Business Strategy Marketing

Vital Proteins: How A Strategic Pivot Drove Category-Defining Success

Vital Proteins is making waves in the supplement industry and marketplace peers are taking notice. In June 2020, CPG giant Nestle acquired a majority stake in the company. This is the story of how an emerging fitness brand accidentally stumbled into the lucrative millennial beauty industry and it provides a valuable lesson on business agility.

To say that Vital Proteins Founder & CEO, Kurt Seigensticker, has a diverse professional background would be an understatement. From training astronauts at NASA, to developing cell phone networks and early cell phone prototypes at Motorola, and starting a premium seafood and steak e-commerce company – Kurt is a true creative. While it may seem like an unconventional path to the wellness industry, Kurt’s cross-category experiences likely aided his entrepreneurial vision and his ability to build something from the bottom up.

Turning a consumer pain point into a business. An avid runner, Kurt began experiencing chronic joint pain and workout recovery challenges as he approached 50. In search of a solution, he discovered a research study that suggested athletes who consumed collagen experienced a reduction in injuries and joint deterioration. Enter Vital Proteins. After roughly a year of research and development, in 2013, Vital Proteins introduced its flavorless collagen peptide powder to the market. The product boasts anti-aging benefits, including support for joints and bones, athletic performance, and hair, skin and nails.

Instead of entering straight into grocery chains or mass retailers, they built up their brand through online channels, including direct-to-consumer (DTC) and Amazon. They attended health & wellness industry trade shows (PaleoFx) and worked with influencers (Melissa Hartwig from Whole30) and fitness bloggers that had enthusiasm for the product and understood its benefits. The rationale was to establish brand awareness and product positioning before entering retail.

Your customer chooses you. In late-2015, internal data analytics showed that 80% of customers were females aged 25 to 35 – who did not consume the collagen product for joint repair, but rather for its “side” beauty benefits, namely skin elasticity and hair and nail health. Vital Proteins was emerging as a millennial beauty company seemingly by accident.

The company’s response? Pivot and seize the opportunity. Here are a few examples of Vital Proteins’ strategic shifts:

  1. Add new talent – female talent, to be specific, including the addition of VP of Marketing Caryn Johnson (from beauty company Indie Lee), Public Relations Manager Shannon Race (from female fitness boutique The Barre Code), and VP Innovation & Marketing Christina Cutri (from PepsiCo).

  2. Modernize product packaging – this is what their packaging looked like:
  • This is their new packaging – it remains gender neutral but contains brighter and more playful colors. It also provides greater transparency with the addition of the front-of-canister cow image and animal welfare labeling claims around “grass-fed” and “pasture raised”.

  1. Attend beauty trade shows & partner with beauty influencers – in 2019, Vital Proteins launched a partnership with Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle brand Poosh. Kourtney has 99.5 million Instagram followers.

  • Product Innovation – They introduced contemporary flavors such as matcha and caramel latte, and expanded the collagen line to new functional formats such as sweetened coffee creamers, wellness shots, and bottled beverages. The company’s foray into the “beauty from within” market also created meaningful innovation opportunities, including Beauty Glow powders and Skin Hydration Boost supplements. Vital Proteins now has 150 SKUs across 30,000 retail doors.

The better understanding of the consumer also allowed Vital Proteins to refine both its purpose – to help people live healthier/fuller lives – as well as its consumer value – bone/joint support and wellness and beauty benefits.

Between 2017 and 2018, Vital Protein’s revenue soared 3x to reach just over $100 million – a feat achieved by only the most successful CPG upstart brands. In 2019, sales increased +70% to $180 million and, in 2020, COVID-buying has accelerated growth as consumers seek immunity-boosting products.

In my view, the company’s willingness and ability to evolve its business strategy – including its organizational design, branding/marketing practices, and product offerings – is what allowed Vital Proteins to advance from a great product to a category-defining success.

Quick takeaways:

  • Breakthrough brands often solve a need and have a clear purpose and value
  • Leverage data and make a strategic pivots when necessary
  • Listen to the consumer
  • Continuous product innovation and brand development are key

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