The last three-and-a-half years have been something of a whirlwind at Fulfil. The vitamin and protein bar brand – stocked in retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Ocado – sold its first bars in Ireland in January 2016 and its initial hope was simply to deliver a better-tasting protein bar. The ensuing demand, however, was unprecedented.
“Historically, protein bars haven’t necessarily been the best in terms of taste benefit and eating experience, so we saw that gap in the market, and it completely took off, way beyond anybody’s expectations,” CEO Brian O’Sullivan tells Food Spark. “For the first 18 months, the main challenge was simply trying to keep up with the demand!”
O’Sullivan, having spent 17 years with Cadbury and parent company Mondelez, joined Fulfil in October last year, and was amazed at what had already been achieved.
“They had essentially cracked a problem that had existed for decades for companies like Mondelez,” he reveals. “How do you make your snacks more permissible? It’s a real breakthrough in that space – they hit a sweet spot between two challenging extremes: high taste, low health and high health, low taste.”
Tackling more than just a niche
Following O’Sullivan’s appointment, Fulfil realigned its ambitions and started thinking even bigger.
“We no longer look at ourselves as a better-tasting bar,” says O’Sullivan. “We look at ourselves as a great-tasting bar, full of nutritional benefits.
“That may sound like a similar concept, but in the former, you’re trying to beat off competition from other protein bars. Now, there’s the entire breadth of the snacking market, which represents a much larger opportunity – that’s where we want to win.”
One USP for the brand is the nine vitamins it packs into the bars, including vitamins C, B6, B12 and E, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin (B2), niacin and pantothenic acid.
It’s helped it to become one of the biggest sellers of single bars in Ireland – second only to Cadbury Dairy Milk. When you consider that O’Sullivan’s former employer is fast-approaching its bicentenary year, that’s not a statistic to be sniffed at.
“We have an 11% share of single snack bars, which, in any other market, would have us at number one by far,” says O’Sullivan. “We’re 17th in the UK, and our objective for 2020 is to be in the top 10.”
Between two worlds
Plans are afoot to reinvigorate the brand’s less popular options to bring them on par with those flying off the shelves, according to O’Sullivan.
“Our newest products – those launched since April 2018 – account for 60% of our business,” he reveals. “By far our most popular is chocolate salted caramel, which launched in September 2018. It shot straight to number one and has stayed there consistently ever since.
“We’ve started to merge the worlds of traditional confectionery and protein bars. Rather than looking at the most popular protein bar flavours, we’ve looked at the flavours that are most popular within confectionery, and we’ve applied that template.”
The brand’s latest release – chocolate brownie – is already vying for top spot, says O’Sullivan, while chocolate hazelnut, chocolate peanut butter and peanut and caramel round off the top five.
“Those are our core flavours at the moment, but we’re renovating and reformulating the others to deliver the same taste benefit and eating experience,” he says.
Making confectionery products a healthier option is a trend that is emerging in the snacking space. British brand Doisy & Dam have recently targeted products like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Mini Eggs for a nutritional upgrade, while Cadbury released Boost bars with added protein.
Last week, Nestle also unveiled variants of Kit Kat Chunky and Yorkie with extra protein and less sugar to form a healthier snacking range called More. The chocolate bars are made with fruit, nuts and cereal, while promising 30% less sugar than similar products. The Kit Kat Chunky More contains raspberries and hazelnuts with 15.1g of protein, while the Yorkie More is made with oats, apple and cinnamon with 18.8g of protein per 100g.
But with so many chocolate-based flavours, how does Fulfil assure consumers that its products remain healthy?
“Our nutritional benefit is huge, which is our core proposition,” explains O’Sullivan. “It varies bar to bar, but you’re always getting 15-20g per product. And despite the chocolate flavours, our large bars have less than 3g sugar. High protein, low sugar, nine vitamins.
“We’ve worked really hard to ensure that you don’t feel as if you’re losing out on a traditional snack. You’re just having a great tasting snack that happens to have incredible nutritional value.”
It was this innovative approach that led to Hershey’s minority investment last month, according to O’Sullivan, and it's one he believes can push Fulfil to the next level – including the potential to go global.
Despite countless protein bar variants now available on the market, O’Sullivan doesn’t believe saturation point has been reached yet.
“The definition has changed somewhat,” he says. “We’ve moved on from a place where protein was for those going to the gym every day. Now, it’s much more understood that it’s something everyone needs every day, so as an ingredient, it’s stretching across all snacks in general.
“This evolution will allow new innovations to come. There are lots of propositions around, and the consumer is really chasing healthier options that taste great, so there’s plenty of potential for companies to try to hit that sweet spot.”