Category Archives: Campaigns (Advertising + Digital)

Fulfil Nutrition Case Study – How an Irish FMCG brand used Byron Sharp’s playbook to deliver €30 million sales in an exploding category…

Since I’ve moved to the suburbs, I’ve become a people watching addict. As a planner, my day revolves around observing consumer trends and developing insights, so the daily Luas commute is catnip. The opportunity to observe the morning and evening routines of south Dublin commuters is a mini ethnographic research expedition every day.

I started noticing it about three years ago. First, it was the big buff office workers getting on the tram after a morning in the gym, still glistening from their workout. Next, it became the yoga pants brigade – 20 something females coming from boot camp in Dundrum.  All of a sudden, protein shakes exploded.

The shaker in hand had quickly become the new takeaway coffee cup – a social signalling device and #humblebrag opportunity manifested in a thick, frothy drink. Clutching a half litre of shake says something about you to your other commuters –

“I’m fit, I’ve been to the gym today and if this tram turns into some sort of frenzied rush to get off at St Stephen’s Green I will probably crush you”.

For the Irish consumer, protein has become a byword for health. And we’re becoming addicted.

Even modern Irish youth culture seems to be skewing more toward dead lifts and crossfit than Dutch Gold and cheap ciggies.

Brands have followed. The major FMCG companies have been keenly observing and jumping on the trend.

We now have protein water, protein Mars bars, protein Weetabix and protein pizzas. New product development in the space has exploded. Per Mintel data, 22% of Irish consumers have eaten a high in protein snack bar in the last three months, and the number of new products claiming to aid weight and muscle gain (including protein products) increased 237% between 2012 and 2016 in Ireland & UK. That’s a lot of competition, and represents a serious tipping point.

So with all of that competition, how has one small Irish startup cornered the exploding category? Simple.By following the tried, tested, counter-intuitive and often ignored principles of marketing scientist Byron Sharp.

Joining the dots, we can see an almost a perfect petri dish example of a Sharpian approach to marketing.

That’s what makes Fulfil Nutrition such a fascinating Irish marketing case study for the modern age.

Sharp marketing

When Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ book was released in 2011, it shocked and surprised the marketing world. Here was a text that methodically and scientifically blew accepted branding knowledge out of the water. And yet, there was nothing overly strange about Sharp’s approach. In hindsight, it makes complete sense, and has been borne out as correct in countless examples since, particularly in FMCG.

Though his theories have moved on slightly  since then, the 7 rules that Sharp puts forward in ‘HBG’ still hold.

He states that to grow, brands need to:

  1. Continuously reach all buyers of the category (communication and distribution) – avoid being silent and drive frequency.
  2. Drive mass physical availability. Ensure the brand is easy to buy, widely distributed in store and online. Help the buyer understand how it fits with their life.
  3. Get noticed. Grab attention and focus on brand salience to prime the users mind. If you’re not noticed, you’re nowhere.
  4. Refresh and build memory structures. Create mass mental availability. Make your brand first to come to mind. Respect existing associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy, play on usage occasions and habits.
  5. Create and use distinctive brand assets. Use sensory cues to get noticed and stay top of mind, use stand out brand imagery and logos to help with this.
  6. Be consistent. Avoid unnecessary changes, whilst keeping the brands fresh and interesting.
  7. Stay competitive. Keep the brand easy to buy and avoid giving excuses not to buy (price, alienating a particular group).

The approach has been so successful that some of the world’s biggest spending marketers, companies like Unilever, Mars, Diageo have adopted it.

But although the book is a best seller, many marketers are either unfamiliar or not well versed in ‘How Brands Grow’. Outside the top echelons, it’s not widely taught.

Whether they’re aware of it or not (and I’d wager they are certainly aware), Fulfil are masters of Sharp’s approach.

Fulfilling potential

In late 2016, on the crest of a wave of protein NPD, Fulfil launched, filling a particularly sweet spot in the market. Affluent gym goers were looking for a low fat, low sugar, high taste protein bar option, a healthy, convenient snack that also played into their macros for the day. Plus, the flavours tasted great.

Fulfil founders Tom Gannon and Niall McGrath are both steeped in FMCG. Both worked for some of Ireland’s largest brands in their previous roles with Richmond Marketing. This closeness to the consumer helped them to spot the protein trend from the inside.

But we’ve seen many brilliant new products fall flat over the years.

Fulfil’s real success was in its positioning and marketing approach.

And they’ve borrowed heavily from the Byron Sharp brand playbook.

Their first stroke of genius was taking the world of confectionery and the world of protein bars and bringing them together.

According to an article on recently, the plan from the start was

“to make the brand feel bigger than it actually was. That meant getting Fulfil bars where people couldn’t avoid seeing them”

The ‘surround sound’ approach meant getting the bars out of the specialty isle, and up beside the tills in every retailer. The bar is sold across convenience, supermarket, health food and even in newsagents, offering it a mass physical availability that no other protein foodstuff enjoys.  If you don’t have distribution, you have nothing in FMCG, and Fulfil’s founders are old hands at delivering on this.

