HIPPEAS founder: ‘Brand was everything for us, especially in the beginning…’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Specialty food association Winter fancy food Starbucks

On paper, organic extruded chickpea puffs might sound like niche natural products, but the meteoric ascent of HIPPEAS proves that edgy natural brands can hit the mainstream in record time if they have a compelling product and a brand that punches above its weight.

The brainchild of Italian serial entrepreneur Livio Bisterzo - who spent most of his adult life in London but now lives in California - Hippeas snacks debuted on both sides of the Atlantic in summer 2016, and have since secured shelf space at 30,000+ stores from Starbucks to Whole Foods Market and attracted investment from Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Specialty Food Association’s Winter Fancy Food Show, Bisterzo said: “Brand was everything for us, especially in the beginning.

“We had such a compelling proposition, we knew it was a very tough category, very saturated, so first and foremost we had to pop off the shelf ​[with a bright sunshine yellow design from London-based agency JKR], and the brand allowed us to raise awareness and incentivize trial.”

As for marketing, he said, “For us, we were very focused on building a community online and that means keep working with influencers and social ​[media], but also executing in the field. We’re a two-and a half year old brand, our challenge still remains awareness and trial, so we have an incredible conversion rate from trial and that’s where our energy and focus is over the next few years.”

Channel strategies: 'Starbucks was an incredible partner'

HIPPEAS has proved it can work across multiple channels, but got a huge break after scoring a nationwide deal with Starbucks almost straight out of the blocks, said Bisterzo.

“Starbucks was our launch platform, to launch in 11,000 stores and be seen by five million consumers every day was so relevant for us, Starbucks was an incredible partner, and it allowed us to scale and take the conversation into different channels and learn what works and what doesn’t. We learned what worked very very fast, and we were able to scale in natural and conventional grocers very very quickly because we had that proposition.

“We’re still in Starbucks two years on and sales are stronger than ever so we’re very excited.”

That said, when you’re starting out and budgets are limited, learning to say ‘NO’ is just as important as saying ‘YES’ for emerging food brands, said Bisterzo, who predicted that revenues in 2018 would be three times what they were in 2017.

“No matter what we do, we are focused on execution and making everything that we touch work​ [on the ground]. The salty snacks category is dominated by a couple of key players and merchandising at a field level is so crucial, and with our limited resources as a start-up we try to do that the best we can... Learning to say ‘no’ is as important as growing as fast as you would like it to.”

Hippeas trucks

'Extruded puffs alone is a $2.4bn category at retail'

Asked about the ecommerce opportunity for HIPPEAS, he said: “Amazon has given start-ups like us a platform to learn and figure out what consumers want and will remain our key focus ​[for ecommerce] for 2018, but in the meantime we believe there is an opportunity to build ​[our own] direct to consumer business and we will launch that towards the back end of this year.”

As for new products and line extensions, he said: “We believe HIPPEAS is a lifestyle snacking platform in the pulse and legume-based snacking world, but we have so much work with the current proposition. Extruded puffs alone is a $2.4bn category at retail, so we believe we can grow the brand to a significant size before thinking about introducing any innovation.

“But the long term goal is to become a household brand that will extend into different categories for sure.”

Hippeas gluten-free organic puffs – which are manufactured by co-packers in the US and in Ireland – require specialized extrusion equipment and are crunchier than extruded corn snacks, with an appealing nutritional profile (3g fiber, 4g protein and 130 calories per 28g/1oz serving).

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