'Naivety let me ask the stupid questions': Pip & Nut founder Pip Murray

“Do we need to use palm oil?” Pippa Murray's lack of industry experience allowed her to ask a simple question that the entrenched brand leaders never thought to ask. Launched in 2015, Pip & Nut's range of palm oil-free nut butters has experienced 400% annual growth, with revenues topping £3m in 2016. We catch up with Pip to discuss brand strategy, its partnership with Nike and her advice for other challenger businesses.

Where did the idea come from? 

Peanut butter was always my post-run treat but the leading brands available either contained palm oil or had added sugars, so weren't particularly healthy. Then the healthier options always looked so worthy and bland. I got fed up with that disparity that healthy always seemed to mean boring. Pip & Nut came from that desire for a cleaner product, without the added stuff, but that also brought a more exciting brand to the table. One that would innovate with flavours and really bring an on-trend ingredient, to the mass market.

The naivety let me ask the stupid questions that no one else had thought to ask

What was your background? What were you doing before?

I actually had no experience in food and drink. I was working as a producer at the Science Museum where I'd put together large theatre shows that toured around the country. It involved a lot of creativity and project management, but a million miles away from the commercial and competitive world of FMCG - and nothing related to food! Although that lack of experience was, initially, a bit of a hindrance, the naivety let me ask the stupid questions that no one else had thought to ask of the industry. Questions like, why do we have to use palm oil in our products?

How is the business doing?

We passed £3m in sales in 2016 and are stocked in over 2,300 stores in the UK, including Sainsbury’s, Ocado, Selfridges and Wholefoods. We only launched in January 2015 so it's been an amazing first two years. Our ambition is to add an extra 750 stores by the end of the year and continue to be the brand that grows and progresses the category. It’s fast-paced growth, and we’re just about keeping up with it. There’s seven of us in the team at the moment.

What does being a challenger mean to you? What is Pip & Nut challenging?

You look for those smaller opportunities as a challenger that established brands might assume are insignificant. You drill down into those smaller opportunities and then really expand on them. Palm oil is a common ingredient in most nut butters as an emulsifier, but it has a hugely damaging impact on the environment. It’s primarily grown in South America and it’s one of the biggest causes of deforestation and habitat loss, pushing many species to extinction.

There’s a little oil that sits at the top of our products but it’s become for us an education opportunity.

Palm oil is also particularly high in saturated fats, so it's actually not good for your cholesterol either, so from a health perspective it's a poor choice. We realised that actually we didn't need to use palm oil or emulsifiers at all. It means there’s a little oil that sits at the top of our products due to the separation that occurs, but it’s become for us an education opportunity. We can say it’s a good thing, it means it’s all real and natural, as well as being better for the environment.

So saying no to palm oil became a key area of difference, how else are you putting space between yourselves and the competition?

We're all about making a healthy food delicious and more accessible to a wider group of people. A really key focus of ours, is that we’re specifically trying to reach a different demographic. It’s not about cannibalising off the leading brands in the category, it’s about how we build awareness of nut butters as a whole. Traditionally, people obviously know what peanut butter is, but they start to get hazy around almond and cashew butters. We want to be the brand that grows the nut butter category and help more people become familiar with new products like almond and cashew butters.

Our brand’s very clean and pared back, and that’s helped in terms of getting buyers to put us on shelves

Your packaging’s really got to shout at people – although we do it in as friendly a way as possible! Brands have such little time to grab someone’s attention in the aisle or on screen. Our brand’s very clean and pared back, and that's helped in terms of getting buyers to put us on shelves, but then in stores, getting enough stand out for people to pick us up.

What’s been your strategy for building awareness?

Careful distribution is so important and links very closely with marketing in terms of where you want to be seen. We were stocked in most of the top gyms in London, like Frame, Boom Cycle and Equinox. They might not sell the most product, but actually they’re really important accounts for us as they do so much for building the brand. You’re constantly leveraging other people’s profiles. You’re trying to align yourself as much as possible with other people that can help give you the credibility that you need, and through the association, raise you up.

What has been the partnership you’re proudest of? 

We partnered with Nike on the ‘We Run London’ 10k run last year which was awesome. We set up a ‘Toast Bar’ near the finish line where we brought our nut butters on gourmet sourdough bread with a few extra toppings to provide the runners with a beautifully Instagram-able plate of delicious food to enjoy. It enabled us to reach a health conscious demographic and have them try our product on a really special and memorable occasion.

Partnerships are about bringing to the table something the other half genuinely wants.

As we have a tiny marketing budget compared to competitors, we find that we have more impact when we target a demographic and really try and deliver a more bespoke experience for them as opposed to just giving away thousands of free samples. If you’re hoping to work with influential brands like Nike, who are able to take their pick of who they work with, you’ve got to be able to offer them something that will help them surprise and delight their customers. Worthwhile partnerships are about bringing to the table something the other half genuinely wants. It’s got to be win-win for both brands as was the case at 'We Run London' I think.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

We’ve just launched our nut butter cookbook, which is exciting because it provides an opportunity to build a world around your brand. We’ve teased the brand out into print and a very visual context. It helps customers explore the different and creative ways you can use nut butters and it really feeds the eyes. It’s a bit of food porn basically. I’m spinning a lot of plates at the moment but when you’ve got a little bit of momentum, which I think we’ve got now, you’ve just got to run with it and just see how much you can get done within the time. I love it. I couldn’t ever work for anyone else. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

What’s been the key to your early success do you think?

People often ask what the formula is, but every company will approach getting their brand out there differently. You can be very different to how Innocent got off the ground or how Propercorn got off the ground for example. I’m sure their approaches were totally different to what we’ve done. You can’t keep looking over your shoulder thinking about what they are doing. They provide a fantastic source of inspiration but you’ve got to do what you feel is right for your brand. 

The earliest you can get an idea out of your head and start delivering something physical, the better.

What advice would you give to those leading other challenger businesses?

The most important thing is to just start doing. You don’t necessarily have to know what you’re doing. Just focus on learning what you need to know at that specific time. I went to markets at first and trialled it out there for a few months. It was the best way to test the product. You might feel it’s on a really small scale, but the earliest you can get an idea out of your head and start delivering something physical the better. So don’t fear not knowing, just get out there and do it is the most important thing.