing.

Let’s face it. I mean, you know, if you look at the amount of plant-based product that the industry has sold this year in the U.S. it’s three times what it was last year at the same time. So awareness is making a difference, people are getting more aware of everything.

Alex: With big competitors in the U.S. particularly, there seems to be some slightly different growth strategies where Impossible Foods for example has kind of leaned into the foodservice avenue for growth. Do you see Meatless Farm exploring that arena at all?

Simran: Oh yeah. So we actively target retail, foodservice and QSR and we’re available in other parts of the world already.

Alex: What else does meet this farm have going on currently? What new product innovations are you working on or about to launch?

Simran: Aha, watch this space. There’s a lot coming. We just recently in the U.S. launched sausage links and sausage patties, which have been really, really successful.

I mean it was a space where mostly in plant-based all you were getting was meat-free ground or burgers or sausages. And this one has been our first break into a different daypart and it’s been really well received. So that is one.

Then of course we’ve got variants of different flavors coming in, potentially different proteins, different forms. Frankly, the world’s our oyster or the meat industry is our oyster.

Alex: So do you think the major meat producers see you guys as a competitor or someone servicing people that aren’t their customers?

Simran: We’re not really competitors, we’re minnows compared to them. And I don’t know if the world will change entirely overnight. It won’t do that.

As far as we’re growing, the bottom line is there are now 60% of the U.S. market now identifies itself as flexitarian. It’s fine with us. We’re playing in our own space. They play in theirs.

Alex: What’s the loose definition of a flexitarian?

Simran: A flexitarian really is primarily carnival who once or twice a week makes a conscious decision and choice to have a plant-based meal or a vegetable-based meal.

Most people do that now and, you know, they do it for different reasons. They do it for health, they do it because they’re conscious of what it’s doing to the environment, to animal welfare because they in principle disagree with or intensive farming. Everyone’s got a different reason, but they are making a conscious effort.

Alex: Are there any preconceived notions or consumer questions that you get pretty consistently?

Simran: It comes from lack of awareness or understanding per se and a lot of skepticism of, “How can it be? How can you make this taste like meat? I like my flavor, I like my burger patty. I like my burger with a big hunk of meat in it.” But when they taste it, they really are surprised.

It’s amazing how it changes people’s opinions because I mean let’s face it, who would ever think, right? And frankly, you look at the milk industry, you’ve got milk. Now you’ve got every possible kind of plant-based milk in the world out there.

Did you ever think you’d find that happening? You grew up with having a glass of milk every morning.

Alex: No, I guess I never really thought about it, but that is an interesting metaphor for what you guys are doing.

Simran: And the market’s expanded. It’s not like people have stopped drinking milk, it’s just that some of them are now actively either using a plant-based milk instead or having it in their coffee instead, but still drinking milk because, you know, it gives them whatever nutrition.

Alex: So when it comes to blazing trails with products like your breakfast sausage links or the sausage patties, what does it mean for Meatless Farms to be one of the first to release a product like that and what challenges are you overcoming with being a product that’s first of its kind like this?

Simran: We did a lot of consumer research. We generally get into market with our eyes open and fairly confident that the product will deliver on taste. That’s always number one as a potential worry, which thankfully we don’t have.

Otherwise, it’s really more about, let’s face it, we’re, as you said, the underdogs. So it’s that much easier for us to try new things.

And when you are a challenger brand, innovation becomes key and therefore, you’re always, always thinking ahead. You’re innovating, you’re thinking of…which is where the breakfast came from. And obviously, every business does its research before it launches.

Alex: Where are Meatless Farms products available in the states?

Simran: So we list out Whole Foods across the nation, so any Whole Foods you’ll find our products.

We’ve got our burger patties, we have the meat-free ground, which I would really encourage you to try and seriously just try cooking it instead of using ground beef in your lasagna. Just use the beef ground and see what people think.

Don’t tell your family, I guarantee you they will not be able to tell.

