Designer Whey, based in Carlsbad, CA, bills itself as the first company to bring instantiated whey protein to the consumer market in the United States. The company was founded by formulator Shawn Sherwood in partnership with an Olympic class athlete, and the initial focus was on male gym rats, said CEO Jan Hall. The history of the company provides on object lesson in how being first to market isn’t always a guarantee of long term sector dominance, and how a legacy brand can reinvent itself for sustained success.
First in a crowded field
Being first to market, the company had big initial success, Hall said. Though the company’s customer base was a tiny subset of the overall potential consumer market, it was virgin territory.
“There weren’t many women in the market for protein at that time. The focus was on performance and muscle building. Remember, this was the say of Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and his friends,” Hall told NutraIngredients-USA.
Hall said the company had the benefit of basing their products on a protein that was both efficacious and good tasting from the start. Most consumers found the milky, creamy quality of mixed up whey protein to be pleasing. However, strict attention to organoleptic qualities wasn’t really necessary in the early days, as strength athletes looking for results were known for consuming almost anything if they thought it would work. Those were the days of shakes that included six or more raw eggs, after all.
Other companies quickly jumped on this bandwagon, and Designer Whey found itself leading a crowded field by a neck, Hall said. And some of those competitors had vast financial resources, she said.
“The market became very competitive very quickly. There were some very big companies coming into the market. You don’t have to be very close to the nutrition space to appreciate the huge increase of awareness around protein,”shesaid.
So just having whey as a source was not longer enough, Hall said, especially when there were dozens of similar brands on the market. The company quickly had to start building up points of differentiation, and to continue to compete effectively on the taste and texture fronts.
“It’s a supersaturated category. It has been for a number of years now,”Hall said. “The only way you can be successful is to have great products that people enjoy and that do what they say they’ll do. And to keep on innovating.”
New customer base demands new ingredients
Hall said the company now has products that feature a variety of flavors and protein sources and that include additional functional ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics. And the company moved in the direction of all natural ingredients as it reformed its customer base.
“We have a very different positioning now as opposed to when the company launched. The majority of Designer Whey consumption is actually now by women, with 60% to 65% of our consumers being women. And today the brand is ‘natural,’and that was not the case when it launched,” Hall said.
“It’s actually tougher to formulate with natural ingredients,”Hall said. But she said reaching the new lifestyle-type consumer means that working with the functionality quirks of natural ingredients is worth the trouble. And the various certificaitons available to prove your products have those ingredients are worth the time and cost it takes to get them, too, she said.
“Designer Whey was among the first protein brands to offer natural flavors and to use natural sweeteners. Now we are gluten free, kosher and today all of our milk is RGBH free. We’re GMO free, too. We try very hard to have clean and effective products,”Hall said.
The new consumer base is still interested in some of the same things, she said. The protein source has to be seen as efficacious, for example. But the some of the attributes that inform buying decisions for food products now determine how consumers feel about protein supplements, too, she said.
“We did some consumer research recently, and queried about 750 consumers, who self-identified as users of whey products, at least once a week. For them, the source of the protein was the top attribute, but taste was very important, too, in the top three,”she said.
New flavors, functionality
Designer Whey has continued to innovate along these lines, Hall said. The company recently introduced Chocolate Mocha and Vanilla Coconut flavors, which were chosen when looking at flavor trends. Straight chocolate and vanilla flavors, the mainstays of any protein line in the market, are no longer points of differentiation, she said. The company has also continue to expand the functionality of the product line, including basing a product on Pronative brand Native Whey protein, which is produced by French company Lactalis directly from milk via a filtration process as opposed to being a byproduct of cheese manufacture. Lactalis claims its data show the protein promotes even faster post exercise power recovery than does standard whey protein isolate.