Challenger to Watch 2019: Exo

For giving us the gateway bug


Nearly a third of the world’s people already eat insects. But not in the West.

With the environmental consequences of livestock production increasingly laid bare, there’s some very rational reasons to ditch the meat and look to alternative proteins in 2019. It takes for example 1800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef and just 1 gallon of water to produce the same amount of protein from a cricket.

But rational arguments alone rarely win.

And the ‘yuck’ factor associated with eating insects in the West is an emotional barrier that will need to be overcome if insects really are to become part of the accepted diet.

EXO, a Brooklyn-based startup, appears to have made the most inroads into moving insect protein from a niche product into mainstream consciousness. And that’s why it was acquired by Aspire Food Group, a commercial food-grade cricket farm in Austin, Texas, for an undisclosed sum in 2018. "It is one of the most successful, if not the most successful, brands in the entire industry,” Aspire’s co-founder Mohammed Ashour told Forbes.

Credit: EXO / Gander

Credit: EXO / Gander


Aspire will use the well-established EXO brand, makers of protein bars and protein bites, as its consumer-facing brand for all its current and future cricket-based products. It will also ensure that going forward, only Aspire’s crickets, which are branded ‘Aketta’, are used in EXO’s supply chain.

Co-founded in 2013, by Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis, the pair have had some success in positioning cricket protein for fitness fanatics and city-dwelling CrossFitters.

EXO is unafraid to lean into the weirdness associated with eating insects.

Many edible insect brands tend to hide displaying the insect itself within marketing. The insect itself is often seen as a risk so it’s often preferable to downplay the role of the insect and emphasise other, less polarising, ingredients or aspects of a brand for consumers.

But as a challenger, EXO chooses instead to lean into that risk.

A scribbled illustration of a cricket is proudly displayed on the packaging of every bar. Whilst slogans such as ‘Strange = change’ and ‘Weird is good’ champion the cricket and show EXO is unafraid to lean into the weirdness associated with eating insects.

Credit: EXO / Gander

Credit: EXO / Gander


However, EXO also appears to know when to leverage cues from existing protein bar category conventions; muscled athletes provide the models for much of EXO’s digital communications, presenting the brand as tough, rugged and gutsy - all cues that are familiar and aspirational to a gym-going audience already intimate with existing protein bars and shakes. It’s a balancing act that ensures this challenger is interesting and different enough for consumers to try, but familiar enough to provide just enough reassurance to those willing to take the risk on something new.

The global edible insects market is expected to exceed $710m by 2024 according to a report from Global Market Insights. With EXO’s significant acquisition from Aspire, expect to see much more from America’s most popular insect protein brand in 2019. Perhaps this is the year you catch the entomophagy bug?

Jude Bliss is Creative Director at eatbigfish and Editor of The Challenger Project.