When Soylent first was introduced in 2013, its value proposition seemed shocking: the end of food as society knew it.
A protein shake that was meant to replace food, containing all of the calories and nutrients one needed to get through the day. A new idea targeted at tech workers and gamers who didn’t have time to eat. Only plant-based ingredients in every bottle.
And with all of the attention it was receiving, Soylent was seemingly destined to be either a runaway success or an epic flop.
Eight years later, Soylent is still around and is no longer so polarizing. The company says it’s on track for $100 million in sales this year, with products in about 30,000 U.S. retail stores and a thriving direct-to-consumer business.
CEO Demir Vangelov, who took the helm at Soylent at the beginning of 2020, said that the company has changed many of its strategies in order to stay afloat and become more successful. One of those, he said, is shifting the brand’s positioning away from the unapologetic meal replacement declaration to fitting into what consumers’ needs and desires actually are. And while Soylent still attracts the core “too busy to eat” consumer, it also has remade itself to be a nutritional option that exists to meet and maintain healthy lifestyles.
“We are not a medical nutrition brand,” Vangelov said. “We're not a ‘you go to the moon with Soylent and you don't need anything else’ brand. We're not a dieting brand. We're really a lifestyle brand.”
The protein shake category is incredibly hot right now, growing at a 14% to 15% clip, Vangelov said. Plant-based protein shakes are only a small portion of the category with about 2% share, Vangelov said, but that segment is seeing more growth.
Bloomberg reported in May that Soylent was exploring strategic options, including a potential sale. Vangelov declined to comment on the report, which said the company may fetch $225 million or more in any transaction.
But Vangelov said he’s helped reform Soylent into a profitable growth engine, one that helps people have more complete and nutritious diets and make more sustainable — and affordable — food choices.
“We are striving to provide one option for the food industry to feed the world,” Vangelov said.
From obscure to ubiquitous
Soylent seemed like an odd proposition in its early days. The company came to prominence after co-founder Rob Rhinehart wrote a blog about consuming only Soylent for 30 days.
The viewpoints of Rhinehart, whose quirky persona and apocalyptic takes on the future of food were captured on his now-offline blog and company releases, often were conflated with the corporate message of Soylent itself. The prevailing portrayal of Soylent was that of a tech company that sold food.
In 2017, Rhinehart became the executive chairman of Soylent’s board, handing the business’ reins to experienced CPG exec and Flying Embers co-founder Bryan Crowley. And just over two years later, Vangelov — who had previously been Soylent’s CFO and COO — took the helm. In early 2020, the company was showing signs of struggle with rumors of quiet downsizing, discontinued products and rumblings of poor retail sales.
When Vangelov became CEO, he had his work cut out for him.
“In 2020, we redesigned just about everything around the company: our fulfillment, our warehousing, our manufacturing, our procurement, the way we do things, our team,” he said.
“We are not a medical nutrition brand. We're not a ‘you go to the moon with Soylent and you don't need anything else’ brand. We're not a dieting brand. We're really a lifestyle brand.”
He realized that the company’s customer acquisition campaigns were not providing good enough returns. So Vangelov redesigned the strategy to better address both Soylent enthusiasts and to bring new consumers to the brand. This also meant renovating the product to address different needs. There were ways to meet both old and new consumers with one product line, as well as make it feel accessible to different kinds of people. Vangelov said Soylent had been trying to do too many different things, which can stretch a smaller company way too thin.
Soylent, like other plant-based food companies, also had issues with its margins, Vangelov said. He’s got experience with helping a plant-based company become profitable, having previously worked with plant-based dairy maker Califia Farms. And he said that as he came into Soylent’s top role, the company had to turn its system around and stop losing money immediately. Through the changes in messaging, formula, distribution, procurement and people, it happened, he said.
“Now we're not on that treadmill where you constantly have to go and fundraise or get capital from investors,” Vangelov said. “What we have been able to do is concentrate internally on really growing the business and reinvesting the money that we generate ourselves into further growth.”
Some of this growth had started under Crowley’s leadership. Soylent began its earnest rollout to retail stores in 2018, as the company inked distribution deals at Kroger and Walmart. Vangelov said it’s important for the brand to have a more omnichannel feel; the company earns profits from Soylent purchased in a store as well as online. He said that making these retail partnerships work well and understanding how each retailer operates has been key, and consumers being able to find Soylent in common places helps make Soylent seem like an option for them — not just for techies.
Nutrition above all
When it was first launched, Soylent seemed like a product for young people who found themselves extremely busy and in front of screens.
Today, Vangelov said, some of the company’s consumers still fit that profile. Two-thirds are millennials and Gen Zers. But the typical Soylent consumer is actually a young and busy working woman, he said. Many customers are nurses, students and urban young people who work in large corporations.
Aside from demographics, there are a few typical categories that Soylent consumers fit into, Vangelov said. These include its initial core audience of meal replacers, as well as those looking for drinkable nutrition because of a medical issue. He said Soylent generally captures the younger end of consumers who need to drink a product like Ensure. There are consumers who are using Soylent for weight management — either as a weight loss aid or to help them bulk up in a healthy way.
But most Soylent consumers use it occasionally as a tool to manage their nutrition. They rely on the products as a fill-in solution — to supply nutrition but not a lot of food on a morning after they’ve had a large dinner, or to keep their energy up on a day they don’t have time for a full lunch. Customers tend to be people who have an open view of their diets and needs, and are flexitarians.
“Every one of our consumers, they know what they believe they need in terms of protein, in terms of carbs, in terms of fiber and vitamins and minerals, and they're curating their nutrition across their week to fit those needs,” Vangelov said. “That's where Soylent plays very well because we have a 400-calorie offering, we have a 300-calorie offering. ...We have the bars and then we have the powders, and all those products work together to allow you, the consumer, to really” customize nutritional needs.
Soylent’s softened positioning has helped with this, Vangelov said, but general consumer understanding of protein — especially that which is plant-based — has also done a lot. As opposed to when Soylent first got its start, today’s consumer tends to have a better understanding of protein consumption needs. They also are more picky about where protein comes from, with some consumers looking for choices that are plant-based or animal-free for dietary and sustainability needs.
But Soylent, which takes its name both from the soy protein that gives the products their punch and the popular foodstuff in dystopian novel “Make Room! Make Room!” which inspired the dark futuristic 1973 movie “Soylent Green,” also knows its place. Since it’s 2022 — the same year that Charlton Heston’s character in the movie discovered the discomfiting secret ingredient in Soylent Green — the company has launched a limited-offer fruity tasting Soylent Green version of its Soylent Squared bar. The packaging touts them to be “As good as humanly possible,” and near the ingredients list, the box says “DOES NOT CONTAIN PEOPLE.” (But yes, the bar is green.)
Vangelov said the tongue-in-cheek launch (which is not the first time Soylent has made a green product and poked fun at it) is both fun and a new way for the company to offer its 100-calorie bars. But, he said, the problem of feeding people in an affordable and sustainable way is something at the heart of what Soylent does.
“We as industry need to do something different,” Vangelov said. “And that's where that book, and that's where thinking about where we are in society, is very important. So our mission, which is very big and lofty, is to provide all the calories and all the nutrition to all the people who need it. ...And we are saying, ‘Listen, I don't think everybody in the future is going to be drinking Soylent all the time,’ but we believe plant-based foods and we believe products like Soylent will be a big part of the solution.”