How studying meaning can reveal the “why” behind market shifts and protect you from making hasty decisions.
As many CPG teams will tell you, COVID-19 caused sales slumps for a number of food categories. And one of the biggest drops was performance nutrition bars. Why? Articles like this suggest that the dip in sales was linked to consumers not needing a “grab-and-go” solution during a stay-at-home period. The article goes on to say that, according to Nielsen statistics, sales of performance nutrition bars were down 17% in the first seven months of lockdowns.
But, is the drop in sales simply due to a short-term change in behavior? Or is there a deeper, more meaningful cultural shift transforming consumer expectations? After all, while restrictions have started to lift and consumers are starting to head back out into the world, personal nutrition bar sales have continued to dip, dropping another 19% in the last 28 weeks.
To better understand the “why” behind this shift in the market, we turned to our MotivBase Trends platform to study the changing meanings that are shaping the culture of performance nutrition bars.
The difference two years can make.
We began by looking back at the culture of performance and nutrition bars from two years ago (or pre-pandemic). Immediately, we can see that the culture was relatively nascent, but growing. Nutrition bars in the context of performance were relevant to the 24.2 million Americans, but the role nutrition bars could play in helping one maintain energy levels and prevent loss of muscle mass was pushing this culture closer to the mainstream. Also, nutrition bars were linked to topics like gym performance, heavy workouts, and achieving what the consumer calls “an airbrushed look”.
In essence, nutrition bars were associated most dominantly with improving both physical fitness, and attractiveness. When we leveraged our AI Anthropology engine to analyze the long form text used by consumers as they engaged with topics linked to performance and nutrition bars, the dominant motivation was the desire to “Unlock the full potential of the body” and the most dominant attitude was to prove “My health is completely in my control”.
In essence, performance Nutrition Bars were benefiting from an association with being attractive. They also served as a reward or treat after you sacrificed in the gym or during your workout. But then, the pandemic hit.
Fast Forward to 2020
When we examine the exact same culture one year later, we can see a pretty drastic change. First, the culture grew, and was relevant to a larger portion of the population (61.4 Million Consumers). But the culture became volatile.
As a reminder, when a topic is volatile, this is our AI system saying that there is so much inconsistency, we can’t calculate growth. We can estimate where it sits on the maturity curve, but there is so much disagreement or new meanings entering the cultural universe, that we can’t confidently predict that a topic is increasing in relevance with consumers. To better understand why the culture became volatile, we can look to see if any new motivations have emerged.
Immediately, we can see that the role of social connection has infiltrated the culture. Given the threat of Covid-19, people became less concerned about physical prowess and performance, and more concerned with the feeling like they were nurturing human relationships. We can also see this in the topics consumers associated with the culture. The linkage to gyms was replaced with more individualistic types of exercise. But, perhaps more importantly, consumers more readily linked nutrition bars to indulgent, hedonistic food options. Nutrition bars were no longer a “treat” after a workout. They were competing with other, more indulgent snacks because the role of exercise was disrupted.
Performance Nutrition Bars in the Present
When we examine this culture in the present, we can see that the topics consumers are associating with performance nutrition are still volatile, and the size of the culture has decreased compared to a year ago.
By examining the topic universe, we can see a return to concerns around the body and the role of exercise. But there is one key difference that surfaces.
Consumers are more educated on the “problems of sugar”.
This association with sugar was not dominant in 2019 or in 2020. Yet in 2021, the problem of sugar surfaces as one of the key associations being made by consumers as they engage in the culture of performance and nutrition bars. And this association is impacting the motivations and attitudes that dominate the culture.
If we look at the two most dominant motivations, we can see that it is being led by consumers that are dedicated to gathering evidence to validate their decisions when it comes to food. They are also looking to advocate on behalf of what they believe to improve the world around them. But they are also suspicious of big food companies for promoting products that actually contain unhealthy ingredients like sugar.
In layman’s terms, it seems like while the pandemic made more people ask if nutrition bars were right for them, it also led to more people educating themselves on whether a nutrition bar was truly nutritious, or full of sugars that were negating the so-called benefit of the bar.
What does this mean for the future?
With this understanding of the changes in meaning that have reshaped Performance Nutrition Bars, we can now leverage the Motivbase & Nielsen IQ Combined Service, to better understand where the market is headed. Essentially, any culture that is identified can then be matched to the NielsenIQ sales data, to identify categories and product groups that are most relevant to consumers. This can tell us if there are solutions that are currently winning in a culture (sales are increasing) or if there is a decrease in sales, this indicates a potential gap in the market. As you will see, the category of performance nutrition bars is decreasing (as was called out in the article above.
But interestingly enough there is a group of healthy nutrition bars that are bucking the overall category trend. While there is still a decrease in overall sales, the Top Gainers are growing by 33%.
An examination of the “Top Gainers” reveals brands that are positioned to use natural sugars or limited amounts of sugar. Simple Mills, Boobie Bars and Fit Crunch all look to reinforce the limited amount of sugar in their bars, and Love Good Fats is positioned as Diabetes Friendly. This similar trend can be seen in the New Coming products, like Alani Fit Snacks and Hungry Buddha bars.
Covid-19 didn’t just hurt Performance Nutrition Bars by impacting grab-and-go occasions. Covid-19 made consumers:
- Re-evaluate the importance of perfecting their physical appearance
- Reprioritize how they treat themselves
- Reconsider how healthy a performance nutrition bar really is (especially in the context of healthy amounts of sugar).
Focusing entirely on sales data fails to reveal the bigger picture of what is happening in consumer culture. As we’ve seen in previous articles, cultural data, like the data above, can help us better understand the emotional journey that consumers are going on, to better predict the longevity and potential for a trend.
This is why adding an anthropological lens to your business is so important.