How THIS™ is leading the vegan food vanguard

We spoke to THIS™ co-founder, Andy Shovel, to find out about the booming meat-free industry, and how the plant-powered company plans to stay ahead of the competition.

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past five years, you’ll know that plant-based food is one of the fastest-growing business trends since the invention of the bread-slicing machine.

Recent consumer reports show that increasing numbers of shoppers are either occasionally swapping beef for beetroot or entirely switching to a plant-powered diet. In fact, a 2021 YouGov survey suggests that 36% of UK adults now think eating vegan is an ‘admirable thing to do’.

One brand that’s helping to accelerate the behavioural change is THIS™. Founded in 2019 by Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman, the vegan food company is currently storming the supermarkets with its products, which are largely targeted at meat lovers looking for familiar tastes and textures.

Having sold their previous (real) beef burger restaurant chain in 2016, Shovel and Sharman are now critical of the meat industry and have enjoyed remarkable success as a market-leading vegan brand. In fact, we’ve featured them on our top 100 startups index for two consecutive years.

But, as UK shoppers look to go animal-free, more brands are emerging into the space, hoping to capitalise on the trend. So how does THIS™ plan to stay ahead of the curve in this experimental sector?

We spoke to Andy Shovel to learn more about THIS™’s current innovations, the evolving meat-free landscape, and their advice for other new startups entering the space…

Meat the founders

Running a meat-based business is a surprising start for THIS™’s two founders.

But after launching their gourmet burger delivery service Chosen Bun in 2013, Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman decided to change tactics, having grown disenamoured with the meat industry and the environmental damage it creates.

“Our consciousness rose about issues with meat consumption, so we committed to our next business being sustainable in some way,” explains Andy.

“We considered a whole range of business options – even electric cars – before we eventually decided that, as meat producers at the time, there was no compelling option for people who love the taste of meat and texture, but wanted to purchase a plant-based version.”

THIS™ is now two-and-a-half years into trading and has grown to 55 staff members spanning three offices across London. Shovel and Sharman are targeting £20 million annual revenue in 2022 – they should hit £1.6m this January alone.

“We have two innovations teams,” Andy says proudly. “They consist of all our food scientists and food technologists. We’re planning to move them to a new location in Chiswick in May.”

But while their success seems to have come from nowhere, it’s actually the result of a careful approach to early-stage planning.

“At the very beginning we didn’t have much, just a business plan and two smiles,” Andy recalls. “There was some scepticism, but broadly speaking the reaction was positive. After all, we’d already had a successful exit, and two businesses under our belt, so we had a track record growing.

“The industry, more generally in the UK, was too focused on long-term, fully bought in vegan and vegetarian purchasers. When we went out and tried the different brands that were out there at the time, we were unimpressed. They weren’t speaking to people who loved meat, they were speaking to legacy vegan and vegetarian consumers.

“We want to be at the forefront of the recruitment drive, and getting people who were previously sceptical to trial plant-based products. That’s why we’re so focussed on having a realistic texture and taste.”

Designing a plant-powered portfolio

Developing a meat-free product that looks and tastes like the real deal proved to be the biggest upfront challenge for the founders.

Andy recalls that when they started the fundraising process in early 2018, plant-based substitutes was still a niche area. At the time, meat-free brand Quorn was the market leader by a huge margin.

When we went out and tried the different brands that were out there at the time, we were unimpressed. They weren’t speaking to people who loved meat.

Knowing they wanted their product to look, feel, and importantly taste, like real meat, the partners focussed on research and development for the first 18 months. Then, having successfully developed an early prototype, they managed to raise £900,000 from various funding rounds to get to the market – “before the feeding-frenzy of investors piled in,” Andy laughs.

THIS product

THIS™ isn't pork cocktail sausages product

The THIS™ product range began simply enough with the company’s most famous product THIS isn’t Bacon. Since then, it’s expanded to offer nearly every ‘centre of plate’ meal you can think of, including chicken nuggets, pigs in blankets, and tikka pieces.

But the main goal behind the company’s offering isn’t quantity – it’s about producing high-quality foods that are near-identical to real meat. As it boasts on its website, all products are even fortified with vitamin B12 and iron to ensure that customers don’t miss out on essential nutrients.

“Competition drives innovation”

“When the market started, you had to make an enormous compromise if you wanted to eat meat-free,” Andy recalls. “Customers were given products that had a weird, wacky texture and shapes that didn’t look anything like meat.

“But competition is what drives innovation, and we’re in an increasingly competitive market at the moment. I think the direction of travel for plant-based food manufacturing is towards hyper-realism. There’ll be less compromise for consumers in future.”

So far, THIS™ products have popped up in almost every major supermarket across the UK including the ‘Big Four’ giants: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, and Morrisons.

As well as this, they also have UK food-service partners including Honest Burgers, Prezzo and Caffe Nero – reaching a total of 9,000 distribution points in total. But the founders aren’t resting on their laurels quite yet.

“When we first launched the business, we didn’t have the resources to focus on improving,” says Andy. “Now, thankfully, we have more resources, and in the last few months we’ve really started to look at how we can upgrade our existing lines, as well as hopefully introduce more value-add products in future.”

Undercutting the price of meat

One of the company’s main goals is to cheapen its price point. According to a 2021 study commissioned by sports insurance brand Insure4Sport, four-in-five vegan goods cost more than their meat equivalents.

Many ingredients in vegan meals are more affordable than meat, but the price can be driven up by development methods such as blending stages and heat processing.

Reversing this statistic could be the key for THIS™ to unlock a whole new audience.

