Fulfil is currently celebrating after US giant Hershey acquired a ‘significant’ minority stake in the Dublin-based snack bar brand. The investment allows Fulfil to continue to pursue its lofty ambitions. It sold its first bar in January 2016 in Ireland. It has since entered the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, the Middle East and Australia, and has been growing exponentially year-on-year.
"It's been a growth phenomenon,” Fulfil’s CEO Brian O’Sullivan told FoodNavigator. “The expectations of it in year one were very modest and as soon as the product landed on shelves this thing just took off like a rocket.
“The main focus of the business in 2016 and the first half of 2017 was trying to keep up with the pace of demand and every time the business caught up to it seemed to go even further again.”
Fulfil’s biggest growth market is currently its home turf of Ireland. “We're now the number two snack brand to Cadbury Dairy Milk. It’s incredible to reach the scale of that in what's a reasonably sized market in such a short period of time,” said O’Sullivan.
It’s also ironic. O’Sullivan spent a decade at Cadbury Ireland before moving on to a global position with parent with Mondelez. He joined Fulfil in 2017 with a number of other industry heavyweights who were brought on board to mastermind the brand’s aggressive expansion.
It was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. The key to the brand’s success, he believes, is that it offers consumers a healthy snacking option without compromising flavour. "What I saw was not just a great tasting bar, but the answer to a global problem that the snacking industry has been trying to work on for decades: how do you make snacks more permissible for consumers?”
Healthy bars have traditionally compromised on taste. Confectionery bars offer consumers great taste, but compromise on the health aspect. “Fulfil has hit the sweet spot in the middle,” O’Sullivan proclaimed. “It delivers positive nutritional benefits of high protein, low sugar and nine vitamins -- and the product tastes really good.”
'Our objective is to be the number one snack bar brand in the UK'
The Hershey deal sets Fulfil in motion for an assault on the UK market. “Our priority is to use that investment to continue to fuel the growth. And the UK is our primary market,” explained O’Sullivan.
“We're the number 17 snack bar brand in the UK after just two years and our objective is to be the number one snack bar brand in the UK. We’ve make good progress in the UK particularly over the last eight months. Last October we were sitting on 9% distribution in the UK market. Today we're sitting on 56%. It was really hard to get up to that 9% but we're now in most of the major UK retailers. We’re growing just over 60% y-o-y in the UK.” It’s UK mainstream listings include at WHSmith, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Ocado.
The firm won’t be resting on its laurels internationally either. It’s on track to double its business this year in Australia where it launched in 2018. The US is also “definitely on the radar”, according to the CEO. “It’s a question of when not if.”
Another factor behind the brand’s success is its target market. "A lot of protein bars are focussed on people who work out quite extensively,” explained O’Sullivan. “What makes Fulfil different is our positioning, which is: ‘this is a bar for everybody who leads an active life’. Therefore, this has much broader appeal. 55% of our consumers are female, 45% are male, which is a really good balance.”
The “softer” brand name, meanwhile, “doesn’t alienate anybody and people feel conformable having the snack even if they are not working out on a regular basis.”
Customers ‘don't want to compromise on taste’
However, Fulfil products can contain around 40 ingredients including sugar-free sweeteners, which some consumers might not consider as 'real food'. Is O’Sullivan concerned that some shoppers may prefer shorter ingredients lists and less processing? The ingredients are as they are so “consumers are not compromising on taste”, he replied. “We do use some artificial sweeteners but we try and source those from the most natural sources possible. The issue is that some of the products with few ingredients don't taste great. We’re being very careful to say we want the healthiest the product we can provide to consumers that tastes great.”
In addition to taste, depending on the size of the bar (Fulfil bars come in two sizes, 40g and 55g), consumers get either 15 or 20 grams of protein. In the UK, adults are advised to eat 0.75g of protein for each kilogram they weigh, based on the Reference Nutrient Intake. So a person weighing 70kg (11 stone) should eat about 52.5g of protein a day.
What’s more, using artificial sweeteners allows Fulfil to cut back on the sugar content, which is often not the case with bars marketed as healthy. “If you look at some products with fewer ingredients, the sugar content is still high. It could be 12-20 grams of sugar in those products compared to 26 grams in a Snickers or Dairy Milk. Ours is less than 3. So consumers can choose what their priorities are. The feedback we get is that taste is absolutely key and they don't want to compromise on it.
“Our taste has been a huge driver of our success. Over the last 18 months we've done a huge amount on the taste and texture side of it so that the actual eating experience is much more enjoyable for consumers.”
A pipeline of products for next year
The Hershey investment will also see Fulfil continue to improve its range and R&D: new products now account for over 60% of its business. A chocolate brownie flavour has just launched into trade and there is a pipeline of products for next year. “There is no end to the potential of this brand,” added O’Sullivan. “It's beyond most people's comprehension how big I think this brand can be. Having come from a background of a big global brands, it is the first time I’ve been at the beginning of something that could be of that scale. The future is incredibly bright and incredibly big in terms of the opportunity.”