Sharpian principles are also literally baked into the product.

The packaging is designed to be distinctive, different to other, more clinical protein bars in the health food isle, with bright colours and strong fonts. These are distinctive brand assets that grab attention.

Fulfil has carefully walked the tightrope of innovation, retaining consistency (new flavours have retained the taste and nutrient content of the original bars), but using carefully staged launches (including secret tastings) to drive earned media and build excitement around the brand. If you’re not noticed, you’re nowhere.

With regards usage occasions, an important consideration for any FMCG brand, Fulfil have the obvious breakfast supplement/post gym market, but have also moved into healthy dessert options too.  Brand extensions have been avoided so far, but Fulfil has pushed recipe ideas that include protein brownies, cheese cakes and sundaes. This has helped drive reach by expanding the product’s usage.

Perhaps most importantly, Fulfil is the first ‘mass market’ protein bar and is competitive within a variety of sub-categories. In fact, this is built into the origin story. Founder Tom was annoyed at the gritty, horrible tasting bars on the market, and partnered with Niall to develop a crossover bar that tasted great and did the practical nutritional job too.

By positioning as a high cost ‘snack with benefits’ for the mass market instead of a health product,  Fulfil democratised a whole category .

They unlocked new consumer growth for themselves, creating mass reach and awareness in the process. This develops the brand’s salience, and though the price point of €2.75, is expensive when framed against other chocolate bars, the combination of taste and function seems to attract buyers.

While paid advertising has been limited, presumably due to budgets, the brand has made the most of its spend, using large, fame building assets to drive mental availability among consumers. They’ve invested in eye-catching outdoor, colourful social and used Instagram influencers to spread their message.

Most notably, on the ground activity has been a feature, bringing the bars to consumers who wouldn’t otherwise encounter them in novel ways. Activations so far have included a pop-up shop and a newly launched café in Dublin. Future plans include a network of franchised and company-owned cafés. That’s physical and mental availability taken to the max.


Real-time success

The results have been nothing short of awesome. The brand has gone from zero to household name in less than a year. There are already 12 flavours on sale, with more on the way. Fulfil have begun to sell across Europe, the Middle East and US. In 2018, Fulfil will go live in Australia.

According to the founders, bottom line success has been even more impressive. In year one, from no market base, Fulfil sold just under 15 million bars and is on track for 30 million in 2017.

They’ve cornered a growth category, taken protein bars from the nutrition aisle to the checkout and are perfectly placed to take a grip of the global protein bar market too.

I’ve no connection at all to Fulfil (besides an addiction to the bars) but it sure is inspiring to watch an Irish marketing success story in real time, built on the principles of one of the world’s sharpest marketers.

They’re all the rage on the Luas trams of south Dublin too.




The snowball effect – Why there’s no such thing as going viral for brands…

“I’ve got no budget, can you make this go viral?”

It’s the sentence that any marketer dreads hearing. You get a client brief with no media budget and the expectation is that you can sprinkle some magic dust and make a hit.

The lingering perception within digital is that ‘earned’ is the new ‘paid’, that social is free and we should pump more money into making content than actually supporting that content. I’ve seen this mistake over and over again – a brand spends big on a piece of activity it expects to be huge organically, and acts surprised when it falls flat on its face due to lack of paid support.

Though ‘shareability’ can certainly be optimised for, it’s often a lottery, but there seems to be a feeling that ‘going viral’ can be done without budget.

Not according to Derek Thompson.

No such thing as viral?

In his brilliant new book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction” Thompson, an editor for The Atlantic carefully and scientifically analyses what really makes things ‘go viral’. As Buzzfeed might say ‘what he found will shock you’.

According to Thompson, there’s ‘no such thing as going viral’ for brands.  At least organically.

Basically, almost nothing goes viral without a lot of help and the viral metaphor is misleading at best and counter-productive at worst. His theory should be music to the ears of marketers.

He outlines why going viral has become shorthand for “that thing got big really quickly, and I’m not sure how”. By examining the information cascade for smash hits like the Volvo truck video Thompson found that in almost all cases of ‘virality’, exposure from marketing, paid media, a large broadcast moment and powerful distribution created the inflection point.

It’s these elements, and not organic sharing, that really make monster hits.

Only when a piece of content started getting picked up by large networks or websites, often after it had been pushed heavily with paid support, was it likely to reach ‘viral’ status.

In the book, Thompson also describes how popularity is created online through a snowball effect – things that are popular tend to get more popular. This makes sense. Since we place so much power in the opinions of the herd, we’re far more likely to watch and share something that already has 500,000 views and thousands of likes or shares (whether they’re paid or not), than something with 10 views.

Spending heavy on paid media up front is the best way to sow the seeds for virality. We’ve been told for years that ‘content is king’, but we’ve fallen foul of the ‘Field of Dreams’ fallacy by presuming that ‘if you build it they will come’.

“Distribution is more important than content” says Thompson. “You can say that a song is the best song in the world, you can say that an idea is the best for people’s welfare, or a movie is the best documentary of its kind. But without a distribution strategy to reach people, nobody hears it.”

