– Jason Voiovich, Vice President, Marketing, Logic PD


It’s a classic of 1970s dystopian cinema. In “Soylent Green”, Charlton Heston (yep, the very same) struggles through a horrible vision of an overpopulated future where human beings are processed into “Soylent Green” to feed the populace. (The meme-line from this entire movie comes at 1:06 in the video above. Well worth it. Classic Heston.)

No one is suggesting that the meal replacement product Soylent is derived from human remains, but those of us of a certain age can’t help the association.

That’s the crux of the branding issue: Does the association make sense? Does it help or hurt the brand?

Let’s start with the facts. What is Soylent?

Many of you may be familiar with meal replacement “shakes” that became popular in the 1980s as the diet crazy really gained steam. In this case, everything old is new again. Now touted as an example of “Life Hacking” from our Silicon Valley meme experts, Soylent is a complete, balanced meal replacement product. Last year, it shipped its first 50,000 units after raising over $20 million in funding.

But how does it taste?

Says the New Yorker, tasters have compared Soylent to Cream of Wheat and “my grandpa’s Metamucil.”

I’m not sure if this is exactly a ringing endorsement, but it seems to me this is like “liquid tofu” – it doesn’t taste like much on its own, but with a few additions, it could be pretty good. I’m not sure it signals the “end of food”, but it certain fills a niche in the market. (Soylent and Jack at your local bar? It worked with Red Bull!)

Soylent is cost-effective, shelf stable, and reasonably nutritionally balanced.

But that’s really not the point we’re trying to get at. Is “Soylent” the right naming strategy?

Let’s look at it from a few angles: Legal, marketing, and exit strategy.

I don’t mean to step on the toes of the far-smarter folks on this blog, but when I learned trademark law, possible confusion was the standard. It’s what allows Delta faucets and Delta Airlines to exist in the same marketplace. A reasonable person would be unlikely to confuse the two. In this case, the question seems to be this: Would that same reasonable person confuse the food product Soylent with the concept in the 1973 movie of a similar name?

Frankly, I can’t see that happening. It seems highly unreasonable that the average buyer would actually think we are now entering a period in our history where human beings are processed into foodstuffs.

(A different question for the lawyers: Because “Soylent Green” was probably never trademarked, how does Copyright law apply? But that’s a different question. I’ll invite Winthrop & Weinstine to comment on this angle more broadly.)

So if we can move past the legal issues, we can explore the next question: Does “Soylent” support or distract from the company’s marketing strategy?

Here’s where is gets “sticky”. On one hand, “Soylent” is the classic “Madonna Strategy”. In other words, any publicity is good publicity. The rationale is pretty simple: Awareness is difficult to come by. Consumers are so inundated by messaging today that anything that improves retention of a concept is a good idea. What’s more, research seems to suggest that consumers will disassociate the negative initial impression over time. And because familiarity is generally positive, the net effect is positive.

I’m really not so sure in this case. What Soylent risks is their brand becoming a running joke. For some brands (those in the entertainment sector for example), that can work to your advantage. Comedians such as Jason Alexander (“George” from Seinfeld) have built a career on that less-than-flattering persona. Food products – especially foundational food product like this one – don’t fit that mold. If you want broad adoption (as I can only expect Soylent to desire), you need to convince the average head of family to feed this product to her children. In Soylent’s case, good luck with that.

So far, we’re probably okay on the legal front, marketing might be a wash, so what about the end game for Soylent?

Here’s where I think they can win.

Venture Capital money never flows to those companies without a clear exist strategy: Either an acquisition or an Initial Public Offering. In this case, the buzz generated from this naming strategy will likely help the company position itself for acquisition by a major food ingredient conglomerate. At which time, said acquirer will simply strip out the branding strategy, incorporate the product into its line, and reap the benefits of an early adopter population to “Cross the Chasm” to broader adoption. I’m not sure if that will be a General Mills, a Michael Foods, or a Unilever, but I give Soylent another 18-24 months on its own before it’s snapped up…or goes under.

In the meantime, if you want some, you can order it here. And remember, Soylent is definitely *not* people. Definitely.

  • stevebaird

    Jason, very interesting — as it turns out, Warner Brothers opposed registration of SOYLENT GREEN by another company for smoothies and other products back in 2012, and the dispute apparently was resolved by that company assigning the SOYLENT GREEN registrations to Warner Brothers — those registrations were not renewed and have expired, but Warner Brothers continues to be the record owner of one remaining registration for SOYLENT GREEN in connection with cookies and crackers that it filed based on its own use in 2011: http://tsdr.uspto.gov/#caseNumber=85365352&caseType=SERIAL_NO&searchType=statusSearch
    So, I’m guessing that the new Soylent folks satisfied themselves that any trademark rights that Warner Brothers had in SOYLENT GREEN have been abandoned, the lingering registration is simply dead wood, and since Warner Brothers hasn’t opposed registration of the new SOYLENT applications or registrations, they may be right. I don’t see a copyright claim either. Having said all that, I can’t imagine putting anything in my body that bears the name SOYLENT!

  • Harry Harrison was a friend of mine (he was the guy who wrote the book that turned into the movie). Harry was funny, good at cocktail parties and absolutely FURIOUS when anyone pre-stole an idea he had (even if he hadn’t written it down yet) and I can only imagine how he’d feel about this one.

    He didn’t speak to Michael Crichton for the last fifteen years of his life because he was angry that the Andromeda Strain seemed like a book he hadn’t finished yet.

    Often, a trademark dispute is a quest, not a rational legal or business matter. In this case, Harry’s long gone, so it’s going to be up to a studio lawyer.

  • Cool backstory! I get torn on things like this. On one hand, I respect the idea of “sampling” – repurposing old material for a new age or new genre. If it’s done respectfully, it’s powerful.

    On the other hand, in the branding space, this seems like cheating to me. It’s pretty clear you’re trying to hitch your wagon to a cultural meme in order to gain traction *presumably* because the product or service isn’t good enough.

    In Soylent’s case, the product may seem like a new idea, but it really isn’t. I can almost hear the diet industry snickering.

    We’ll see if they’re successful. I’ve been around long enough to be careful about my predictions…

  • Mark Prus

    Loved this post and have written about this product elsewhere…but here is the interesting thing. The phrase in the post above of: “but those of us of a certain age can’t help the association” is actually quite significant. I’m of that certain age and so I said “ick” when I heard about this product and its name. However, I was engaged in a debate with several younger consumers where they said “cool” when they heard the name and backstory of this product. After several attempts to convince them they were wrong, I finally realized that I’m not the target…and the product name is much more acceptable to the apparent younger target group than it is to folks like me. A valuable lesson in branding for your target audience! However, after receiving feedback from some of those consumers about the product taste and user experience, I don’t think we’ll be able to have this discussion for much longer because Soylent won’t be on the market for long!