I'm a HelloFresh subscriber.
No wait, I was a HelloFresh subscriber, but now I subscribe to Goodfood.
No, sorry, that subscription is currently paused.
It's Chefs Plate. I currently subscribe to Chefs Plate.
Please forgive my confusion.
But in fairness, how are you supposed to tell these services apart?
All three are meal-delivery services.
All three do a respectable job of providing tasty recipes that are relatively easy to prepare.
All three are roughly the same price, give or take a few dollars, depending on the promotional offer you receive on that day. (And you can find one every single day.)
And all three inundate me with the exact same type of trial incentive offers via digital ads that follow me around the Internet or direct mail coupons stuffed into my mailbox.
Do you know what each of these three meal kit delivery services doesn't have?
A strong brand.
These three brands (and I'm using that word as loosely as I can) don't stand for anything.
I can't tell you which of the three offers the best-tasting food (although that's admittedly subjective), the widest variety of recipes or the most multicultural options, the healthiest meals, the perfect portions for large families (or smaller households), or the best value.
Can you? I doubt it.
They're indistinguishable and interchangeable.
And those three are the best of the bunch because at least they've achieved some brand awareness. A vividata study I saw recently ranked 12 meal-kit services by how often Canadians have used each brand... and I had only heard of four of the companies.
(In addition to the top three already mentioned in this post, I was familiar with Blue Apron... although I didn't know they operated in Canada. So I'm going to count that as a fail too.)
Now, I'm someone who actually pays attention to these sorts of things; I'm both a marketer and someone who teaches a "retail marketing strategies" course at the university level.
So why am I having such trouble identifying what sets each of these companies apart?
I'd argue it's because either these companies haven't done the work to figure that out for themselves or they haven't allocated enough of their marketing spend to "brand".
And since I know these companies tend to hire smart people, my money is on the latter.
In fact, the Meal-Kit category is one of the best examples I can offer regarding what happens when you don't strike the right balance between "performance" and "brand".
Performance marketing is important, and I'm not saying that it isn't. It drives immediate revenue, which is important for all businesses and especially important for start-ups.
But too many people think that only "performance marketing" drives results, and that's just not true. Sure, your performance marketing is going to drive strong conversions... because that will happen when your ad screams "14 free meals" or "$100 off".
But after you've picked the low-hanging fruit (the consumers who immediately see the benefit and can easily afford a meal-kit service)... what happens then?
In order to grow, you need to expose more (and more and more) people to who you are, what you do, and why they should care.
And the easiest way to drive awareness at scale isn't performance marketing.
Before you say, "David, these companies do brand marketing", yes, they do...
But not very well.
Two years ago, HelloFresh hired the incredible Annie Murphy (of Schitt's Creek fame) as a spokesperson and put her in an incredibly average soap-opera parody series called "Hungry Hearts". Murphy's intentional over-the-top acting provided some laughs, but it also served to overshadow the key benefits of using HelloFresh that were spread throughout the spot. It's a mistake that ads featuring celebrities make too often.
In early 2022, HelloFresh tried again by producing this forking spot. I can't say I hate it, but that's mostly because it so closely resembles a Tuscani Pasta television ad for which I led the development when I worked at Pizza Hut... back in 2009.
(Seriously, have a look at HelloFresh's ad, then watch my "What's for Dinner" spot and count the number of similarities, including the key benefit being promoted. Uncanny, right?)
The message is the same for both ads: ordering our product means less time cooking and more time doing what you care about. That's a solid insight. The difference is that pasta delivery was relatively uncommon back in 2009 when "What's for Dinner" aired, so "saving time by having a delicious (non-pizza) meal delivered" was a unique benefit. That benefit is not at all unique amongst meal-kit services today.
Goodfood put out an amusing spot called "Eating Evolved" in September 2021. Set in medieval times with a very "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" vibe, the ad tries to position Goodfood as "ready to cook meals" with interesting recipes and flavours that will "blow you away". Oh, and at the end of the spot, they mention that they ALSO deliver GROCERIES! Experienced marketers will see the challenge with this spot right away: there are too many messages, which means none of them are likely to stick.
I found this brief 15-second spot for Chef's Plate, from September 2020, that asks "who knew figuring out dinner could be this simple". But is the "figuring out" part really what sets Chef's Plat apart? Because having used all three services, I can tell you, it isn't.
So these companies have produced a few television spots. I know they've also done some social media marketing and hired a few influencers to talk about how much they love the free boxes they were sent.
But it certainly doesn't look like these companies went all-in on brand marketing.
Quite the opposite, in fact. It's as if they did just enough "brand" to be able to say, "Well, we tried, team, but let's move all the budget back to performance marketing."
"Brand" isn't just about television ads, social media, and influencer marketing. Those are tactics that can work well as part of an overall strategy, but you need to do much more to build a strong brand.
You need to do the work to ensure your brand stands for something in the minds of your consumers. You need to ensure your consumers can understand why YOU are the only one who can address their particular problem... and then you need to tell them that. Repeatedly.
These meal-kit companies haven't done the work.
And if they're not going to do the work to be distinctive in an increasingly crowded market, well, why bother existing as separate entities?
At this point, I should mention I'm fully aware HelloFresh acquired Chefs Plate in late 2018, and that both brands now belong to the same company. But to be clear, that doesn't make the fact that both brands are so similar better. It makes it much, much worse.
So why stop at one acquisition? HelloFresh should just acquire Goodfood, and then consolidate all three brands into one, giant megabrand.
The combined entity would benefit from greater scale when purchasing supplies like ingredients and packaging, driving down costs. And they'd save on marketing acquisition costs too, because they'd no longer be trying to outbid each other on the exact same terms. Lower costs mean higher profits.
They can call themselves HelloGoodChefs!
If they aren't going to differentiate themselves anyway, what would they have to lose?
Not the unique identities and positions they each have today, that's for sure.
P.S. I told Mo Dezyanian that I was planning to write this blog post a few weeks ago, and he kindly offered to share a report that his company (Empathy Inc.) had put together with vividata. The report speaks to why people decided to subscribe to Meal Kits over the last two years (i.e. during the pandemic), and although I didn't end up using any of the data from his report in this post, I can tell you it's pretty interesting. If you want to see the report, reach out to Mo via LinkedIn and ask nicely.