It’s name doomed the brand from the start. If there was ever a case study about the hazards in brand naming, Soylent, the inert meal replacement beverage, has got to be it.
Soylent was launched in 2013 after its founder Robert Rhinehart recognized “the disproportionate amount of time and money spent creating nutritionally complete meals.” Of course, millions before Rhinehart had recognized that food preparation took time, with many, in fact, cherishing that time as one of the best parts of the human condition.
But Rhinehart could be called the anti-foodie and he set off to invent a a meal “designed for use as a staple meal by all adults” with each serving “providing maximum nutrition with minimum effort.” (Rhinehart has disparaged foodies.) But just because your product does not fuss with the unnecessary frills of conventional eating doesn’t mean your messaging should avoid it also.
The brand’s dedication to efficiency was a problem from the start. First, it refers to its meals as “a food product.” The impersonality of its clinical assessment of its own offerings is embodied in its brand name: Soylent. Soylent’s source is innocent, even evocative; it’s the nutritious blend base of soy and lentils used to make steak-like foods in the overpopulated fictional future from the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!
Sadly, most potential consumers will remember Soylent as the name of the 1973 Charlton Heston sci-fi flick Soylent Green where, famously, Soylent “is people.” (The movie adaption of the novel changed the plot of the novel so that Soylent was made out of the remains of dead humans.) It says a lot about the ideals vs. the recognition of practical market realities at Soylent that its team would think consumers would be more familiar with the obscure novel than the cult favorite dystopian movie.
Soylent has gained popularity only with a certain segment of the population that fancy themselves too busy or too blasé to carve out five minutes of the day to make and consume food. A good place to read about the brand’s fans is on its Reddit/soylent page, where they post odes to the product as well as practical advice like dealing with the constant “Soylent is people” joke. One fan writes: “If Soylent is really everything a human needs to survive. Then you could accurately describe Soylent as ‘people’ in their unassembled form. So technically, they aren’t wrong.” As they say, not helping.
But it also makes its own job harder with quality control problems.
Recently, Soylent released a new version in pre-mixed liquid form instead of a powder, which was apparently too time-consuming. But the shipments of Soylent 2.0 were halted due to mold. Meanwhile, Soylent is also facing widespread criticism for additives, embracing GMOs and high levels of elements like cadmium. Unfortunately, Rhinehart may disparage foodies and their ilk, but ingredient-sensitive consumers do cross over to his world.
Soylent’s struggles have not dissuaded others. The brand now has a better-named competitor Ambronite. Right off the bat Ambronite differentiates itself with warmer messaging, using a lot of health-conscious hipster humans in its messaging. Make that rich, health-conscious hipster humans apparently as surviving on Ambronite will cost you about $32 a day. Both Ambronite and Soylent say getting costs lower is a future goal.
Then there are the crickets. Somewhere between Soylent and the slow food movement is Exo. Launched on Kickstarter, Exo aims to provide sustainable nutrition with cricket-based food. Right now, Exo offers energy bars made with organic cricket flour, which the brand says is a complete protein with twice the iron of spinach. Exo has given some thought to consumer perception as well. In addition to promoting crickets as “green” and healthy, the brand brought on board the chef from celebrated restaurant The Fat Duck to help with taste.