The way men view sports nutrition, and the marketing mistakes brands are making.

Sports nutrition mistakes: Modern men too savvy for brand-marketing tactics, research reveals

By Nikki Cutler

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / dmaa dmba dnp
iStock / dmaa dmba dnp

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Sports nutrition brands must stop trying to sell identities and focus on product functionality as social media is bombarding shoppers with ‘expert advice’ and making them resistant to influence.

This is the conclusion of cultural analyst and consumer insight specialist Max Gonen, after spending six months researching men who participate in strength training in Sweden and the U.S, for the international brand strategy and innovation agency Healthy Marketing Team (HMT) and their Sweden-based Consumer Lab.

He said he was surprised by the feedback he received when he asked his interviewees for their feedback on adverts from popular sports nutrition brands.

“I was showing adverts from brands you would expect would appeal to the respondents and yet the guys were saying ‘this feels dated’, ‘that’s silly’, ‘why would I want to be like that guy? He looks like a monster!’”

Gonen believes this backlash against brands trying to know their identity has come from scepticism about who ‘the experts’ are. He says this is partly due to the huge number of health messages bombarding consumers on social media.

“Most people I spoke to had social media and would look at influencers but they didn’t want to identify as being influenced by those influencers. They would say that they had learnt certain things from them but they don’t want to be seen as being easily sold.

“We get information fatigue from being bombarded with adverts and images. It’s made us feel like we are experts in what we need and what we like.

 “We are a very savvy generation, we know about sponsorship, targeted advertising and monetisation, so we're looking at a new set of drivers motivating purchases; one that is highly personal and culturally contingent.

“A lot of brands currently are marketing to identities, saying ‘we know you and we know this is for you’. Instead, brands need to make it clear how they can support their consumers’ functions, rather than support what they think the consumer’s identity is.

“So they can say ‘do you want to be able to function at this level? Then buy our product’, rather than ‘do you want to be like this man?’.”

Study approach

Gonen conducted his research while working on his master these for Lund University, in Sweden and is currently compiling insights into a report for HMT.

He carried out pre-arranged private interviews as well as spontaneous interviews in gyms and supplement stores, and surveyed and participated in specialist men’s fitness Facebook groups. He found that many men don’t want to be associated with the norms set out in the media and instead they want to pick and choose different elements of what makes the ideal man - They like to be seen as well-rounded and balanced people who spend a good proportion of their time having fun with friends, family, and working out.

“Generally I found that even the men who appear to be the typical ‘meat head’ don’t like to associate themselves as that kind of man. These men tend to like brands that had a sense of humour and were almost able to poke fun at themselves.

“They are more interested in being seen as well-rounded, rather than masculine. The alpha-male persona isn’t obsolete yet but there is more of a push back against the alpha male identity and I think this will definitely continue into the future.”

Gonen believes consumers’ purchase drivers are quickly evolving as they look beyond brands, adverts and social media for their independently chosen reason to buy.

“Because it is possible and convenient to look up any supplement, workout plan, gym shoe etc. and find hundreds of reviews and testimonials, people want other ways to select products.

“Reasons to believe are varied; for some it's a product you grew up with, for some the right person introduced you to it at the right time, some have found a company they really love the ethos of, some really love that it's a locally sourced ingredient, or it's vegan, etc. But the commonality is that the men I spoke with are very quick to disbelieve claims that are too big or promise too much.” 

Purchase drivers

The research shows that men these days are far more thoughtful about healthy ageing and ensuring they are creating the building blocks to having a healthy future.

“I think it’s about money and longevity of working lives. Costs of living are increasing and people have to work for longer and the future is very uncertain.”

Another big driver is social media, which is causing people to feel they need to work harder to maintain an Instagram worthy look.

“We are more visible then we used to be and we want to be Instagrammable. This means we are thinking a lot more about the way we look and the ways we choose to spend our free time and how we take care of ourselves.

“All the information people are seeing on social media is making them question everything about their diets and question if what they are eating is the norm for people like them.”

Gonen says almost every man he spoke to had something to say about their weight – either wanting to lose some or put some on – but they don’t like to talk about ‘diets’.

“Men are really hesitant to talk about ‘dieting’ but almost everybody I know is on some sort of diet.

“Men will talk about calories but they will describe it as ‘I’m currently in a phase of a calorie deficit as I’m shredding fat’.”

Other sports nutrition drivers Gonen identified includefeeling stronger, being able to take care of loved ones and having control and a purpose. When buying a product, he argues that men are thinking about self-accountability and ensuring they stay motivated.

“It seems to me that they are buying the products in order to give themselves accountability to use that product. They will think ‘I bought that product so now I have to go to the gym in order to use it or it was a waste of money’.”

Although the men didn’t want to be seen as being easily influenced they would admit to buying a product if they saw someone they admired using it in a way that didn’t look set-up.

Top sports nutrition products

Another surprising finding was that many of the consumers Gonen spoke to, even the real ‘meat heads’ were buying a very small range of sports nutrition products. Nearly all were buying protein powders, some were also buying pre-workout mixes but few were buy much else.

“It amazes me how few products everyone is actually using. A lot of people I assumed use a lot of products just use one protein powder. I still haven’t worked out who is using all these extra products!”

Many informants created their own custom blends as they wanted to get as many “real food” nutrients as possible. For example, they would opt for a banana for energy or a coffee as a pre-workout drink.

“Most people expect to be disappointed by the flavour of protein powder and they will be excited when they aren’t. Everyone had come to accept that protein powders don’t taste good but as long as they taste OK and they don’t mess with their stomach then they are happy.”

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