The Nu Company story: how shock and chocolate spurred revenues by 200%

Awareness campaigns that boosted both profile and online sales—Nu co-founder Christian Fenner discusses the German snack startup's marketing strategy

Consumption as a means of saving the world—can that really work? There are scores of new consumable-goods startups that propagate that exact message. The Nu Company from Leipzig, Germany is among the newest. When it launched the Nucao bar last October, a reduced-sugar chocolate bar in packaging touted as being less harmful than the competition, the Nu Company not only took aim at its biggest competitors, like Nestlé, and politicians, but also intentionally sought to shock and irritate potential customers. All with the explicit intent to drive sales. Co-founder Christian Fenner provided insights to OMR into the campaign, while sharing figures and insights on the boost that shock can give brands, ads and revenues.

The Nu Company started off as a college treat: a homemade bar that an ex of one of the future founders whipped up with chocolate and hemp seeds. Taking inspiration from the culinary creation, the trio of engineering students started looking for their own superfood snack. The result was said Nucao bar in 2016, featuring less sugar, more raw cocoa and hemp seeds than anything on the market at the time. The nascent Nucao bar was first made by hand in a dorm kitchen in Dresden, packed in paper bags and delivered to local organic shops. In the time since, they have moved on to a dedicated bar manufacturer, expanded the portfolio to include nut and protein bars and a protein shake. The eco-friendly ethos has remained in the packaging, with every product packaged in a plastic-free wrapper. On top of that, The Nu Company plants one tree for every product sold.

Funding from prominent BAs

One of the reasons the startup can now boast a seven-figure revenue and has received some EUR 3.7m from prominent angel investors, including F1 world champion Nico Rosberg, Runtastic founder Florian Gschwandtner and German mustard tycoon Michael Durach, is the audacity with which the founder trio fought for a top spot on impulse-buy shelves.

“Of course there is a positive marketing effect. The bolder you are, the more people are apt to listen,” says Christian Fenner, one of the three founders of Nu, in reference to the #foodforanuworld campaign. Last fall, they ran an ad, packaged as an open letter, in Der Spiegel and ponied up for a few billboards in prime real estate across Germany. The ads took aim at German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner and at Nestlé as a surrogate for Big Food. Nu made a general appeal for a more ecological food production and a concrete demand for the implementation of a sugar tax. All the while touting their own bars as a conscientious alternative to the mass-produced snacks on the market.

“Our mindset and our anger”

“We thought about how we could enter the ring and position ourselves so that we remained present in the minds of those we reached,” says Fenner. They decided on maximum impact: accusing Klöckner of being in the pocket of lobbyists, satirizing her sugar-reduction measures as “sweet,” and implying Nesté was interested only in profits and entirely indifferent to the health and well-being of both its consumers and the planet. “We could not have positioned ourselves more clearly,” says Fenner. “That was our mindset and our anger—it was nothing we had to feign at the behest of an ad agency.” What Fenner did say was included in the briefing was the campaign goal “to highlight the startup’s challenger attitude.”

The cost of the campaign, in the mid-6-figure range, have been entirely recouped with over 56 million impressions made on and offline, says Fenner. Although the total number of mentions on Instagram with the campaign hashtag #foodforanuworld are a mere 330, Fenner says that the “mindset film generated a massive amount of engagement,” and that  the Instagram post of the video has received over 1000 comments; currently, the clip has been viewed 714,000 times on IG and 541,000 on YouTube. Fenner told OMR that 700,000 video views were organic with 21,000 people sharing the clip. “Through the #foodforanuworld campaign we reached 80% of people who were not followers of the brand previously,” Fenner says. “The campaign’s impact has been sustainable as well with our Instagram subscribers nearly doubling since the campaign launched.”

Bars have a safe space on shelves

Furthermore, the campaign enabled them to reach another, more business focussed goal. Right as the campaign was kicking off, German drugstore DM and supermarket Rewe just began carrying the Nu bars. By launching the save the world campaign, they also saved their hard-earned spot on DM and Rewe shelves by triggering sustainable demand for their product in the over 5600 locations throughout the Fatherland. Fenner says that after the products reached peak demand during the campaign they are “solidly positioned among the top-selling bars.”

There were a couple of additional effects that the campaign brought about: Nestlé issued  Nu an open invitation to a roundtable. Fenner says that they’ve been in regular contact since, but have yet to accept the offer to meet. “We want to find a way to initiate an actual discussion where consumers reflect and alter their behavior and producers modify their methods. I don’t think we are in the position to compel Nestlé to change at the moment,” says Fenner.

50 percent increase in shop revenue

Another thing that can be attributed to the campaign (as well as the particularities of the corona year) is the increase in shop sales. Launched in 2017, Fenner says the shop was intended to serve heavy buyers, with the majority of products available in the shop being 12-packs of bars, advent calendars featuring Nu products and hoodies. But the #foodforanuworld gave the shop a genuine boost. “Sales increased by 50 percent and the shop is currently responsible for over 40% of total revenues—and the trend is showing no signs of slowing,” Fenner says.

