How this original plant-based brand is freshening up for a new age

35-year old restaurant group, IKU, is undergoing a facelift as it looks to connect with a growing base of consumers interested in flexitarian and plant-based food choices

Today seemingly every brand has suddenly discovered its values. Which means for those who always had them, being recognised for them can now be a challenging task.

The restaurant group IKU started life in the inner-city suburb of Glebe as one of Australia’s first plant-based eateries way back in 1985. Since then it has grown to cover three locations in Sydney, including at 25 Martin Place (formerly the MLC Centre).

Now the company has entered into the next phase of its existence by offering home delivery of pre-prepared meals across a growing footprint in metropolitan Sydney.

And as that footprint grows across Australia, it is chief marketing officer, Sarah Borenstein’s task to ensure the values-driven ideas that were a key part of IKU’s foundation are front and centre in its emerging brand story.

“IKU’s founders started the business with a vision to create beautiful, delicious plant-based whole food that people really wanted to know about, and to allow them to tread more lightly on the planet,” Borenstein tells CMO. “In recent times, we have reimagined the business and thought how we can provide the most access possible to quality plant-based wholefood. This is a natural next step for us to do that.”

Back in 1985, the idea of a vegan restaurant was definitely a niche idea. In April this year, however, a report from Euromonitor found 45 per cent of Australians respondents stated they were practicing animal product restriction.

The rise of these ‘flexitarians’ is a key trend that IKU is hoping to connect with. But in doing so, it faces a barrage of competition from other wholefoods providers and meat replacement products.

Sarah BornsteinCredit: IKU
Sarah Bornstein

“The customer has changed, behaviour has changed, and we have an opportunity now more than ever before to reach a mass audience and to make a real impact,” Borenstein says. “We have been there all along, and we have always had those values of wanting to share food and be a sustainable business, so it made sense for us.”

Helping cut through the clutter is Danish Chan, co-founder of the brand and customer consultancy Untangld, who was tasked with taking a 35-year-old values-based business and modernising it without losing its essence.

“Part of that story is being really true to the DNA of the business, which is why we spent so much time with the founders, Ken Israel and Holly Davis,” Chan says. “That entire reason why they started the business is still here today. What we had done is package it up in a way that remains unique.

“The category is flooded with sustainable healthy direct-to-consumer brands. But we took a step back and saw they all looked the same. It gave us an opportunity to create a unique point of view. Every brand was playing into a few pretty distinct conventions, which are convenience and enjoyment, but no one really did it in a way that was values-led first.”

Working closely with Borenstein and design agency, Universal Favourite, the team set about delivering a complete brand refresh for IKU. That brand is now being carried to market through PR, search, social and influencer channels, as well as customer reviews.

“There is mass awareness, but there is not mass adoption when it comes to plant-based food,” Borenstein says. “And that is the opportunity. Once people try the food they come back. So the key strategies for us are going to be trial.”

This will become even more important as IKU enters into agreements with national retailers, which Borenstein says will happen in coming months.

“We have a job to do to get food in people’s mouths and show them it can be delicious and flavourful,” she says. “And we believe that one people try IKU food that they will be easily won over.”

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