NACS: Shhh…It Replaces a Meal

nacs logoA stream of meal replacement products are focused on the convenience store channel, even if their branding doesn’t necessarily position them as replacements for meals. At the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) show last week in Las Vegas, a variety of brands displayed beverages that fit neatly into the emerging category. Yet while brand representatives at the show unanimously acknowledged increasing demand for meal replacement products, their marketing and branding leaned more toward protein augmentation and workout supplementation.

Take Muscle Milk, recently sold to Hormel Foods, which has long served as one of the most widely-distributed protein beverages. The brand has functioned as an unofficial meal replacement well before the phrase started catching fire. At the Muscle Milk booth at NACS, a pair of regional sales managers (one from Miami, another from Denver) sampled Muscle Milk in two varieties: Muscle Milk Pro Series 40, which contains 40 grams of protein per bottle, and Muscle Milk 100 Calories, which replaces Muscle Milk Light. Both sales managers said that while Muscle Milk is marketed as a product for muscle recovery, most consumers use it as a meal replacement. It can be easier to head to the nearest convenience store and grab a Muscle Milk before work than getting up early and cooking eggs, they said.

muscle milk 40Mike Nederhoff, a general manager in Canada for Muscle Milk, pointed to a display sign at the booth and said that the company occasionally uses the term “meal replacement.” However, he said, even though this is the primary usage, it’s rarely deployed as a marketing tool.

“The consumer figures that out on their own,” Nederhoff said.

In the conference’s other hall, Kellogg’s showcased its ready-to-drink protein beverages in five flavors — Strawberry, Milk Chocolate, French Vanilla, Mocha and Vanilla Cappuccino. While not quite as tenured as Muscle Milk, these beverages have sat on shelves for about two years in convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Circle K. Lisa Quello, senior manager for category strategy, said that Kellogg’s does refer to the beverages as meal replacements with both consumers and retailers.

“It’s really driven around not having those empty calories,” added Brad Price, key account executive for Kellogg’s. “It’s that liquid snack that can get [consumers] to the next meal occasion.”

Yet even with this strategy in mind, Price said that the company tends to mention the formulary components of the shakes more than their role in meal replacement. Each bottle contains 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. The two café-inspired flavors, Mocha and Vanilla Cappuccino, have 65 milligrams of caffeine.

By leveraging the Special K brand, which mostly targets females through its cereal and other consumer packaged goods, Kellogg’s has found its point of differentiation alongside more masculine protein drink brands, Price said.

Price and Glenn McCaslin, manager of team sales for convenience stores in the East, added that the brand’s protein beverages are differentiated not just by their target demographic, but also by the protein content. McCaslin asks: how much protein can you put in a bottle?

The answer: just ask Rockin’ Refuel, which packs 50 grams of protein into one shake.

“Higher the protein, higher the sale,” said Dave Jacobs, territory sales manager on the West Coast.

Count Rockin’ Refuel as another brand that heartily endorses the meal replacement tag, yet opts for muscle-centric marketing. Perhaps the most recognizable brand endorser is Patrick Willis, the linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers who could probably frighten Magnus Samuelsson just by flexing a bicep.

But there seems to be a market for the divergent positionings of the more feminine Special K shakes and that of Rockin’ Refuel, a less heralded brand that has nonetheless secured distribution at convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Circle K and QuikTrip, among others.

organic valley fuelWith clear competition in the protein and meal replacement categories, another brand, Organic Valley, will soon discover if there’s enough shelf space for one more player. The brand launched in June and, through distribution with United Natural Foods Inc., has already partnered with Whole Foods, Fairway, Wegmans and Harris Teeter, to name a few. Yet even with its quick arrival in the mass and grocery channels, the brand hasn’t yet entered convenience stores.

But Lewis Goldstein, vice president of brand marketing for Organic Valley, seemed quite optimistic at the brand’s NACS booth. He said that about 10.5 percent of the protein shake market can claim to be both organic and dairy, and that number drops to about 0.5 percent when looking at the convenience store channel. Meanwhile, he sees what investors, entrepreneurs and even retail operators themselves are beginning to see — the shifting inventory of beverages in convenience stores. Goldstein said Organic Valley has already signed a deal for eventual shelf placement at 5,000 locations of one convenience store chain — although he wouldn’t name it.

And while the brand’s ingredients might push the cost up even further, he said, “price isn’t the decision factor. It’s what’s in the product.”

The same could be said for “meal replacement.” The phrase itself, while relevant to several protein shakes, may not be as important as the idea of a full stomach.