Shreyas Kulkarni

"Consumers’ trust in packaged food is broken because brands have been lying to us": Shashank Mehta, The Whole Truth

Mehta talks to us about food marketing jugglery, changing India’s perspective around protein bars, and more.

It’s not every day you see an ad break the fourth wall and talk to you especially a food brand that wants your focus on the product and nothing else. Well, that’s where The Whole Truth comes into the picture.

The ad features its founder and CEO Shashank Mehta who takes us behind a food ad and explains how the ingredients we read on the pack’s back are not what they truly are. The ad, inspired from Dollar Shave Club’s now-classic ad taking on grooming giants (read Gillette), talks about how The Whole Truth is putting what’s on the back of the pack on the front. We (afaqs!) caught up with Mehta to understand the brand and his product better.

Edited Excerpts:

Take us through the brand and how did this idea for the ad arise?

We started The Whole Truth as consumers’ trust in packaged food is broken because brands have been lying to us… You must have experienced an incident when you thought a product was healthy but it was filled with sugar.

The idea of The Whole Truth was to bring the back of the pack to the front because all the important information- ingredients and nutritional information about the food is written on the back.

When a food marketer is making a jazzy ad - there’s a ton of CG, food production, makeup, props, etc. But, this is not a beauty care ad. Why is this treatment happening to my food ad? It is purely to entice me by showing me flying almonds or lush fruits or eating chocolate and you will find a star mark somewhere telling you images are not representative of the product. I was a career Unilever marketer and before starting my firm and I’ve seen how marketing jugglery is done behind the scenes.

If you want to bust this lie, take your consumers behind the camera and talk to them directly about how the ad is made. That was the idea and in the execution, we felt the Dollar Shave Club ad was a great reference because it was honest… The founder humbly trying to tell you that neither do we have the budget nor the intent to sell you food by putting CGI and post-production…

People do turn the pack to check the ingredients… so will people buy your talk about bringing the back of the pack to the front?

Every marketer will make the same argument that all the truth is written on the back and you can go and read it. But, think of the time when you went to the supermarket, who has the time and energy to do this for every food packet picked up.

More importantly, if the food marketer has the privilege of the pack's front to tell you good stuff to sell it, why not use that space to inform the consumer, why make it harder for me to find out rather than making it easy? We started with that intention.

How did you zero in on the design choice for the pack?

We felt that food marketing was so incorrect that we wanted to turn every paradigm on its head. A part of the obfuscation is done by design choices: big flashy colours, stuff you want to highlight written in really big fonts, great photography.

Our choice was to use the front of the pack which is the prime real estate any packaging material has for education and not for misdirection or for misleading people and we believe that flashy design, sexy photography, tall claims are all tools to mislead whereas someone talking to you with simple words is the only way, to tell the truth.

The primary audience of protein bars are the fitness folks but with gyms shut and people staying indoors, worried about sales?

We’re actually doing double the sales. To give you a number, the Indian protein bar market is around 200-250 crore per annum but that number in the US is 2,000 crore.

In India, people who gym regularly consume protein bars but in the developed markets, it’s eaten by everyone to complete their protein requirements. We built this brand not to become gym-related and 50 per cent of our sales come from women. People are buying our bars to complete their daily protein requirements because many Indians now understand we’re protein deficient in our diets.

They also buy it as a healthy snack instead of eating unhealthy foods. Both these use cases have shot up post-COVID as people have become conscious about what they’re consuming. We’re seeing a heightened tailwind behind the category…

Tell us about the reason to sell only boxes

On the website, you can only buy a box (containing six bars) because we include shipping etc so there’s a minimum order… We’re not selling from any e-commerce platform such as BigBasket or Amazon and it’s a conscious choice because we want to tell our brand story in a controlled environment before we go to marketplaces. Once we do, we will start selling individual units.

You’re trying to change consumer thinking regarding protein consumption… Tell us about your marketing initiatives going forward

It’s a huge challenge. What helps is the present fitness trend and people who’re exposed to content from the west, the proof is that the category itself is growing by 30-40 % every year. We’re doing only education on Instagram… For example, some of our best posts are about white bread vs brown bread, sugar vs honey vs jaggery, how do you decide your ketchup is good or not… there’s no brand push.

We’ve not tied up with any celebrity because we’re small and we haven’t found the right fit - we only want to associate with people who are as clean as we are. We take our 100% clean claim very seriously.

Who’s your target audience?

We don’t cut our niche audience by gender but by three criteria. One, they’re young between the ages of 25-40 years; the very young can’t afford the bars and the very old may not get the category. Second is household income because not everybody can afford to buy a Rs 100 protein bar every day. The third is international exposure because we found that people who’ve travelled to at least one foreign nation are more open to trying brands such as ours. We craft every piece of communication to talk to this person first and then it expands to others.

Are there any other offerings in the line-up?

We have a science-based approach and our research revealed food can play only two roles - antioxidation and anti-inflammation. We could have gone and launched other products but we said no, there are only two things food can do and we’ve created products for the two things.

In the future, you will see us getting into many many categories and we enter categories based on three criteria: Is there a food category today where people are making false claims and selling substandard products. Second, can we create a product that lives up to The Whole Truth philosophy? Third, can we make that product tasty?