Soylent Goes Cyberpunk with A.I. Spokesperson and Dark Web Marketplace

Soylent’s beginnings in the storied technological Mecca of Silicon Valley have often driven the direction of the startup meal replacement company. Founded in Sunnyvale, Calif. by a group of young engineers who were tired of subsisting on frozen pizzas and microwave meals, the soy-based, nutrient-heavy beverage has since garnered a cult following online among fellow techies, gamers, and a largely male, millennial demographic looking to similarly remove unhealthy meals from their daily routine.

On the internet forum hosting site Reddit, the r/soylent community is full of fans who are subsisting on all-Soylent diets, eagerly discussing the benefits and concerns that come from living off of the 400-calorie-per-bottle beverage. Discussions range from photos of Soylent-stocked fridges to debates over dental hygiene to an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A with CEO and founder Rob Rhinehart.

According to Soylent CMO Adam Grablick, r/soylent has been a valuable way for the company to engage directly with its consumer base and to learn more about who they are, why they love the drink, and what they would like to see from the company in the future.

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To build on this unique business-consumer connection, Soylent announced earlier this month a partnership with creative agency Wieden+Kennedy to develop a new tech-centric marketing strategy that appeals to Soylent’s fanbase. The campaign includes the launch of the brand’s new spokesperson “Trish,” an artificially intelligent animated robot “programmed” to educate consumers on the nutrition Soylent can provide.

Although Trish is currently more of a mascot than a customer service representative, Grablick said that releasing a computer program that could engage in personalized, nutritional recommendations for consumers is something the company hopes to be able to do in the future. He told BevNET that there is still “a full year or two of optimization” required. Currently, Trish exists on Soylent’s website as an interactive animation, in videos, and she served as a virtual host at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and technology conference and festival in Austin, Texas.

“We want to help the consumer make food decisions easier and stress-free,” Grablick said. “That was one of the big insights we gleamed as we were mining and talking to consumers, particularly these millennial males and the stresses they have in their daily lives. That’s how the idea of Trish came about, it’s an A.I. that continues to get smarter and better about food nutrition.”

Grablick said that stress over food and nutrition was a common theme the company saw in its consumer research. The ones who didn’t have the same anxieties were those who had somebody else in their life, like a parent or a spouse, making those decisions for them. Trish is intended to fill that role.

Along with Trish, Soylent and Wieden+Kennedy also took a strange tech turn with the new campaign, opening up a web store on the “dark web.” Soy Route (a not-too-subtle nod to infamous illegal marketplace The Silk Road) exists at a “.onion” domain and can only be accessed through the anonymizing web browser Tor. Any attempt to access the page from Internet Explorer, Chrome or any other normal web browser will result in an error. But once on Soy Route, fans are greeted by Trish and can purchase limited edition Soylent items and experimental mystery flavors — the only catch is they need to pay in digital currency Bitcoin.

While the company hopes to reach beyond its core, tech-centric fan base in order to reach its growth goals, Grablick said, he also acknowledged that many early adopters can be turned off by more broad appeal marketing.

“What we wanted to do was find a way Trish could bring our core users something to keep them engaged in Soylent and with this new campaign,” Grablick said. “It was perfect for them, it’s something only they can find, you can only purchase in Bitcoin, and there’s things that aren’t available to everyone else. It’s doing a great job of keeping them engaged and we’re going to continue to fuel that fire.”

In addition to selling collectibles such as pins and even a giant “Nutritional Totem” statue of a Soylent bottle, Soy Route is also a way for the company to test new flavors, such as a beef-flavored Soylent powder, Grablick said. The site isn’t intended as a significant revenue source, rather as a fun and unique promotion.

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Soylent is currently only sold in multi-packs on Amazon, but the company is now looking to branch out. The company is seeking a head of sales with experience in brick and mortar to create a retail presence. By selling single bottles, Grablick said it can help new consumers get through the introductory trial purchase that $39 cases sold online can prohibit. And the r/soylent community is excited, Grablick added, noting that fans saw the job posting online almost immediately and began buzzing about Soylent being available in retail outlets.

South by Southwest was also a big chance to reach new consumers. Soylent offended some carnivorous Texan sensibilities at the festival: stories about the brand’s experimental soy barbecue sauce made the rounds in consumer food media outlets. But the event was also a big promotional gain for the company, with nearly 1,000 people attending an at-capacity party hosted by Soylent featuring a performance by Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA.

The company also used its cyberpunk, tech aesthetic to advertise the party. Soylent flew an airplane over the festival featuring a number people could text. When they did, they received a reply from Trish with an invite to the event.

While Soylent hopes to meet its growth goals and bring in new customers, the company remains dedicated to its hardcore fans. As of this article, the r/soylent community has nearly 25,000 subscribers and the company employs a community manager to regularly interact and answer questions.

“They’re passionate, they feel this sense of ownership,” Grablick said. “So it’s more of a movement than just a product. And this is a movement they helped create and have been following from the beginning.”