Sports nutrition is a broad, fast-changing and growing category. Valued at $28bn in 2016 (source: Statista), the market for these products is projected to grow to $44bn by 2021 (source: Allied Market Research). Previously limited to protein powders and bars, the number of new products emerging, like prebiotics, nootropics and nitric oxide boosters, makes it increasingly difficult to define what falls under this umbrella. Add to this the entrance of mainstream food brands, like Mars, fortifying their existing products and buying out specialist brands, and the boundaries become even more blurred.


Changing attitudes and needs

Not only is the category itself extremely dynamic but attitudes towards it have shifted over time. As the sports nutrition category matures, users are better informed and have established an opinion of what is right for them rather than simply trusting a big brand to get it right. Once dominated by brand led loyalty there is an increasing focus on ingredients to determine product choice. Containing the latest wonder ingredient, or excluding the latest health or environmental contaminant, has become crucial in catching consumer attention and driving sales.

This focus on ingredients reflects a wider health and lifestyle trend towards bespoke diets, perfectly tailored based on individual needs and choices. Current health messaging rightly promotes the fact that we are not all made the same, that a nuanced approach to nutrition is likely to yield better outcomes than a one-size-fits-all diet plan. Allied to this is an increase in the number of those choosing to exclude meat, dairy and other food groups for health and environmental reasons. At Netfluential, we have observed a similar trend across several sectors as people feel an increased need for personal control and a sense of empowerment over their consumption and purchasing behaviour to shape a better future for themselves.

Technology brands have capitalised first and services like MUHDO are a great example of this tailoring in the fitness and nutrition space. They offer to track your epigenetic data using saliva to create a personalised profile allowing them to tailor the types of exercise and foods you should utilise to meet your health and fitness goals. Once the domain of professional athletes, this feels like the logical next step for those who want to maximise the health, performance and aesthetic benefits of their exercise and diet regimens.


Balancing act as the sector matures

The challenge for sports nutrition brands is how to ensure they are meeting the hyper-individualised needs of their savvy current user base while remaining accessible enough to broaden the appeal of the category and increase that user base.

One solution may lie in the positioning for different audiences. Recent research into sports nutrition branding and communications concluded that the current users of these products no longer respond so well to ‘identity’ based marketing. They have become wise to the too-good-to-be-true representations of fitness models on social media and these no longer match their level of knowledge or personal goals. The authors encourage a move away from ads showing the type of person they could become and a push towards the function of the products and what they can do for the user (source: HMT via Nutraingredients). A renewed messaging focus on tangible health goals with specific personal benefits makes sense for a savvy current user and meets the emotional needs of this group for greater control. But this approach risks being too detailed and intimidating for prospective customers who are exploring the category and need it to feel accessible. Brands will have to think carefully about balancing these dual objectives to succeed in a busy marketplace.


Key actions for sports nutrition brands to capitalise on momentum

It’s an exciting time to be a sports nutrition brand with a dynamic marketplace and a growing consumer and revenue base. But as our diets and lifestyles have changed, so too have our emotional needs in relation to what we put into our bodies. Brands will be the driving force at the forefront of the development of the sports nutrition category and should make the most of this opportunity by…

  1. Broadening horizons: Take a holistic view of this increasingly broad category to ensure you are keeping up with and ultimately setting trends

  2. Segmenting your audience: Develop a clearly segmented understanding of the category to identify and prioritise the emerging consumer needs to be served – from the well-informed early adopters to the inexperienced new trialists

  3. Deepening understanding: Understand these target audiences more deeply by identifying the emotional needs that underpin behaviour, enabling the development of more relevant products, experiences and messages