Marketing mistakes: The myth that stops protein powder reaching the masses

By Nikki Cutler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images | Nikolas_jkd
Getty Images | Nikolas_jkd
Protein powder manufacturers will never reach their full mass market potential if they keep selling this product by promising the 'downright lie' of body transformation, according to a protein chef and entrepreneur.

Anna Sward, founder of protein recipe and snack brand Protein Pow, believes the future of protein powder lies in consumer kitchens with shoppers of all ages using it daily to adapt recipes to create healthy, high-protein food.

But, despite the growing mass market appeal of protein products, protein powder in the larder is far from commonplace and Sward puts this down to brands’ outdated marketing techniques.

“In a nutshell, protein powders have long been sold and marketed, not as food, but as supplements for people seeking to transform their bodies," ​explains Sward.

“They’ve been promoted to men as a means to gain muscle and to women as a tool for dieting to lose weight and that’s exactly how the majority of the population still perceives them.

“They sell a fantasy, A downright lie. Because, without the person putting in actual work in the gym, ridding their diet of junk, and leading an active lifestyle, protein powders, just like any other food, cannot ‘work’."

Sward, who has three internationally published protein powder cookbooks, argues that marketeers are shooting themselves in the foot with this body-transformation marketing strategy.

Moral responsibility

Giving her thoughts on why brands currently stick to this marketing technique, Sward points out that this is the easiest way to make money.

"Selling a solution to a manufactured problem is much easier. It's a powerful message to show an image of an attractive person and a product that can make you look like that person and it's a message that's worked well for many years but brands have a moral obligation to rise above that."

Whilst brands aim to capture all health-conscious consumers with images of attractive bodies, Sward argues that the perceptions created by this imagery actually puts off a large portion of the potential audience who can't relate to the people used in marketing materials.

Think outside the shake

Sward’s brand Protein Pow includes a website with 1,000 original recipes to inspire the protein industry to think outside the shake. The brand also sells a range of three protein cookie dough bars offering around 12g of protein and 10g of fibre per bar. 

Sward explains how her brand appeals to the masses while others scare shopper away.

“I go to trade shows and see protein brands represented by lycra-clad muscle men and super fit women, with a real gym-centric feel to their trade stand and I’ll be there with my cartoony fun-fuelled brand and people will come over to me and point out these other protein brands and say ‘I would never go over to try that product because they clearly aren’t making products for me'.

“I believe this kind of marketing is the reason why, over the years, I’ve met hundreds of women who avoid protein powder because they’re worried about becoming “too muscular.” Or, to a lesser extent, because they’re worried what the protein powder will actually ‘do’ to their bodies as many wonder whether protein powders are ‘safe’ to consume.

“Protein powders are a convenient source of protein that we can all use in different amounts – not as a supplement, but simply as a nutrient-rich food ingredient."

Safe enough for babies

The entrepreneur says education is needed to teach people that protein powder is very safe despite the fact it is a processed food, pointing out that we happily feed it to our newborn babies. 

“Sure, protein powder is processed. But so, too, is flour. And coffee, and olive oil and cocoa. Processing in itself doesn’t de facto turn something into a non-food item.

“The clearest way to emphasise the safety and ‘real-food’ nature of protein powders is perhaps by reminding consumers that baby formula, something that has been widely embraced as a safe form of nourishment for decades, also contains protein powder. As do many food items that most of us take for granted and regard as food. For example, bread, pizza, chocolate, biscuits, and cake.”

Alienated audiences

Sward points out that protein powder could be an ideal ​source of protein for the older generations who need this food more than other age groups as a way of preventing sarcopenia but the only way to make protein powder appeal to this generation is with science-backed nutrition information.

"What we need now is credible nutrition information based on facts and not on superficial journalistic research or marketing-driven myths. We need to tear down the smoke and mirrors that have characterised the protein powder world for years."

'Healthy' body shapes

Sward also argues that the industry should also move on from the stereotyped imagery of what a 'healthy' body looks like. 

"We need to disentangle imagery and messaging of muscular and lean bodies from protein, and at the same time untangle this same imagery from the way in which we sell – and consume – ‘health’. At the end of the day, a healthy body can look a million different ways, indiscriminately of how much fat or muscle that body happens to carry."

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