Alex: I love what Meatless Farm is doing and thankful for you coming onto the show and giving us your perspective, which it’s cool to hear from somebody who gets to see an innovative brand like Meatless Farm grow at the pace that it is and enter different markets and different cultures within these markets. So where is Meatless Farms looking to expand or where are you expanding the most right now?

Simran: So we’re in obviously in the U.S. We’re in the UK. We have recently opened offices in Amsterdam, so that’s where our whole European off base is.

We’ve got an office now in Singapore and that’s our next big thrust in terms of Asian markets. Let’s face it, they’re big as well in terms of plant-based.

Alex: Have you found there to be any particularly challenging markets for Meatless Farm?

Simran: Not yet, actually. I think what happens is that when you’re in a sunrise industry that the world is waking up and taking notice of, you have a bit of a tailwind to help you along. We’ve not really had an issue in any market so far. Thank God.

Alex: That’s great to hear. That’s a good sign.

Simran: I think the market’s big enough, you know? That’s what makes a difference. It’s not that there’s place for just one brand.

Because the industry is growing and the consumers, there’s such an appetite, pardon the pun for it, there’s enough room for everyone and everyone’s got a little niche and a little market they can target.

Alex: We have a couple of questions that we ask each of our guests. And first one, so I’m curious, are there any books that you’ve read that have had an impact on how you approach or think about marketing?

Simran: Oh absolutely. God, this is going to date me like crazy and show how old I am, but there was a book called “Pour Your Heart into It,” Howard Schultz. He wrote about how he created Starbucks. It’s not like the book went into details on operations or anything.

What he did was talk about the process of making people change their habits, their lifestyles, the way they looked at coffee as an example, and his learnings as a human being along the way because you kind of assume a lot of things but, you know, not really.

And the other one is “The Content Formula.” That’s a fairly recent book, but it’s good for anyone who’s looking to understand how you use content and social media and what the numbers mean and how you actually start harnessing this medium to build a dialogue with your consumers.

Alex: That brings up another question to go back on our last two questions, but what does success look like on social for Meatless Farm?

Simran: I think a very actively engaged consumer base and a loyal consumer following.

Now, what that number would be doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, but if I can get a consumer to react, to engage with or if you start talking numbers, 3% engagement, if we really have to go into that, but it’s more about the quality of the content and you know they’re hooked in with you.

Alex: Absolutely. You have that small army of loyal advocates and so important to getting your message out there and spreading it.

Simran: Absolutely. We recently launched in Australia, and we did a post on social media. We don’t even exist per se in that market. The number of people that tagged in the friends in Australia was fantastic.

Alex: It’s so powerful.

Simran: It’s phenomenal.

Alex: So knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time to just give yourself as you were just entering the workforce a piece of marketing or career advice, what would it be?

Simran: I’d say number one for a marketing person, don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that the consumer is you. You’re not it. Your personal opinions don’t really count. Nothing works like getting under the skin of your consumer through insights and really getting it.

Because very often we react on a very subjective form, even on things like assessing creatives. You know, it doesn’t work. Personally, I’m too old for TikTok. Someone in my team did a video, I couldn’t even understand it, but the reality is I’m not the consumer.

Alex: How do you wrap your head around or get yourself comfortable with, “I don’t understand this piece of marketing creative or this platform?” Is it just a level of trust or is there some additional explanation that needs to go into it?

Simran: Well, there is a level of trust obviously with your team but more than that, your consumers tell you if you’re right or wrong. And you’ve got to test these things out with them sometimes in a very controlled environment and see how they react to your creatives or the stuff you’re seeing. Sometimes you make mistakes.

Alex: This has been a great interview, and I am so happy that you were able to come onto the show and join us toward the end of your day beginning of ours. Thank you so much for coming on, Simran.

Simran: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on here.

Alex: So where can people go to find out more about Meatless Farm and see what you have in the pipeline?

Simran: Well they can have a look at the They can follow us on Instagram under a handle of Meatless Farm. They’ll get to know a lot about us, and I hope they just stay on and connect and have a dialogue with us.

Alex: Go check out Meatless Farm, everybody. Simran Sablok, thanks so much for coming onto the show.

Simran: Thank you.