Confectionery start-up on COVID-19: ‘Am I actually going to try and sell people gourmet marshmallows during a pandemic?’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: The Marshmallowist
Image source: The Marshmallowist

Related tags Marshmallow COVID Coronavirus

While the coronavirus outbreak has prompted existential questions for The Marshmallowist, the UK start-up says consumer engagement has increased – as has basket spend.

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, spread to the UK in January 2020. Transmission was confirmed the following month. As of March 30, there have been 22,141 reported cases in the UK, and 1,408 deaths.

Now a global pandemic, the coronavirus outbreak has seen businesses impacted by reduced consumer spend and cashflow uncertainty. This is particularly true for small- and medium-sized enterprises, including start-ups.

In the food sector, The Marshmallowist is one such business. Said to be the first gourmet marshmallow brand to enter the UK market, the start-up has experienced ‘a weird few weeks’, director and co-founder Jenny Simms told FoodNavigator.  

“There has been the inevitable up and down of finances, and the fear of losing our lovely team, suppliers and stockists.”

Mother’s Day, Easter, and short-term impacts

The Marshmallowist was founded in 2011 by sisters Oonagh and Jenny Simms. The current range includes a variety of gourmet flavours, including vegan vanilla bean, toasted coconut, raspberry and champagne, and spiced gingerbread.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the sisters were selling their marshmallows in-store at luxury retailer Harvey Nichols and direct-to-consumer (D2C) online. Unsurprisingly, the business is now concentrating on online sales, dealing with unpredicted disruptions in what would otherwise be busy time of year.

“I have boxes of freshly made marshmallows that were whipped up ready to go to stockists for Mother’s Day and Easter that have subsequently closed their doors,” ​Jenny explained.

For the meantime, she can manage the company’s D2C operations herself, without needing to put team members at risk. “But there is, realistically, only a certain amount of time that there is the delivery infrastructure to support this.”

In the short-term, The Marshmallowist’s raw material stocks are secure, having purchased all ingredients ahead of the outbreak. And thanks to the Government’s recently announced wage package for those not working in the crisis – described by Jenny as a ‘lifeline’ – the business hopes to make it through. “We don’t know that [for sure],” ​she added. “We just hope it.”

Finally, there are the existential crises plaguing many a business that identifies as ‘luxury’ or ‘gourmet’. For Jenny, the crisis presents itself as a question: ‘Am I actually going to try and sell people gourmet marshmallows during a global pandemic?’

Collection_shot[1] marshmallowist

CBD marshmallow still a favourite

For The Marshmallowist, online sales have ‘definitely slowed down’. They haven’t ‘dropped off a cliff’ but are behind where they traditionally would be at this time of year, Jenny revealed.

The company’s cannabidiol (CBD) marshmallows remain the start-up’s best-selling line. First brought to market approximately two years ago, the range – infused with 10mg of CBD – includes flavours such as cannabis and pink grapefruit, cannabis and dark cocoa, and cannabis, blood orange and rosemary.

Midway through this month, The Marshmallowist noticed a spike in demand for this range. One customer, for example, purchased 12 boxes of CBD marshmallows. Each box contains 6 marshmallows and retails for £15 (€16.87).

“We’ve had customers come back to us who haven’t bought in 6-9 months return specifically for this product,” ​Jenny told this publication. “Also, we’re seeing an increase in basket spend. Our customers are buying in multiples.”

Jen_High_Res_Head_Shot[1] marshmallowist
Jenny Simms is a co-founder and director of The Marshmallowist

Consumer engagement

While sale figures waver, Jenny recognises it is an important time to connect and engage with consumers. And in doing so, being ‘a little more thoughtful’ about messaging.

“We are all facing challenges on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few weeks ago. People are frightened for the health of their loved ones, worrying how they will pay rent, feed their families or open their doors again.

“And to cope with that, we’re all connecting differently. We recognise that are looking to keep our customers, engage a new audience and keep ourselves sane.”

Creative outputs my include recipe demonstrations, more inspirational content, or pairing up with complementary brands to offer targeted ‘stay at home’ packages, the director told us. “We’re doing all these at the moment, but we need to take each week as it comes.”

The Marshmallowist’s direct marketing and email database is driving sales for the business, having observed high engagement from newsletters and ‘considered’ communication with customers.

“We’re seeing a really touching amount of loyalty and customers are even taking the time to write replies to our newsletters – some wishing us well or sharing their own thoughts.

“We’re very ‘open’ as a brand and share a lot of our journey as a small business. That’s what’s keeping our customers at the moment.”

The biggest challenge for Jenny and her brand, however, is remaining hopeful. “When we all go back outside and have some semblance of normality then it will be time to ask the bigger questions. It will change the way we shop and consume and engage with others.”

Jenny’s primary goal as a small brand producing a craft product is to ‘learn and listen’ in these changing times. “The food industry will look and behave very differently after this. We’re all reliant on each other to behave responsibly and safely right now and I hope, collectively, we come out of this better.”

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