Heavy Lifting

Califia+Farms+Vegan+Protein+Almondmilk+drinksLong associated with bodybuilders and serious athletes, protein drinks have in recent years drawn surging interest from a broad spectrum of consumers. Demand for the beverages is being driven by an increasingly health-conscious population that embraces protein for its efficacy in building and maintaining muscle, workout recovery, boosting metabolism and weight management.

The demand has fueled a new wave of protein-centric drinks, including enhanced waters, juice blends, nut milks and iced coffees. Paving the way for these products are technological advances in blending protein powders with liquids – clumping and chalky or gritty textures had been common issues – as well as innovative methods for sourcing protein from plant-based ingredients, including legumes, nuts and seeds.

Market research firm Euromonitor International’s recent “Global Trends in Protein” report found that “protein’s popularity is generally growing much faster than consumers’ awareness of how much protein they need and, indeed, how much protein they are already consuming.” As a result, “marketers are scrambling to piece together the increasingly disparate health and cultural drivers affecting consumption.”

A notable outcome is companies’ efforts to communicate functional claims beyond muscle health, a strategy that has garnered interest from female, millennial and elderly consumers, Euromonitor reports.

1915 Bolthouse Farms(TM) debuts three organic, alternative protein beverages that include almond milk, soymilk, and pea protein. (PRNewsFoto/Bolthouse Farms)

For beverage companies whose primary business is in other drink categories, protein innovation has created incremental revenues. At Bolthouse Farms, for example, president Scott LaPorta said he’d seen a 20 percent increase in compound annual growth rate for protein-infused varieties of super-premium beverages, such as the brand’s Protein Plus products.

Meanwhile, milk-based protein drinks, created by separating the components of milk and bolstering the protein content, continue to gain traction and are widely available. Brands including Core Power, Rockin’ Refuel and Organic Valley’s Organic Fuel have extended their presence on shelf with innovative marketing initiatives and line extensions containing pumped up protein content.

“Millennial consumers, in particular, are asking questions about the functionality of every beverage choice they make,” said Greg Steltenpohl, the CEO of Califia Farms, which markets almond milk and coffee drinks infused with protein. “It’s not just, ‘Well, what makes me feel good, in the moment?’ but ‘What’s it going to give me?’”

The rapid evolution of the category prompted one market leader, Muscle Milk, to reassess its marketing and branding strategies, even from a leadership position.

In the two years since Hormel Foods acquired Muscle Milk parent company Cytosport, brand executives combed through a slew of research to identify key attributes and need states for protein drinks. Findings included high consumer demand for clean ingredient labels, plant protein-based formulations, and growing consumption of protein drinks among female consumers. To that end, Muscle Milk recently announced a revamp in the formulation and packaging of its flagship “Genuine” and Pro Series beverage lines and introduced several new products designed for a variety of consumers and day part uses.

Muscle Milk

Muscle Milk Genuine protein drinks now feature simplified ingredient statements and contain less sugar and fat. Additionally, the products no longer contain soy. The changes were achieved without compromising taste, according to Muscle Milk president and CEO Greg Longstreet. Maintaining high quality flavor was a critical aspect in the reformulation, he noted.

Muscle Milk’s new product launches are now aimed at a wider variety of use states. A line of smoothies made with Greek-style yogurt and coffee-infused protein shakes, which contain 25g and 20g of protein per serving, respectively, were designed for both inside and outside the gym, according to the company. The brand also expanded availability and packaging options for its organic Muscle Milk line and also gave a facelift to its 100-calorie line of drinks.

The yogurt combo is on-trend, notes Chris Schmidt, Senior Consumer Health Analyst at Euromonitor International.

“Protein and caffeine is a combination that’s gaining a lot of speed in the protein supplement world,” Schmidt said. “Protein’s ability to provide sustained energy matches well with the immediate energy kick from caffeine. And of course everyone is looking for ever more functionality from their drinks, so being able to marry protein’s health benefits with an everyday product like coffee could do well.”

The company’s expanding portfolio aims to be “accessible to a broader range of lifestyle consumers that also addresses the opportunity within different day parts [such as] breakfast consumption in a convenient way,” Longstreet said. Although the ultimate goal for Muscle Milk is “to provide protein for everybody,” Longstreet explained that the common thread to package updates and brand extensions was a desire to increase the brand’s appeal among women.

“We saw an opportunity for us to be more approachable and better align ourselves with this growing female consumer who’s looking for products in this space,” Longstreet said. “That certainly drove the new packaging, artwork and design, which was meant to contemporize the brand and also make the brand more approachable while still holding our core equity.”

Cytosport has also relaunched Evolve, which debuted in 2013 as a low-calorie protein shake designed “to serve as a complement to any woman’s evolution toward a healthy lifestyle.” The original product, which contained nearly 40 ingredients, including milk-based protein isolate, has been completely stripped down, repackaged and reformulated. Now made with pea-based protein, a first for Cytosport, Evolve is vegan and contains no dairy, soy, gluten, artificial flavors or tree nuts. Offered in four flavor varieties, Longstreet views Evolve as addressing growing consumer demand for “cleaner sources of protein.”

“We see that as an emerging trend that has driven a couple of things on our end,” he said. “With the new look and packaging, a desire for cleaner protein drove us to this plant-based protein category. It’s a nice complement to the Muscle Milk business which continues to grow and evolve for us.”

Longstreet noted that while the company sees significant upside for its naturally formulated products and a long runway for plant-based protein, Muscle Milk’s Pro Series is currently the fastest-growing line in the portfolio.

Although Pro Series beverages are made with artificial ingredients (as are the brand’s Genuine and 100-calorie products) they contain over 50 percent more protein – up to 40 grams per package. Longstreet cited Pro Series’ success at convenience store giant 7-Eleven – the largest customer of Pro Series – as proof of mainstream consumer demand for more protein and functionality in foods and beverages.

“There has been a dichotomous evolution of the brand,” said Euromonitor’s Schmidt. “They have more clearly separated their mass-facing products from their hardcore/specialty sports nutrition products with the rebranding. The mass-facing Muscle Milk products have been redesigned to be more of a generally healthy or active lifestyle brand than a sports supplement, per se.”

Longstreet envisions a portfolio in which sales are evenly distributed between Muscle Milk’s core Genuine line and its sub-lines. That revenue split may be a reality in the near future, according to Muscle Milk CMO Nikki Brown, who spearheaded the research that led to recent innovation efforts. Based on the success of the brand’s 100-calorie line and early retailer and consumer feedback concerning its smoothies and organic products, Muscle Milk is reaching new demographics through innovation.

“We’ve been able to demonstrate through our 100-calorie line, as we would expect, it’s more of a snack option, it does skew more female,” Brown said. “We’ve begun to innovate, we’ve talked about [bringing] more female and active lifestyle users into the category. We are beginning to see that happen in our research with our sub-group products.”

Jerry Reda, the COO of Big Geyser, which distributes the brand in metro New York – the only region where the brand is not carried by PepsiCo – took that sentiment a step further. He described Muscle Milk as “on fire” in New York, and credited the brand’s executive team as leading the category with sustainable innovation.

“I have been incredibly impressed with Hormel in what they’ve done with Muscle Milk,” Reda said.