The biggest challenge when launching a successful plant-based challenger brand

Today, the guys behind Bread & Jam – the UK’s largest food founders festival – hosted their first virtual plant-based summit for vegan challenger brands, industry experts, retailers and investors, with hundreds of attendees logging in from early morning to hear from some of the most influential names in the business across a jam-packed day of meat-free discussion and debate.

One such discussion centred around the challenges facing plant-based challenger brands, with The Vegan Review’s Damoy Robertson hosting a dynamic panel discussion between the founders of OGGS, THIS, Superfoodio and Plant Pops.

The latter, Plant Pops, is a popped lotus seed snack brand and the brainchild of Anushi Desai, with Superfoodio a plant-based snacks and chocolate operation inspired by co-founder Jag Mankodi’s backpacking adventures around South America with his wife (and other co-founder), Nirali.

Andy Shovel is the co-founder of mad-cap meat alternative brand, THIS, who are known to be UK pioneers in the fight to bring meatless to the masses.

Finally, Hannah Carter is the founder of vegan-friendly cake brand OGGS, who launched the UK’s first patented plant-based egg alternative, made from aquafaba, in 2020.

In the 30-minute session, the four founders discussed their individual journeys in starting plant-based challenger brands, with host Damoy asking each what their biggest challenge was when taking their respective operations to the next level.

Superfoodio’s Jag Mankodi

“Well, there’s been about a million I could list! But I guess the biggest challenge for us was scale. If you’re a small, ambitious challenger brand, but bootstrapping in terms of funding; it can be difficult to grow and deliver on your promise organically.

“We started off selling into independents, then we went into wholesale distribution, but in the background, you need to be able to invest to ensure that you can deliver and grow. To be available in the mults, for example, you need to be able to commit to investment.

“Our biggest challenge was stepping up to that scale. We’re by no means a large company now, but committing to higher volumes, to ingredient sourcing so that we could ensure efficient pricing, to be able to produce more of our product – going potentially beyond handmade – were key hurdles for us in our journey.

“And you can only start to do that once you’ve really set out your vision and what you want (and can) to achieve in one/two/five years down the line. Only then can you really plan to get there.”

Plant Pops’ Anushi Desai

“A huge challenge for us was our supply chain. Our product is inherently Indian – it’s something I grew up eating in India – so we had to decide whether to produce it there, where people have been eating it for centuries and manufacturers producing for decades, or to have it made in the UK.

“They both have pros and cons, but personally, I have found managing a supply chain overseas very difficult.

“We also had to ensure that, regardless of the decision, that we made sure the history and the heritage behind the product was really contained in it as we scaled up. That was also a huge challenge for us and continues to be.

“Lotus seed has its uniqueness, but that can also present difficulties. We’ve had to really focus on explaining the benefits to consumers – what it is, why it might be better than other snacking options, and why consumers should eat it?

“Uniqueness is part of the challenge, and we went through loads of iterations in development. Was it perfect when we first launched? Probably not. It’s about constantly refining your uniqueness.”

OGGS’ Hannah Carter

“Really understanding the science behind our plant-based liquid egg alternative was probably the biggest challenge. We had to work out how to make an aquafaba-based product that is broad enough that you could make both a mayonnaise with it and also a cake. And without too much flavour – no one wants a Victoria sponge that tastes of chickpeas.

“We had to make a product that has as broad a reach as possible so we’re not having to do multiple SKUs (which can make things very complicated, having one product for one application and another for another, and so on).

“We worked with biochemistry departments at two different universities in creating our egg alternative. And while my background is in pharmaceuticals, it was a big challenge in understanding what our experts were really saying about the science and being able to make decisions on the areas of research.

“I would also say that manufacturing was an issue, as is the case for many founders. Finding an affordable company for what was effectively an ‘upside down’ manufacturing process for us was a massive challenge.”

THIS’ Andy Shovel

“Like everyone, there is a really long list for me. Most of them fall into the category of being ‘nice’ problems to have, in the sense that they’re to do with scaling up and keeping up with demand.

“That said, we’ve had problems with margins, with manufacturing capacity, and also speed and quality of innovation. That’s a very current problem – how can we make a big enough hole in this market as quickly as possible?

“Scaling up the team, whilst being thoughtful about it, is also a consideration. And finally, I found the fundraising process to be a big distraction for me.

“I consider myself to be a very focused executor – but when it comes to investment, it does suck up a lot of time, and there’s a difficult paradox there because access to capital is one of the ways to succeed much quicker, so it does need to be done. But doing it efficiently, I’ve found to be really difficult.

“When it comes to marketing challenges, the main thing is being able to cut through the noise. It’s also important to build a coherent brand personality.

“If you’re like us, say, and you’ve made a marketing video centred around tricking influencers with your plant-based product, it can’t just be for the sake of tricking people and getting a few views, it also has to fit into the personality you’re trying to construct for your brand.

“We have had to make lots of content that reinforces the same kind of messaging and tone of voice. Oatly have made a big fuss about being brave over the years, and it’s all about throwing caution to the wind. And I definitely subscribe to that. I’ve tried to learn from the successes of brands such as them.

“Short of getting arrested, I’d say you’ve really got to give it a go! You’d better keep your eyes peeled for our April Fools campaign – it could either be very successful or our downfall!”

Tom Gatehouse
Tom Gatehouse
Tom is the editor and co-founder of PURE NPD. Formerly the deputy editor of trends and innovations hub Food Spark, Tom has had chef training in 50 top kitchens across the UK and Europe and is a former Restaurant magazine columnist. Tom has also served as a judge for the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship.

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