“We’re really aware that plant-based products charge a premium,” says Andy. “But whenever a new category emerges, the first movers that come out with the products will charge a premium price for a sought-after product.

“Plant-based businesses are still a relatively underdeveloped category compared to meat. With the passage of time, we’ll be able to launch more competitive prices. I would say it’s inevitable that as the category grows, prices come down.”

I think the direction of travel for plant-based food manufacturing is towards hyper-realism. There’ll be less compromise for consumers in future.

Something that might have temporarily disrupted these plans is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a huge impact on the UK economy and business activity – particularly manufacturing.

How has THIS™ coped with the challenges?

“We’ve been quite lucky in that most of our business comes from retailers,” Andy says. “Our sales have been buoyant in food retail, where we’ve seen the biggest impression has been selling directly to food businesses, as our products are used by a lot of local hospitality businesses. Lockdown was a particularly challenging time.

“Luckily, thanks to the increase in sales volume in retail, we’ve made up for any losses.”

‘Tis the season for Vegan campaigning

For those who are still toying with the idea of eating vegan products, January is generally considered the time to do it, when the magical holiday of Veganuary comes upon us.

Veganuary is a 30-day event that invites people to only consume plant foods for the month. It’s a smartly-designed challenge that takes advantage of the new year and many people’s added willingness to try something different.

The month has become a particularly important opportunity for vegan brands like THIS™ to grow their consumer base.

I don’t think any of us comprehend how mainstream and enormous plant-based food is going to be.

In fact, the firm is currently running a money-back guarantee campaign for any potential consumers that want to trial the products in January, without financial risk.

“There’s a lot of scepticism about plant-based meat alternatives in the UK,” Andy says. “The money back guarantee initiative is, firstly, a bit of fun. But, secondly, it’s also a way to convince people who might be sceptical to give us a go on a no risk basis.

“Essentially, we’re saying as a brand that ‘we’re so confident you’ll like it, we’ll give you your money back if not’.”

THIS™ has so far shared the campaign on social media, but it will also be travelling to various sites across the UK, including Westfield shopping centre, for an outdoor campaign.

The 10p-in-the-post marketing campaign

Additionally, in a recent online marketing stunt, the brand sent out cash payments to potential customers to get them to promote its products on social media, rather than paying the equivalent money to Zuckerberg and chums for targeted advertising.

THIS campaign

THIS™ money-back campaign slip

Like most of THIS™’s campaigns, it’s a humorous, tongue-in-cheek message that aims to surprise, as much as persuade, by physically taping 10p to the back of a friendly business-card style advert and sending it directly to consumers.

“We’ve got a big following on social media, but this campaign is really for the people who haven’t tried THIS. What’s important is for us to get the message across to the mainstream consumer, and try to recruit people to visit our channels.

“I hope that people who know THIS have come to expect roguish behaviour, so I hope they’re satisfied with those fun stunts. We don’t want to be an arrogant brand, but we are certainly confident of our offering. We’re definitely not afraid of speaking directly to meat lovers and putting our money where our mouth is.”

It’s clear from speaking to Andy that branding has played a crucial role in shaping THIS™’s market presence and consumer base. Given the sudden influx of brands entering the meat-substitute market, it’s what Andy says has helped them to stay ahead of the curve.

“[New food startups] can’t underestimate the importance of having a cut through brand,” he advises. “When planning your business, the temptation is to assume that your destiny will be determined by the quality of the food.

“But while it’s crucial to have a market leading product, it’s nearly equally as crucial to have a brand that cuts through. The UK is the most competitive food sector in the world. It’s so important to put a huge amount of energy into brand and communications.”

Guilt-free advertising

As businesses look to adapt their approaches and meet challenging net-zero targets in the coming years, sustainable marketing practices are becoming a key consideration.

Solopress findings from November 2021 reveal that 79% of surveyed UK business representatives say that they consider sustainability while carrying out current marketing activity.

But the messaging in many sustainably-themed advertisements have been criticised in the past as causing ‘Eco Anxiety’, by using negative or even guilt-tripping messages that can leave consumers feeling manipulated into buying a product – something Andy is all too aware of.

The UK is the most competitive food sector in the world. It’s so important to put a huge amount of energy into brand and communications
THIS marketing campaign

THIS™ money-back billboards at Westfield shopping centre

“One of the reasons we have been so successful is that we don’t position ourselves as a preachy brand. We don’t tell consumers that eating meat is terrible. Instead, we just focus on using shock, humour and surprise.

“We consider the fact that people purchase us as an environmental-choice, but it’s not super high up on the messaging hierarchy. I don’t think criticising people for eating meat makes them hungry and makes them want to buy our products.”

What does the future hold?

THIS™ has so far raised £21 million in investment, and the road ahead looks promising.

According to Andy, the future is even brighter for the plant-based food industry itself.

“I don’t think any of us comprehend how mainstream and enormous plant-based food is going to be. I don’t see us stringing up cows and eating them in 30 years, I think it will seem very outdated, not to mention energy inefficient. In the future, we’ll be more and more focussed on energy efficiency, and the plant-based industry will be huge.”

So, what’s next for THIS™? How does it plan to take advantage of the industry’s projected rise?

“[Short-term] we’d like to internationalise the business,” Andy says, “and we’re hoping to meaningfully launch abroad at the end of this year. But our overall mission is to put animals into retirement, and invest in different categories for animal-based alternatives.

“I want us to stay at the leading edge in terms of product satisfaction, and hyper-realism for animal-based foods. I think it’s really cool to be able to give people that choice, and give them all the good bits of meat consumption, without any of the bad bits.”

Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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