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How brands can succeed in the growing sports and active nutrition market

Article-How brands can succeed in the growing sports and active nutrition market

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Building trust, personalising experiences, and using more sophisticated positioning are some of the ways that sports and active nutrition brands can stand out among the crowd and meet the needs of a larger and more diverse audience.

That was the opinion of industry experts speaking at a Vitafoods Insights webinar earlier this month on the topic of sports and active nutrition.

The category is no longer just the domain of elite athletes seeking to maximise their performance. From the 15-year-old e-sports player looking for healthy hydration and increased focus and concentration, to the 40-year-old vegan gym-goer exercising to relieve stress, and the 75-year-old Pilates practitioner aspiring to a longer healthspan, the category is attracting a broader and more varied audience than ever before.

As a result, the fitness supplement market continues to grow. According to market research company SPINS, which specialises in US retail data, it will do so at a 13% compound annual growth rate.

However, there are no automatic wins for sports and active nutrition brands. The diverse goals and fluctuating demands of these new consumer cohorts offer great opportunities but also dangerous pitfalls.

To untangle the complexities of today’s sports and active nutrition sector, Rick Miller, associate director of specialised nutrition at Mintel, and Pol Gieco Villegas, CEO and founder of Crown Sport Nutrition, discussed the latest trends and innovations in the area, sharing insights into consumer preferences and market dynamics.

Young consumers demand clean and natural products

According to Miller, Mintel research shows that – despite growing interest from other demographics – consumers aged 16 to 34 years remain the core audience for sports nutrition.

Artificial ingredients are a rising concern among this group. Long ingredient lists and unknown additives are turning this audience away, making it crucial for brands to focus on clean labels and position themselves as a natural option.

“Historically, the sports nutrition category has suffered a little bit from [the] encroachment of artificial ingredients and proprietary blends, and unfortunately, that's just not going to cut it any more,” he said.

Consumers from around the world... want more natural products, either with no artificial ingredients or prioritising natural ingredients, and using novel terms like things like ‘real’, ‘keeping things real’, or ‘no nasties’.”

Within the key demographic of 16- to 34-year-olds, the opportunities for the youngest age groups are growing rapidly. One area of opportunity here is the e-sports market, where brands that can deliver clean energy and performance with zero or low sugar, caffeine, and calories can find a rewarding niche. And in general, brands should formulate more for youth sports nutrition, Miller argued.

“If you just think about the number of children and young athletes that there are engaging in sport, there is a huge opportunity here that many brands are just leaving on the table,” he said. "Products formulated for the specific needs of youth sports are rare for such a large consumer market."

Despite this great market opportunity, sports and active nutrition companies remain reticent to dive into the niche. And while some rapidly growing ingredients like creatine have been shown to have a relatively high safety profile in research among specific populations of children, safety concerns drive a relatively low engagement from companies in this segment, said Miller.

“Brands have not engaged because…  to make a safe and effective product for children is difficult. This turns off brands, despite the huge opportunity,” he said.

As a product developer, Gieco Villegas underlined that trust and safety are always paramount.

“Everything takes a lot of time – a scientific study can take two to four years. We need to practise patience and have transparent language,” he said.

Healthy agers: Increasingly engaged, but hard to reach

An increased interest in healthy ageing is also driving activity within the category, making it more important for brands to consider the differences between sports and active nutrition consumers and how best to serve them.

Miller noted that one result of the more engaged older demographic is that functional ingredients with longevity claims related to brain health and muscle benefits are selling well. As more research demonstrates the link between improved strength and lowered mortality risk, the opportunities for active nutrition brands in this area are only expected to increase.

Sports nutrition brands have really excelled in this area in innovating within muscle-building support,” said Miller. “They need to tap into this huge audience, which is growing, in order to get the very best products in front of them.”

Attracting older consumers into the active nutrition segment is a great opportunity for brands because those concerned with healthy ageing have the potential to be loyal and regular customers.

Mintel research shows that nearly 50% of over-65s take vitamin supplements every day. By expanding the regular supplements from vitamins and minerals to protein supplements and other products designed for the age category, many medical prescriptions could be replaced by supplement subscriptions.

However, Miller noted that older consumers are not as easy to reach through traditional marketing channels. He urged brands to find new ways to reach the demographic.

He said: That might be through better education of the professionals that support these individuals, or it might be other channels that we can use to reach these consumers – either through social media influences or other ways that the brands are not thought of yet.”

Active nutrition: Personalisation will persist

One trend that cuts across all segments is the rise of personalisation. Gieco Villegas noted that the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a permanent shift in the mindset of consumers.

“Covid-19 made people take better care of themselves and look at sports nutrition and ways to achieve their maximum potential more scientifically,” he said.

His company has leaned into this tendency by sharing more information on its website about its different products, but also on nutrition.

“It is our style to try to educate and help people to understand and have client attention for personalisation of our products,” he added.

Miller noted that personalisation is likely to continue to gain prominence due to the youngest generation growing up with everything on-demand and personalised. To take advantage, brands can “think outside the pack” – for example, by using “QR codes to push consumers to a specific app to help [them] understand what is right for them”.

While highly technologically sophisticated personalisation involving DNA and stool sample analysis gets a lot of attention, Miller noted that there are many simple options that also add value, including chatbots, questionnaires, and the use of smart devices.

All these solutions lie at the core of the formula for success in today’s diverse sports and active nutrition market – to make each consumer feel special. To achieve this, brands need to stay on top of the latest trends and developments.

Vitafoods Insights has published a free-to-download report that dives deeper into these and other key trends, including women’s unique nutritional needs, foundational sports nutrition, and chrononutrition for athletes.