Better-for-you Brands are Missing Their Biggest Market Opportunity

09.11.18 / Diana Fryc

If you’re working inside a natural food or beverage brand, chances are you’re a natural products fan, yourself. So you assume that the marketplace embraces natural, too.

But not everyone does. Not by a long shot.

That disconnect hit me during a recent business trip through the Midwest: Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas. As I usually do when I’m traveling, I popped into a grocery store to experience different retail environments and find different products from what I see here in Seattle. (Yes, I’m a retail nerd.)

Browsing the naturals section at a HyVee in Omaha, I spotted Ensure, the nutrition drink, shelved among the organic products. And I had an epiphany: There are people who think Ensure is a better-for-you product. OK, technically Ensure is better for you compared to Doritos. But Ensure would never be admitted to a natural products expo.

The experience sparked three major insights for me:

  1. Natural products play differently to different demographics in different parts of the country.
  2. Owners and marketing executives at natural brands, who tend to be West or East Coasters (either geographically or philosophically), communicate as if their entire audience is composed of similarly coastal-minded people.
  3. There is a huge market opportunity for natural brands in the country’s midsection.

Natural Products Means Different Things to Different People

According to Nielsen research, a staggering 20% of Americans are resistant nonbelievers. They refuse to believe that food and diet have an impact on health and wellness. And there’s another huge group of people who are ambivalent about it. Lots of people don’t care about making smart food choices or don’t know how to make them. Part of the disconnect is regional. Better-For-You (BFY) in Nebraska means Ensure next to organic crackers. BFY in New York means fair-trade, single-origin, farm-to-package, organic pumpkin seeds with hand-harvested Mediterranean sea salt. It’s also socioeconomic, psychological, and educational. Natural brands sell at a higher price point. Their packaging and messaging communicate in an arch style that doesn’t build relationships across demographics. And the perception that healthy food tastes like cardboard persists.

Natural Brand Leaders Have Innate Bias

We find that BFY brand owners are unaware of their confirmation bias, that the rest of the world thinks like they do and has the same standards for health and wellness. Yeah, you drive an electric car and meditate and gladly plunk down $5 for that packet of single-origin pumpkin seeds. Maybe your friends and colleagues do, too. So it’s easy to navel-gaze and project your own preferences onto your entire audience. Which means you’re missing a huge potential market — because you just don’t see them. When we started working with Essentia, the performance water, they were great at appealing to elite athletes and medical professionals who shopped for enhanced water at Whole Foods. The marketing team had built a set of assumptions about their niche, and they were only talking to those people — people who were like themselves. But we had ample consumer data that showed that non-white-athleisure-wearers were also likely to buy supercharged water. Our research identified new customer segments, including African-Americans and Hispanic men, who were interested in a hydrating product and would otherwise buy Gatorade. We created a prototypical persona: a Hispanic construction worker in Houston who needed a better option than plain water to keep him going. Based on those insights, we repositioned and repackaged Essentia for a broader market, with expectation-busting results.

There’s Huge Opportunity — But it Takes Work

If you seek to grow your brand beyond your current customer base — and sales will stagnate if you don’t — then you have to recognize that there are people out there who are not like you and your colleagues. And you have to build a relationship with them. How? Look beyond your glass house. Identify the geographic/demographic/psychographic segments outside your base who are your strongest prospects. Understand their needs that your product meets. (Learn how to use U&A studies to find out what you don’t know.) Don’t assume they’re up to speed. These aren’t regular natural product buyers. You need to educate the consumer about why BFY products matter to them, and bringing these new customers along is a much longer journey. Your look, your package copy, your online presence, and your advertising all has to gently, respectfully educate. Know their biases. Remember those resistant nonbelievers Nielsen uncovered. They don’t see the benefits of BFY products. They have what we call a “sufficient quality” bias — they determine a product’s value by whether it’s just good enough for the money. They think natural food tastes like crap. You have messaging work to do. Preaching to the converted is easy — they’re already in your fold, they’ve bought in. But there’s no path to growth there. The opportunity — and the challenge — lies in evangelizing about your brand in the bigger world, convincing the skeptics, and winning over people who think a bottle of water, sugar, and artificial ingredients qualifies as a natural product.

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