While most of the promos for sports nutrition companies still feature men and women with perfectly athletic and muscular bodies, increasingly, it's the ordinary people like us that these companies are trying to target.
The sports and fitness nutrition industry has come a long way, ever since it emerged, in the late 1980s, from the shadows of the main stream food industry, to create its own identity. Now it is a distinct food category that caters to a broad consumer base featuring people from with various profiles. Some of the popular categories in the market include protein powders, meal replacements, and energy drinks. However, as the sports nutrition products march into the main stream, the flag bearer undoubtedly is the energy & nutrition bar, the fastest growing industry segment.
What is an energy bar, what is not?
The energy and nutrition bars are rich sources of energy and balanced nutrition. Though the compositions vary slightly between different brands, energy bars are generally a combination of protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. The protein source in these bars is usually soy or milk. The ingredients in each of the bars depend on the energy needs of the target consumer. Each of the manufacturers has different brands for specific activities.
There is a tendency to club all the bars in the sports nutrition market into the energy bar category. Energy bars should be distinguished from other kinds of bars such as meal replacement bars and diet bars. Though some of the beneficial qualities tend to overlap between these categories, the energy bars are high-energy snacks and are calorie rich. They cannot be used as stand-ins for diet bars. Energy bars have a distinct identity and a big enough consumer base to be categorized as separate segment.
Anyone, bar none, could be the consumer
Under a broad classification, the consumers of these products fall under two heads, the sportspersons and the mainstream consumers. The first category can range from professional athletes to people who occasionally participate in sports events but who train regularly following a strict regimen. Functional attributes are paramount for these consumers. They tend to supplement other nutrition products like protein powders and creatine with the energy bars.
The non serious (mainstream) consumers vary from people who workout occasionally to keep in shape or as a recreational activity, to the people who eat these products because they are easy to consume and are healthier than junk food. Energy bars contain several vitamins and nutrients and might help with weight loss.
But the attention of the marketers is firmly focused on the second category of users, the mainstream.
The bars… off the blocks
Though the energy bar appears to be the hottest selling product in sports nutrition now, the category was anything but hot when it was entering the market. The energy bars made their appearance on the American store shelves in the mid 1980s. These bars were targeted at the serious athletes and the products were designed with their energy & nutrition needs in mind. With the focus on only the functional benefits, important features like the texture and taste were given the short shrift. As a result, the taste of these bars was variously compared by the consumers to that of chemicals, sawdust and even bricks! During this period, the market was catering to niche consumers and it was dominated by small regional players.
One of the early big brands in energy bars was M&M Mars' VO2 Max bar, launched in 1994. This product was withdrawn from the market in 1998. Same was the fate of Gatorbar coming from the legendary Gatorade stable. The biggest factor behind the failure of these products was their unappealing taste and mouth-feel. These initial stumbles made the industry realize that, to reach a wider audience, the bars have to be attractive in more perceptible features like taste and texture along with the functional attributes. The product innovation in this segment picked up pace during the late 1990s.
Currently, on an energetic run.......
The energy bar's launch into the big league was marked by two acquisitions that took place in the year 2000. Nestle took over Power Bar and Kraft foods acquired Balance Bar. These two, along with Clifbar currently occupy the top three slots in the US energy bar market.
The energy bar industry is in such a stage where a lot of product innovation is still going on. And the above companies, along with rest of the industry are trying to identify separate niches within this category and create products for each niche.
Luna bar from Clifbar Inc. is positioned as a women's nutrition bar while Bodhibar has its energy bars formulated based on the principles of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. However, the real experimentation and innovation is going on the taste and ingredients' front. The top players in the industry have at least four flavor variants for each of their brands in the market.
Currently there are more than forty brands of energy bars in the market and most of the industry participants feel that the market is overcrowded. There are too many products and there is too little shelf space.
Whoever raises the bar wins!
In this day and age, people are very busy and they love the idea of having all their nutrition within a single bar. Energy bar, which offers multiple benefits in a single serving fits perfectly well into today's busy lifestyles.
At the same time, the food habits and product preferences of the consumers are changing very rapidly. The biggest challenge for the industry is to keep up with the changing preferences of the consumers. The industry has to live up to the consumer expectations and constantly work towards giving what the consumers want.
The biggest challenge before the manufacturers now is to position their brands in such a way that they standout in the cluttered shelf space. Given the fickleness of consumers' tastes, the winner in the race for the market leadership will be among those who have the ability to constantly reinvent their products.