Even with thousands of SKUs, there’s always still white space to fill, says Swanson Health innovation chief

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Even with thousands of SKUs, there’s always still white space to fill, says Swanson Health innovation chief
Just one year shy of turning 50, how can supplement brand Swanson Health stay relevant in an ever-changing market? A focus on ‘real food’ and streamlining SKUs were among the things the company did to stay up-to-date, said Chief Innovation Officer Shane Durkee.

“We have an extensive portfolio. Just on our supplement side we have 1800 unique SKUs,” ​Durkee told an audience yesterday at the Food Innovate Summit​currently taking place in Chicago.

“Pretty much every vitamin, mineral, herb, combination supplement—anything you can think of we probably have,"​ he said. In fact, as Durkee has only been with the company for less than two years, he admitted that he has vendors who know products in Swanson's portfolio of which Durkee is still unaware.

Nevertheless, even among an ocean of SKUs, there’s always white space that can be found, especially as consumer demand and expectations always change. “We’re looking at the extensive portfolio and wondering is there anything we can do differently? Have we done protein in a meaningful way? Have we done healthy snacking or functional foods?”

Transforming a sleepy company using its own data

Durkee joined Swanson Health​ after the family company’s acquisition by private equity firm​ Swander Pace Capital in 2016. He has had decades of experience in consumer healthcare with Bayer, Schiff Nutrition International, and most recently, Maximum Human Performance.

“Swanson’s always been there in the background as long as I’ve been in the industry. They’ve been a sleepy, kind of steady company,” ​he recalled. “I’ve never really seen them as an innovative threat. Super good at what they did, but I didn’t think they were affecting me competitively.”

But there’s an opportunity to change the way the company views innovation and change the way it's looked at from the outside, he added.

"The really cool thing about Swanson that attracted a lot of us to the opportunity is that Swanson has years and years and years of analytical data on what people are buying, both from the catalogue and through the website."

There’s no definition of clean label, but consumers still want it  

With Durkee at the helm of innovation, the company changed its approach to innovation. It slowed down the pace of new product launches to focus on ‘bigger launches.’

A recent launch for the legacy brand is its Real Food line​, which Durkee said was a response to consumers calling for cleaner labels.

“Consumers want to know everything that’s in their product [and] know that there’s trust and transparency behind the brand​,” he said. “They want to know the products are ‘clean,’ even know there’s no true definition of what clean label is, they want a clean label and they’re demanding it.”

The line will serve synthetic-averse consumers. “We made sure they’re free of synthetic sources—not saying they’re bad—just saying that to create a ‘real food’ type of vitamin, we don’t want synthetic sources in there.”

‘Americans in particular prefer to pop a pill more than anything’

For now, the line includes a pair of multivitamins (men’s and women’s daily) as well as biotin, niacin, b-complex, and folic acid supplements.

Durkee argued that innovation within the pill, capsule, and tablet space is still relevant, despite hubbub surrounding the rise of alternative delivery formats​and data showing that ‘dietary supplements’ are more and more being aligned with beverages​ among consumers.

“On one hand you hear that, on the other hand, Americans in particular prefer to pop a pill more than anything, so pills are here to stay,” ​he told NutraIngredients-USA.

“With that being said, there are clear data and direction that show us a functional food or powdered beverage is the way to go. So we have a new magnesium we’re launching next month that’s powdered rather than pill.”

“For us it’s a healthy balance between putting out a product out there that’s a traditional pill or capsule format, with functional foods or powders or snacks.”

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