After Nu launched its first chocolate bar in 2016, Fenner said the company was focussed first on getting them into organic shops, then on drugstores and then in standard food retailers. “While all of that was starting we offered the same products in the online shop and monitored how sales performed there.” The team is now focussed on pinpointing the business model of the online shop beyond the most basic terms of “it sells chocolate bars.”

Inspiration from DTC business models

They’ve yet to land on the ideal focus for their shop. Fenner says they’re testing constantly, experimenting with bundles and subscription models. After promising sales of its advent calendar they are planning on releasing an exclusive product for Easter and hope to reach a larger segment of consumers with 6-packs of bars instead of just 12-packs. They’re evening toying around with the idea of selling sample sizes to drive new customer acquisitions, even though Nu would be doing so at a loss. An option that for Nu, a completely bootstrapped startup without any outside investors, has only now become an option.

Die drei Gründer von The Nu Company: Thomas Stoffels, Christian Fenner und Mathias Tholey (v.l.). Quelle: PR

Thomas Stoffels, Christian Fenner and Mathias Tholey, founders of The Nu Company. Source: PR

“We’re exploring what a DTC model for us could look like,” says Fenner. The focus of which he says would be on different “benefit promises,” which would entail options not feasible for the impulse buys and limited space in retail outlets, e.g. promotions revolving around “24 days of sugar-free snacking.” “By offering larger bundles nestled in a larger context, you immediately have a willingness among consumers to pay more,” says Fenner.

5000 orders in 24 hours

The new Nu protein bar provides a glimpse of just how much potential a DTC business for NU could have. Under the slogan “Fight the fake,” Nu launched with another awareness campaign, this time teaming up with 140 influencers to combat body shaming and the commonplace practice online (and elsewhere) of editing images of people and bodies to achieve “the ideal body.” Simultaneously, the campaign plants the message that the majority of protein bars use unhealthy ingredients.

This campaign differs from the one last fall in that its primary objective is to boost online sales and not act as a brand-positioning campaign or offline sales booster Fenner says. In the runup to the latest campaign Fenner says that they were able to generate over 8000 leads and that the influencers were largely responsible for helping the campaign “take off.” In concrete terms, there were approximately 5000 orders on day 1 of the campaign and the first batch nearly sold out completely.

A lobby for good

The cleverly played marketing tactics have been worth every effort according to Fenner, who intends to continue employing them until there is reason to stop. “I’d do it again,” says Fenner. “And we will do it again.” The campaign from the fall of 2020 was primarily met with positively. When Nu indulged itself in making fun of conspiracy theorists by making an off-hand comment on Facebook eliminating aluminum hats, there was some backlash. Fenner says that people contacted him and urged him to “just focus on what you do well and to stop taking shots at others.” While Fenner concedes that there will be less company, competitor and person bashing moving forward, he remains convinced that “it is a core part of who I am as a person and who we are as a brand to point out and highlight  wrongs in our society.”

Fenner told OMR that there is a good chance that the campaign in the fall of 2021 will be larger than previous campaigns as Nu is flirting with the idea of “Series A” on the one hand. On the other, The Nu Company is the driving force behind the “Startups For Tomorrow” alliance, where online-first companies, like tampon brand The Female Company and cleaning-product startup Everdrop came together to share experiences and find areas of synergy moving forward. “The objective here is the implementation of joint campaigns,” says Fenner. “We are attempting to create a lobby of good.” Petitions are also on the table, as are focussed PR measures; Fenner declined to over any more specifics. “It’s an election year—we are currently engaged in serious discussions for what’s next.”

Public agitation as a reach lever

Nu and its allies are not the only companies that have discovered progressive political initiatives as a means of positioning their brands. Berlin-based Einhorn cleverly co-opted a tax-reduction campaign for its own female hygiene products. Then there is also the climate alliance initiated by oat-milk producer Oatly, which contributed to the increased awareness of the amount of CO2 the production of food stuffs incurs.

A beloved trope of irritation marketing is drumming up the ire of the public against outdated regulations and laws. One of the (albeit unintentional) pioneers here was US manufacturer Hampton Creek, who Unilever tried to prohibit labelling its vegan product Just Mayo as mayonnaise. The case was recently ruled in Hampton Creek’s favor and the entire ordeal goes to show how taking on the establishment can be a boon for reach. In our home market of Germany, drink startup Lemonaid provided a roadmap of benefiting from public outrage with its campaign against the legally required minimum sugar requirement in softdrinks.

Actual engagement or clever self-interest?

Established players have long since understood the importance of feigned resistance against accepted norms when it comes to marketing their products. German chocolate manufacturer Ritter Sport succeeded in generating media attention with a fake scandal about a chocolate bar that was apparently not permitted to be called chocolate.

Of course there is good reason to be skeptical of the motives behind a private company’s commitment to a “greater good.” It is certainly within the realm of possibilities that the only genuine motivation behind such acts of altruism is the advancement of self-interest on issues that only they figure to profit from. On the other hand, is that not the precise goal of a “lobby of good,” that Fenner would like to establish? When it comes to fusing political interests with financial considerations, Fenner put it concisely: Sustainable economic activity is “maintaining a mindset, occasionally being bold while never losing sight of the fact that for a business our activism has to lead to more bars in shoppers’ carts.”

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