TAKING PROTEIN TO THE NEXT LEVEL
By Gauthier Ajarrista
Protein is taking the food and drinks world by storm. From snacks and smoothies to ice cream, porridge, and even sliced bread, products with high-protein claims are increasingly present on supermarket shelves. However, protein suffers from an enduring image problem, and its full potential is still far from being fully realised. Those who succeed in improving protein’s reputation, and create products and brands that speak to new consumer categories beyond protein’s usual reach, will take the lead in this booming sector. Many food and drinks businesses are already adopting protein, and most will be aware of its potential – this paper provides a guide to seizing the opportunities in protein by better understanding the current consumer context.
1. The big issue
More and more protein-rich products are appearing on shelves, whilst new protein brands are sprouting in dozens to share the bounty. Big brands like Mars, Starbucks and Warburton’s are already taking their share of this growing market.
The numerous benefits of a high protein diet are very clear on paper: protein helps with good muscle and bone development and repair, can help stay lean and, very importantly, shed or control weight by keeping you fuller for longer. Furthermore, whey protein in particular is affordable and easily digestible by most people. It is easy to consume at home or on the go and mix into other recipes, and recent research has lain to rest prior concerns about the potential consequences of excess protein consumption. While some believe that the current high-protein boom is just a fad, several factors indicate that protein’s rise could in fact continue ever stronger. This would mean significant commercial opportunities for new and existing brands.
So the question is, with such a long list of benefits and virtually no faults or hidden pitfalls, why then are protein-rich products not yet found in every household cupboard across the UK? Fulfilling the potential of the protein market will require addressing protein’s persisting image problem amongst consumers, while harnessing socio-cultural trends across various consumer categories to highlight its relevance in today’s world.
The protein revolution has already begun, and still holds much unfulfilled potential for brands to harness.
2. Why this is important now
There is scope for potentially ample growth in the protein market – as implied by Euromonitor’s projections, which expect the UK protein market to pass the £400 million bar by 2019, up from £231 million in 2014. Through recent client experience in the Sports Nutrition category, and consulting with a global food giant about protein opportunities, we have identified three main factors that are converging to drive growth in the protein market:
1. The Wellness Revolution
With a quarter of adults being obese, and 62% either overweight or obese in the UK, weight management has gone from a mere lifestyle issue to an urgent public health quandary. This epidemic has, in turn, led to a healthy-living backlash: on one hand, people are becoming increasingly aware of what they put in their bodies, and on the other, they now understand the importance of regular exercise. Protein has a role to play in both of these aspects:
- From the diet point of view, protein intake is a key component to most weight-loss programs, including Atkins and Paleo, and an essential tool to get lean and stave off hunger. Furthermore, as nearly half the British public are either cutting back on meat or already vegetarian, sourcing protein from other sources than meat is fast becoming a necessity for many, particularly time-strapped office workers.
- As the traditional leading-man of sports nutrition, protein is part of the workout package, and droves of newbies are flocking online to find out about how protein can help them.
Adding to this an ageing population in search of ways to stay fit and strong, we see how protein’s appeal can reach across almost all consumer categories.
2. The Dominance of Athleisure
Athleisure has taken over fashion, technology and popular culture in recent years, led by brands like Nike, Under Armour and Lululemon. From high street giants to couture catwalks, lycra and sneakers have permeated the mainstream; in May 2016, jogging bottoms even began outselling denim in UK women’s wear. A driving principle of Athleisure is that how you equip yourself is just as important as how much effort you put in yourself (if not more). Acquiring new gear, both tech and clothing, is indeed a key motivator for newbies and regulars alike – over half of the UK population now own a fitness gadget. Along with leggings, flashy new sneakers and Fitbits, protein has a central place in the aspiring athlete’s shopping basket.
A key tool for sports and tech brands to engage consumers has been to recruit Instagram stars like Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner to promote their products as part of a desirable, active lifestyle. Savvy FMCG and protein retailers are beginning to understand the benefits of this strategy. The recent example of Protein World appointing Khloe Kardashian as the ambassador for their brand of supplements shows them seizing the opportunity offered by the athleisure trend, further cementing protein’s place within it.
