What’s driving sports nutrition consumer purchases?

March 17, 2020

Information sources, product attributes, price, and availability all play a role in determining which products sports nutrition consumers will buy.

As nutritional science has improved and consumer awareness of the health effects of diet, health, and the environment has grown, the food and drink market has shifted drastically. One significant evolution is the way that the sports nutrition market has changed, from a very focused category for athletes to one with much broader appeal. This can clearly be seen with the mass-market success of mainstream energy and sports drinks as consumers explore active nutrition in a new way.

Where Do Today’s Sports Nutrition Customers Get Information?

Sports nutrition consumers are harvesting information from a wide variety of sources, whether in-person or online, according to insights gleaned from FMCG Gurus’ “USA Sports Nutrition Survey” (published in 2019, with 2,000 respondents).

These customers’ most popular source of information is social media, with information constantly available from a wide array of different voices. Beyond this, of those surveyed, 56% said they refer to information on a brand’s website, preferring to go to the source, and 55% said they trust the recommendations and advice of their friends and family. Only 36% said they rely on product labels for information, and only 13% bother with blogs or review sites. Social media, ranging from paid advertising to personal endorsements, likely offers the best method for sports nutrition companies to share product claims and benefits.

What Information Do Sports Nutrition Customers Value?

In terms of the information that these consumers value the most, 78% of consumers surveyed report looking for probiotic content, and 74% want to confirm that the products they purchase contain no GMO ingredients. This demonstrates the strong link between sports nutrition products and concepts around healthy eating: it is not enough that a product offers direct benefits like high protein; it must also have associations with other health benefits.

Consumers are also drawn to specific ingredients, although awareness of ingredients can vary wildly. For instance, quinoa was recognized by 70% of consumers surveyed, whereas only 9% were familiar with caseinates. For those aware of the ingredients used, between a third to half of consumers surveyed said that the presence of certain ingredients have an influence on their purchasing habits. And although growing consumer awareness of ingredients is a key part of the equation, it should be noted that once consumers have been educated on the benefits, there is a strong impetus to purchase.

Indeed, many factors influence purchasing decisions for sports nutrition consumers. One particularly strong draw is the presence of natural claims, which 73% of consumers say is appealing or very appealing. Consumers are increasingly drawn to what FMCG Gurus identifies as an attitude of “good for me, good for the earth,” where ingredients seen as natural or environmentally friendly are perceived as being better for people’s health as well.

Another very important type of claim is “low fat” or “no fat.” When people are choosing a product for health reasons, it is not enough to just have “good” ingredients; products must also avoid “bad” ingredients.

Product Attributes

Claims aside, it is very important to consumers that a product be satisfying in terms of taste, texture, and general experience. This is particularly apparent with high-protein foods, which often have negative sensory associations. When asked about products containing whey protein, 53% of respondents said that the taste is an issue and, of those, 56% said specifically that the flavor is too chalky. When asked if they would pay a premium for a pleasant-tasting product, 78% of those who had an issue with the flavor said that they would. Regardless of the benefits offered by a product, consumers will almost always prioritize their own enjoyment over other factors.

Other critical factors play a role in the sports nutrition customer’s decision to purchase. The main concern is availability, followed by price. In our survey, 71% of consumers said that their greatest barrier to purchase is availability of the product, while 70% indicated that product price was an issue when purchasing.

What Are Customers Buying? Protein.

FMCG Gurus research clearly shows the increased popularity of high-protein products, with consumers more interested in the category than ever before. We can see that in the past six months 57% have purchased milk protein drinks, 52% report buying a protein snack bar, and 46% have purchased protein powder to add to shakes or beverages.

Even newer products, like protein-fortified ice cream-a category that rose to prominence with the success of brands such as Halo Top-are already being purchased by 46% of consumers surveyed. The popularity of these categories and products demonstrates how radical and sweeping the shift towards high-protein has been over recent decades, with a glut of products and a high demand for them. It is also notable that many of these products have long been seen as the preserve of athletes and bodybuilders, but have now started to filter into the mainstream.

Some sports nutrition products have yet to catch on, however. A lower 23% of respondents said they have purchased protein water, 16% have tried sports gel, and only 7% have consumed energy gels. These products remain more strongly associated with “serious” athletes and have yet to make the transition into more commonly consumed products. It seems likely that gels may never make this leap, considering issues with unfamiliarity and texture.

Data for this article is based on FMCG Gurus’ “USA Sports Nutrition Survey” (published in 2019).

Andrew Crofts is a senior research analyst at FMCG Gurus (https://fmcggurus.com/). For more info please contact FMCG Gurus at info@fmcggurus.com.

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