GE Ep 73: CMO Nick Robinson Reveals How Quest Nutrition Grew Over 57,000%

nick robinson questToday we’re chatting with Nick Robinson, Chief Marketing Officer of Quest Nutrition. Nick’s got a lot to share about his background in online community building, marketing, what it’s like to promote amazing products, and how to keep your company ‘fit’ as an employee by being selfish.

How an annoying recruiter changed Nick’s future

When Nick moved to LA in 2006, he found a job working for Michael Eisner’s (former CEO of Disney) new company Vuguru. Michael’s goal with the company was to create content for online audiences. The company created a series called Prom Queen, which became so popular that it was featured on the MySpace home page.

Within his position at Vuguru, Nick could explore is real passion for combining community, storytelling and technology – something he’d been doing since high school when he created a website for car enthusiasts in the state of Maine.

Things were going great at Vuguru, and Nick had assumed that he’d always work until he broke off to do his own thing.

But then a recruiter started hounding him to have a meeting with some guys who wanted to create a protein bar product. He laughed at her, but she was relentless and wouldn’t take no for an answer. When she just wouldn’t stop calling every single day, Nick gave in and finally agreed to meet the three guys behind this protein bar business.

When the meeting was over, Nick knew two things: Either this company was going to change his life, or it was a total scam.

Because 75% of him felt like it wasn’t a scam, he went into a second interview, sampled the bars, and laid out how to build a brand by developing a really large community and giving high value content.

Needless to say, he was hired, and in the first three years for the Inc. 500 Award, the company grew 57,000%.

Today, Quest Bars make up 75% to 80% of all bars sold in sports nutrition.

The real  game changer for the company: chocolate chip cookie dough

Quest Bars became popular because they were high in protein, had no sugar added, were low in carbs, and had very few ingredients.

And on top of that, they taste good.

Quest’s two biggest customer bases are people who are super focused on the science of nutrition and what happens when you eat, and pro body builders who count every single calorie and survive on bland chicken breasts and broccoli.

According to Nick, chocolate chip cookie dough was the first flavor they put out that made people say, “Wow, is this real?!?”

This changed their game because in the first year and a half of their business, they thought they were a body-building company. But with the release of their chocolate chip cookie dough bar, they realized they were a company that made clean, delicious food.

The journey from 4 to 600 employees 

Nick says that when Quest Nutrition was only 4 guys who were only inches away from each other in an office and boxing bars in between their work, the company culture was really easy to develop.

But now that the employee count has ballooned to 600, he says they really have to focus and talk a lot about keeping their culture alive. Like any  relationship, he says, you have to put energy into it so it becomes beneficial for everyone.

He also points out that going to work is only fun and worth it if you’re doing it for selfish reasons.

He says the best people are there first and foremost to make themselves big, not with such a huge focus on making Quest big through their work. According to him, the best way to get A-level talent is by creating a place for people to make mistakes and grow.

And as the company’s very first hire, Nick says that he’s been successful at Quest throughout all the different periods of growth because of his focus on his own personal development. When he started, he knew the founders were special because they were in the place he wanted to be in 5 to 10 years, so he saw them as the perfect mentors.

Getting down to marketing: Squashing the SEO rumors

There’s some rumors flying around the internet tying the Quest Bar guys in as SEO experts, but Nick says there’s no truth to it.

He doesn’t focus on SEO or do any active SEO work. In fact, the only time they did overt SEO was when they had to switch from to while redesigning their website. At that time, they partnered with an SEO firm just to make sure they didn’t lose their rankings.

Otherwise, Quest only does passive SEO – creating high-value content that happens to have keywords in it… but they’ve never written content around keywords.

Starting an online community from scratch

Right now, Quest Nutrition’s online community totals around 1.5 million people across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

When they started in January 2011, their first focus was on Facebook. They knew it was a great place to start because they wanted to build a community around content, and Twitter was to fleeting for them at the moment.

According to Nick, building their community from the ground up was about being consistent, offering value, and remembering peoples’ names.

What it takes to create world-class content

From the first week Instagram released video features, Quest Nutrition has been offering their audience 15 second recipes.

Though their first videos were nothing to brag about, he said the exploration into that area showed them this opportunity was possible and special.

Now, it takes them 3 days and thousands of dollars to produce a 15-second recipe video:

Number 1 KPI: fan sentiment

While the marketing team at Quest certainly does check out other metrics and has fun optimizing conversions and beating their records, the number one thing they focus on in how their fans feel about their products.

Nick says that since you can only truly have one top priority, if they made selling more bars their priority, it would instill a different way of thinking in the way they work.

In fact, their 2015 marketing plan is almost exclusively focused around who their communities are and what they’re going to do for them. And from that, Nick says, they will sell more bars.

Sales team operations & getting into retail stores

Nick says the number one goal of the sales team is to be able to walk into any obvious place and be able to buy a Quest Bar.

The goal of the sales team is to simply open doors and get their products on a shelf. From that, Nick says the product sells itself and they quickly become the best-selling bar.

But before you get the sales team involved in this work, Nick says the first step is direct to consumer. You need to build your audience and your customer base so you can have true, raving fans of your product.

When Quest Nutrition built their customer base online first, it only took a matter of months before fans were walking into their local stores and telling the shop owners to carry the bars. After that, Nick says, you get buyers calling you wanting to carry your products.

From this, you can use the leverage to come to terms that are good for everyone. (After all, if you’re a brand new product trying to get into GNC, you will have terrible terms.)

Quest Nutrition’s online marketing strategies

As of now, Quest does about 5% offline marketing through a few ads in their retailers’ magazines, and the other 95% is online.

Online, Nick points out a few key strategies that work really well:

On the other hand, Quest Nutrition is planning to do a lot with retail experience in 2015. They realize that at the end of the day, people do like to buy their food in stores, so they want to create a great experience with the company there as well.

Ensuring re-orders

To make sure their customers re-order their bars when they run out, Quest Nutrition uses online retargeting and an email marketing strategy to send out a reminder email to buy more when someone might be running out based on their last order.

The biggest thing though, is to bring people into their online ecosystem where they can see and engage with their content so Quest Bars remain top-of-mind.

Reaching the brink of failure

Nick says the company was closest to failure in the early days when the founders took a gamble to buy their very first piece of equipment, which looked like it came out of Soviet Russia. In the first few weeks, the production line could only handle 100 bars per day… they could do more by hand.

To top it off, the thing cost as much as a house, so the founder and CFO took a blow torch to it to ‘fix’ it.

Advice to his 25-year-old self

“Keep reading, “Nick says. “Will Smith said it the best: ‘Anything you ever want to know is in books.'”

One productivity hack

Nick recommends pre-scheduling your day in 30-minute increments.

In the past six months, his days have become so dense and full of things to do, that he has to live and die by his calendar. Every minute is scheduled (even his down time), and he always knows what project he’s working on.

One must-read book

Nick recommends the book he was reading at the time of the interview – The Rise of Superman by Steven Kolter.

He says it tracks how athletes achieve flow states and how normal people can achieve them. It talks about the growth that’s happened in extreme sports and the way people push themselves and each other to do the impossible.

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About Eric Siu

Eric Siu (@ericosiu) is the CEO at Single Grain, a digital marketing agency that focuses on paid advertising and content marketing. He contributes regularly to Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, Forbes and more.

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