Editor's spotlight: Startup Focus

Former boxers become heavyweights in protein snack market

By Nikki Cutler contact

- Last updated on GMT

John-Paul and Andy on Dragon's Den
John-Paul and Andy on Dragon's Den
Two former boxers are becoming heavyweights of the global healthy snacks industry after they met their investment match in the TV show Dragon’s Den.

John-Paul Gardner and Andy Dixon, founders of British protein snack brand Oatein, say sales have gone ‘mental’ after appearing on the BBC show and winning a £50,000 investment from dragon Peter Jones.

The men met in the ring but each have more than a decade's experience in the nutrition and health and fitness industries.

After launching their first slow energy release protein flapjack in 2016, the Oatein brand has grown to include brownies, protein bars, cookies and peanut butters and more, which are now sold across more than 50 countries.

The duo proved they could roll with the punches in the den when they won investment offers from three dragons despite some fierce questioning, especially when it came to their innovative branding strategy.

“Deborah Meaden did say that our branding was outdated but we were very quick to tell her that it’s our bright and colourful packaging that entices people,"​ Gardner told NutraIngredients. "We have been to many trade shows and people have specifically told us it’s our bright and fun branding that draws them to us.

“We are not branding ourselves as a sports nutrition brand but as a healthy snacking brand and this is what helps us appeal to a large audience.

Oatein range

“We said right from the start that we want this to be a mass-market product and we don’t want to create a niche for ourselves through our branding.

“In the past I had a brand called Bad Boy which was a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) clothing brand -  a licensed brand that we gave back after seven years to the Americans who own the name - and when we tried to take that brand beyond the MMA market it didn’t work because everyone thought it was only for people in MMA.

 “So we knew not to associate ourselves with any sport.”

Veganism

As well as questioning their branding, Meaden described her disappointment that the brand was not vegan friendly as she felt that this was where the future of innovation in healthy snacking lay.

Heeding the expert’s advice, the Northern lads will be launching a gluten, palm oil and sugar-free vegan snack in the next three months.

It’s never going to be the case that everyone is vegan but veganism is a hot thing at the moment,"​ says Gardner. "I think if you want to be a truly mass market product then you have a to have a vegan offering.

“A lot of people would like to have more vegan products in their diet even if they aren’t totally vegan.

“It was also important that it was palm oil free to show that it is good for the environments.

“The industry is changing a lot to move away from non-sustainable sources so we always knew we wanted to have a vegan line within our range.”

Affordable health

The hard-hitting entrepreneur adds that in order to be a truly mass-market brand he knew they had to provide options for those who aren’t able to spend £2.50 on one protein snack.

“Our vegan flapjack is going to be 40g and just £1. No other brand in the market has a £1 bar. The only other cheapest available is £1.80.

“We’ve always seen that gap in the market for a truly affordable protein bar so we wanted to fill that gap.”

Not so saturated

Another concern that Meaden brought to the den discussion was that the UK is an ‘over-saturated’ market when it comes to healthy protein snacks as so many new players are trying to get a piece of the protein pie.

But Gardner argues the UK market has evolved beyond this as many of the startups that came to market over the last few years have failed and disappeared.

It definitely was saturated in the UK a year ago but it’s becoming less saturated because a lot of the new people have tried and failed.

“Our launch has been successful because of our exports. If we had just been a UK company, we wouldn’t have lasted.”

Where’s the local spirit?

Despite a lot of talk about the importance of heritage and local production, Gardner points out that it was much easier for this British brand to crack foreign markets.

“Our products are all designed, manufactured and packaged in the UK while many of the other big brands in this industry are made in Germany.

“Dubai and India love that we are British and they were quick to order our products for that reason. Yet all the big multiples in Britain had no interest until we were on TV.

“I thought we were supposed to be supporting local brands? We’re going to have to shop more local once Brexit happens!”

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