She sold her successful PR agency and took on the largely male-oriented business of protein. Darlene McCormick, co-founder of That Protein, talks us through launching and marketing her brand, how the industry is growing and gives her advice to budding entrepreneurs.
Can you introduce us to That Protein, where the inspiration for launching your business came from and what makes your business special?
I had worked in PR for a long time and owned a successful PR firm representing lots of consumer brands, helping them to grow. I am also a vegan and totally passionate about plant-based living. My interest in this area led me to qualify as a clinical nutritionist while I was still running the PR agency and from that, my interest in plant-based nutrition just grew and grew to the point where I knew that somehow this was my future!
I wanted to use all my brand experience and my love of plant-based living to create the brand that I would want to choose but wasn’t there. In the mornings I’d be taking protein powders, superfoods and all sorts to create a mix that supported me nutritionally and trying to get organic and raw versions. I thought “Why is no-one offering this?” As the heavens would have it, only two weeks after this idea crystallised, someone offered to buy my PR company and I went for it! Protein was largely a male-oriented business and has been quite sports-nutrition-oriented and whey-based. Lots of these products had chemicals and were heat-processed, and all that was a million miles from my vision!
Protein was largely a male-oriented business and has been quite sports-nutrition-oriented and whey-based. Lots of these products had chemicals and were heat-processed, and all that was a million miles from my vision!
I am a “no compromise” kind of gal and so I spent a year researching everything to absolutely ensure our products were the purest organic and raw plant products available, and were actually offering something new. There were quite a few “natural” proteins out there, but “natural” isn’t pure enough as it still uses chemicals.
I wanted to add to what was already in the market and excite everyone – not just vegans – about choosing plant options, so the idea of a “super proteins” – i.e. plant proteins fused with superfoods – was born! I sourced unusual proteins like Organic Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder and created interesting fusions with real health benefits. That Protein products don’t just offer muscle benefits; they also offer heart benefits, energy benefits and immune benefits, plus a whole lot more!
How did you go about branding your product and designing the packaging? What key decisions did you make?
Branding is obviously huge and there are so many ways you can go. I wanted a modern brand, yet one that has the plants we use as the heroes. Colours were important and ours help communicate the ingredients to help people who are in a hurry to decide! We used names to communicate the “vibe” and USP of the product, for example, I Heart Pumpkin Seed and Chia Seed Super Protein highlights the additional healthy heart benefits; Chirpy Chirpy Choca Mocha Super Protein communicates the energy from that product, and so on. We wanted to make it fun and memorable, but with a serious message about what’s in the bag and what it will do for the people who buy it. We wanted to have our raw and and organic credentials prominent in the packaging as they are a point of difference and elevate the brand from “natural” status. We were really delighted when British Vogue picked up on That Protein’s purity. We call our products “super proteins” to communicate that they have superfoods and proteins. People have responded really positively to it and always say “We LOVE the branding”, so I think we have got it right!
We used names to communicate the “vibe” and USP of the product, for example, I Heart Pumpkin Seed and Chia Seed Super Protein highlights the additional healthy heart benefits.
Can you talk us through the process of creating your products and sourcing your ingredients?
We do a great deal of product development. All our ingredients pass strict organic testing in the first instance. Our aim is to offer people something that’s not already there, so we look for unusual ingredients and then we work out which proteins work with which superfoods to deliver taste and benefit in a unique fusion. I’ve been called the “Willy Wonka” of protein! Our products are taking vegan proteins in a totally new direction. Our raw cacao, for example, is dried by the sun and is such a rich indulgent taste that you’d never want to add “chocolate flavouring” again – nature knows best! We source from all over the world and reject lots of options before settling on the ones we use.
How do you see the superfood market developing?
When superfoods rose to prominence, there were lots of one-ingredient-products in a bag. I think what we are doing is changing this. There are more fusion products now, but people need to be really careful that the products are not just mixes for the sake of it as this can diminish the health benefits; too much product means less of everything, and so less health benefit. If there isn’t enough to be able make health claims about the ingredients, then I don’t think a mix for the sake of being clever is a good idea – so that’s something to watch out for. I do think people are getting very savvy about this kind of product and want the term “clean eating” to mean exactly that, and they will be questioning the use of chemicals and sweeteners and E-numbers in health food products more and more. What is very exciting is the growing range of super foods available and getting approval for use here. It’s an amazing time to be in this business!
There are more fusion products now, but people need to be really careful that the products are not just mixes for the sake of it as this can diminish the health benefits; too much product means less of everything, and so less health benefit.
What key lessons have you learnt in setting up That Protein, and what key advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
I would say not to agonise about getting everything 100 per cent right for your launch or you may never launch! Get the important things right, of course – the product, packaging claims and so on… but the reality is that “your” brand really isn’t yours at all! It actually belongs to all the people who buy it, and they will influence how it evolves. I am guilty of wanting everything to be 100 per cent right before I put it out there, but a new brand has to be flexible whist retaining a core concept and direction. What you learn is huge and new learnings influence the decision-making-process. Be flexible and understand that building a brand is a totally fluid process.
Another piece of advice is to understand everything that is involved in selling your product – How will you get it to market? What will that cost? How long will it take? Talk to other people who have done what you want to do. Most successful people will be more than happy to share their experiences with you. We have spoken to lots of start-ups and have been happy to do so.