Critical Insights on the Sports Nutrition Consumer

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Photo credit: Tanya Halliday

Photo credit: Tanya Halliday

According to Mintel, the 2014 US sales of protein beverages was $9.1 billion and Sports Nutrition Powders and RTD products make up over 50% of that market share. This is a rapidly growing segment that deserves our attention. This article will explore sports nutrition products and the consumer behavior, so we as brand owners and product developers can leverage valuable market insights from this segment to inform our decisions on product design.

The best way to examine the performance beverage category is to look at the four fundamental groups of sports nutrition consumers. The first group is what I like to call the Core Performers. These are the elite athletes who are obsessed with working out and fully committed to sports nutrition. They seek out specialized products with scientifically-backed claims, and are more concerned with function than flavor taste. The consumer behavior and preferences among this group can be broken down further by sport or type of activity, but generally, there are a few key habits within this group. They are very knowledgeable about the products’ ingredients, and seek specific proteins that they consider to be high quality. Proprietary formulations and scientifically founded claims are important, and product labels state very specific claims such as BCAA (branch chain amino acid) content. When individuals in this segment find an acceptable product, they are extremely brand-loyal.

The second group is the Active Athletes. These are health-minded consumers and mainstream athletic types. They have limited knowledge of ingredients but they believe whey protein to be “premium”. They take protein to supplement a healthy diet but are not very brand loyal and are more driven by convenience. Protein consumption is not necessarily part of a strict regime, but viewed as a healthy snack or one component of a healthy diet. For example, consumers in this group frequently add protein powder to a fruit and kale smoothie for an extra boost. They have a low threshold for mediocre taste, so flavor, branding and packaging are highly important.

Next are the Occasional Users. They are moderate exercisers; they take an occasional fitness class or go to the gym a few times a week. This group has low knowledge of ingredients, no brand loyalty and they are driven by convenience and availability. They do not discern between protein sources; soy vs why vs pea vs milk, etc. They shop at mainstream retail and if a product is on sale, they are more likely to be adventurous and try it. Product attractive to this group feature claims aligned with conventional beverage trends, such as natural claims and low sugar content, and messaging centered on “lean” and “fit” (not “muscle building”).

Lastly, there are those consumers who fall into a fourth category – the Aspirational Athletes. They signed up for the gym on January 1 and stopped going by mid-February. They bought the FitBit but didn’t actually change their activity regimen. This group is driven most strongly by availability and cost, so cheaper RTD protein sources will satisfy their vague “be healthier” goals. This group is not looking for a specific protein source (they’re what I like to call source agnostic), so flavor taste and packaging are highly important in attracting this group.

Photo: Chapul

Photo: Chapul

What’s next for sports nutrition beverages? Despite the wealth of protein products in the performance space, there is still room in this market for brands to innovate. Single-serve options for on-the-go protein consumption is a huge opportunity for developers, as are performance beverages targeting women. Jillian Michaels’s brand and Special K have begun to  pursue the female athlete, but there is still no market leader in this space. New protein sources are also gaining momentum, ranging from cricket to algae to moringa, and more plant-based sources. Savvy developers are exploring new ingredients and optimizing their taste profiles for delicious and beneficial performance beverages.

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