Content and fan engagement: The key ingredients to competing in the snack bar category

A highly competitive category is getting even more intense with the entry of major food and confectionary players.

Content and fan engagement: The key ingredients to competing in the snack bar category

Walk into any grocery store or deli, and you’ll see dozens – sometimes hundreds – of snack bars from new and established companies vying for attention. Creative content and direct fan engagement are the best ways to build brand affinity in the crowded category, say experts.

More than 1,000 types of nutrition bars were on the market as of June, a huge jump from 226 in 2005, according to Valient Market Research. And healthy bar sales reached $1.2 billion last year, up 50% from 2010.

"We’ve definitely been seeing growth in the bar category [to replace] main meals as well as [for] snack time, but not all bars are created equally," explains Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD Group.

He says growth in the category is being driven by granola and protein bars, with cereal bars showing weakness, particularly because consumers are looking for products with less sugar.  

Quest Bars, listed as the second-fastest-growing private US company in 2014 on the Inc. 5000 list, have high protein, no added sugar, and are low in carbohydrates. The five-year-old brand has seen more than 57% growth in the last three years, and its 2013 revenue clocked in at nearly $83 million, according to the magazine.

One secret of its success is the brand’s foundation on social media.

"We focus a ton of time, love, and attention on building communities, creating content for them, and working with influencers within the communities," says Nicholas Robinson, CMO of Quest. "Brands have the opportunity to create the best content, period."

Among Quest’s nearly 200 staffers, 15 people are dedicated to creating content, whether editorial, video, or photo, for YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The brand has more than 1.1 million fans on Facebook and 133,000 followers on Twitter.

Leveraging influencers, such as nutritionists or social media users with many dedicated followers, is a great way for snack bar brands to get their messages to fans, says Havas Formula president Michael Olguin. Formula has previously worked with nutrition bar brands including 18 Rabbits, Kashi, and Bear Naked.

Inside Quest, the company’s digital talk show, features weekly interviews with inspirational people, from actors and directors to professional athletes and fitness trainers. 

Clif Bar & Company, which recently consolidated its PR work with Golin, also incorporates digital content into its consumer engagement strategy.

"We just launched a very unique video called ‘How do you adventure?’ engaging people with an interactive video to choose their own adventure," says Sue Hearn, senior director of communications at Clif, via email.

She calls the average amount of time spent viewing videos "extraordinary" at about six minutes apiece since it launched last month.

Flexible snack bars for busy lives
When it comes to positioning a snack bar among competitors, Seifer notes that it’s important for a brand to "show consumers that your products are flexible in terms of when they can be consumed."

He says specifically labeling products as breakfast bars, snacks, or meal replacements can pigeonhole a brand and deter customers from trying it.

Clif Bar & Company tries to avoid being grouped into one category by offering a wide range of items beyond its flagship Clif Bars, such as Clif Builder’s Bars, Clif Mojo Bars, Clif Crunch Granola Bar, Clif Kit's Organic Bars, Clif Kids, and Luna Bars.

Hearn says the brand is offering a variety of bars "to meet consumers’ needs for endurance sports and snacking."

The company also emphasizes its use of organic and sustainably grown food and educates its registered dieticians, retailers, and Team Clif Bar athletes about the benefits of organic food for people, as well as the planet, she explains.

Sampling is also fundamental for snack bars trying to break through the cluttered environment, explains Olguin.

"You have to put your product in the hands of consumers because, in this day in age, they are never going to buy a product they haven’t tried – they’re too discerning about their spending," he says.

Hearn notes that Clif prioritizes one-on-one fan engagement, which is why the brand meets people at sporting events they’re passionate about, including marathons, triathlons, and surfing, climbing, and cycling events.

"Sharing our food and inspiring adventures is at the heart of what we do, and we typically use more social and PR versus traditional advertising to meet people where they play in the great outdoors," she notes.

Quest is also meeting consumers on the ground with a recently launched food truck in California, which is serving shakes and treats on the weekends. The brand likes to "surprise and delight people," says Robinson, so it also sends its Q-Crew dance team to perform and get people excited about its products.

Quest also conducts about 300 sampling events a month in retail stores such as GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe.

Kind Healthy Snacks, which touts low sugar or high protein on most of its packaging, is among the fastest-growing brands in the space, jumping from 2.8% market share in 2013 to 4.9% last year, according to Euromonitor.

One reason for Kind’s success was its decision to enter into an exclusive distribution deal with Starbucks.

"You to Starbucks, and Kind is the only bar in there, and that’s different than a retail strategy where you go to the bar aisle and it’s overwhelming," he says. "So to find a unique distribution channel to own or dominate is really smart."

Representatives from Kind declined to comment on the brand’s marcomms strategies.

While Robinson says Quest is up against Clif and Kind for "shelf and stomach space," he adds that the biggest competition is from large CPG companies with snack brands, such as Kraft.

General Mills is leading the US snack bar category with 24% share, followed by Kellogg Company with 18%, according to Euromonitor. Clif has 13% market share.

General Mills and Kellogg declined to comment about their snack bar initiatives.

The message Quest tries to get across is that there is a difference between "better-for-you" products offered by major food companies and good-for-you items, notes Robinson.

And not only do smaller challenger brands have to look out for large food conglomerates, they also have to keep their eyes on confectionary companies getting into the mix. In May, Hershey’s unveiled its Brookside healthier snack bars, and this month, Mars is expected to debut a similar product called Goodnessknows.

"It’s difficult to get into the space when you’re not the first to enter it, but what they have going for them is their marketing might," says Seifer.

He adds that Hershey and Mars are also entering the better-for-you food space, which is a growing segment.

Aside from the market itself becoming more competitive as more companies enter the category, Robinson contends that it’s getting more difficult to break through to fans on social. Yet, he adds, it’s "good to have competition."

"You have [brands] really investing in social and creating great content," he explains. "That just holds us to a higher standard and forces us to continue innovating, hiring amazing talent, and pushing the envelope of what’s possible on the platforms."

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