2. Gen Z could become Generation Protein
Gen-Zers are forecast to struggle with obesity in adulthood even more than millennials. It is also likely that by the time they reach that age, sugar will have become the new tobacco. Current efforts to curb junk food consumption will have scaled up considerably, as well as stronger initiatives to get people exercising. Beyond these state-mandated initiatives, Gen-Z is being raised to understand the use of sports and nutrition as tools for self-improvement and healthy lifestyles, and the celebrities they follow on social media place increased emphasis on this message. With this in mind, the Gen-Z consumer base could become the first generation that fully embraces protein – on the condition that its members are met by brands that understand their values and aesthetics as they begin to enter adulthood.
The ideal conditions are present to take protein beyond the level of trend, and into the realm of mainstream daily consumption across the board.
3. How this affects you
In spite of recent introductions of new protein-based products, mainly around snacking and breakfast foods, there remains a huge rift between what protein offers and how consumers at large actually perceive it. Indeed, whey protein (the base for most protein-rich products) is still regarded by most as the preserve of committed athletes and obsessive muscle-maniacs, not as an everyday supplement for “normal” people. Most consumers have no idea what it actually is, where it comes from or how it is made, as only a third know it is simply derived from milk. They often (and wrongly) perceive it as a chemical-ridden artificial additive that will only get them ripped, a concern especially for women.
Protein products mainly attract a young, male crowd: 42% of men aged 16-34 have consumed a sports nutrition product in the past 3 months, against just 24% of all Brits. This demonstrates that women and older categories are not engaging with the protein market on the level that young men are, although they have much to gain from simple ways of introducing more protein into their diets. These categories represent potentially sizeable opportunities for growth in often-stagnating food & drinks markets.
In order to make the best of the chances offered by the growing protein market, brands will have to break protein out of its young-sporty-lad shell, and communicate its benefits to other consumer categories as an ideal daily health supplement. This implies creating new products that respond to the needs of these categories and fit into their lifestyles. It means branding them in a way that is credible and accessible for new consumers, and marks a departure from the current tenets of protein branding. Consequently, understanding how women across age groups, older people and new generations perceive health, wellbeing and nutrition is of course key in the quest to make protein big.
Brands will have to take crucial steps to change protein’s image and explore the untapped potential offered by new consumer categories.
4. The solution
Exploring new occasions – Protein occasions are currently centered on workout sessions and sportive moments, through the benefit promise of fuel and recovery. Increasingly however, protein NPD has begun to base itself around more casual daily occasions such as snacking and breakfast, with protein balls, RTD smoothies and high-protein spreads. This should be emphasised, and extended into ready meals and on-the-go lunches, in order to fully make the best of every occasion.
Repositioning protein – Recently, brands like MyProtein and PHD Nutrition have harbored cleaner, simpler identities that depart from the traditional protein packaging, and align more closely with the world of scientifically designed supplements. One brand in particular, Protein World, has created packaging that successfully sheds the outdated bodybuilding aesthetic while also avoiding the excessively clinical, ‘scientific’ route. It adopts a softer, friendlier feel that speaks to women without being overly feminine.
Writing The Protein Narrative – Whole categories have been created around single ingredients or nutritional components – for example, the ‘good bacteria’ and ‘natural defense’ stories revolutionised the dairy world, and spelled phenomenal commercial success for brands like Activia and Actimel. Here again, protein needs a concrete universe with a strong narrative and a tailored language to educate and inspire consumers.
Creating a habit – Although currently the appeal of high-protein NPD often resides mainly in novelty and convenience, the trick is to lastingly embed these new products in daily routines, not just as complementary to exercise but also to healthy living in general, at home, at work, and out and about. Exploring new, improved taste profiles will help reconcile consumers with protein, and make it more desirable within daily snacks or meals.
Changing the perception of protein placing it at the heart of a convincing narrative will help integrate new products into consumers’ daily lives.
5. The bottom line
We are in the midst of a protein boom – high-protein claims are becoming widespread in NPD, and strong growth is predicted in this segment. The demand for alternative and easily consumable sources of protein is growing, as healthier, active lifestyles are becoming both a necessity and a goal for many. Equally important, athletic ideals and aesthetics are lastingly dominating culture and fashion, boosted by social media super stars like Kylie Jenner and Gigi Hadid, creating the ideal terrain for protein to grow further as a key component of this trend.
However, unlocking this potential will require bringing protein out into the open, beyond its current niche of young, athletic men, and into the hands of older consumers, women, non-athletes and new generations. To do this, brands must be willing to present protein in a new light, and create a simple yet convincing narrative that exalts protein as a key element to an improved lifestyle. Based on this new consumer-friendly story, brands need to embed their products within new and existing daily occasions, to create lasting habits, educate consumers and ensure durable growth.