There’s so much ‘content’ out there that without paid media and a smart distribution strategy even the best video or article is like a tree falling the forest.

The most important determinant of ‘virality’?

While this type of insight won’t be music to the ears of social gurus telling us that paid media is a thing of the past, it does tally with other research out there.

According to Unruly Media, experts in this viral video space, often marketers don’t distribute their content well at all, and this leads to nobody seeing it. Videos languish and they don’t get seen. The most important determinant of ‘virality’ besides the content is what happens in the first three days after any video is launched. Support at this stage, through media spend and P.R. is crucial, as this is when the big sharing spike happens, leading to the biggest viewing spike. Around 42% of shares occur in the first three days after upload.

Similarly, recent IPA data also reflects the importance of paid media to spur organic sharing. Only 7% of IPA campaigns that generated the most online buzz relied on earned and owned media alone, compared to 78% that also included paid media. The most effective campaigns tend to combine earned, owned and paid media to create a “multiplier effect”.

They pay to “add fuel to the fire” of online buzz.

Unfortunately, many brands seem to be ignoring these findings. Jerry Daykin and Shann Biglione both recently touched on the subject online. Shann came out with a brilliant paradoxical theory that puts things into perspective:


Jerry makes the excellent point that so often with creative awards entries the line ‘we did this with little media budget’ is put forward as a positive, when actually that should be a lament. Because what this line of thinking fails to realise is that this award winning creative could’ve reached so many more people with a bigger media budget.  This should be an indication that either the agency wasn’t smart enough to ask for more media, or the brand wasn’t brave enough to supply it.

As he says:

“If you’d managed to really get behind your idea you’d have reached 10x as many people and had an accordingly bigger impact. For some reason ‘we couldn’t really convince our managers to back this idea’​, ‘we screwed up in how much of our budget we spent on production’​ and ‘we got suckered in by a promise of free unlimited social reach’​ haven’t caught on as much…”

Relying on organic reach alone to hit the ‘viral’ jackpot is not a smart strategy.

The next time one of our clients asks for a ‘viral’, either buy them Thompson’s book or send them this post. And then ask for some media budget.

Why the advertising industry needs to stop abdicating responsibility…

“When you have complexity, by nature you have institutional fraud and ingrained mistakes. This will always be true of financial companies. If you want accurate numbers, you’re in the wrong world”

When Warren Buffett wrote the above in one of his famous year end shareholder letters, he was talking about the global financial crisis of 2008. He was referring to how complex/fraudulent/unethical/illegal (delete as appropriate) business practises led to the downfall of enormous institutions.

But for anyone working in advertising it should sound eerily familiar, give the week we’ve just had. Mr Buffett could’ve easily been talking about the current state of the digital.

Our digital house of cards is having its foundations threatened. The unnecessary complexity and misaligned incentives we’ve created have led to chaos, fraud and mistakes like Buffett describes.

It’s clear that we’re in the ‘trough of disillusionment’ stage of digital advertising. Just look at some of the supporting evidence:

It’s certainly time for an industry reset that’s been long overdue for years. It’s time for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ session involving every participant. But that can only happen if everyone comes to the table in good faith. Instead many of the agencies, brands and publishers involved are trying to deflect blame, prolonging the problem.


The unspoken subtext behind brands like Verizon and AT&T and agencies like Havas pulling out of YouTube is one of opportunism. They saw a chance to put the boot into a ‘frenemy’ and they took it, claiming along the way that the problems had only come to light recently.

Really guys?

Let’s be honest here. Everyone in the industry has known about many of the problems that cropped up last week for months if not years. Advertising on YouTube has always been a bit of a dice roll, we were just happy to avert our gaze.

By blaming Google, these agencies and brands are actually tacitly admitting that they’ve been wilfully ignorant of the problems.

As this brilliant Digiday piece explains, everyone has an axe to grind with Google. Everyone has ulterior motives.

For brands, it’s about leverage against the humongous power of Google, and finally showing it who’s boss.
For publishers, it’s the opportunity to get some power back.


But with Google getting all the blame, this allows everyone else to abdicate responsibility, sneaking off while the media focuses on just one part of the problem.

We saw a similar thing happening around adblocking. After initially admitting that they had ‘messed up’, the IAB eventually came out declaring ‘war’ on adblocking. This quick turnaround missed the point spectacularly, and avoided the root cause of the problem – crap, spammy, intrusive ads.

Attacking adblocking is like treating the symptoms of a disease without really getting to the heart of it.

Again, the focus was shifted and the real issue ignored.

It seems like our industry is good at doing that. But we can only get away with it for so long.

This time around Google is taking the blame. Google can take the hit.

But trust me, if things don’t change, it won’t be long until brands, agencies and publishers have the spotlight turned onto their murky practises. The fallout won’t be pretty.

Until agencies, brands and publishers own up to their share of the blame (and truly believe it), the industry is stuck. Things will only become more polarised and complex.

It might be idealistic, but this is our chance to reset digital and move towards maturity. Let’s show some leadership and take it.