Q&A: Inside the transformation of PowerBar

by Monica Watrous
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PowerBar Clean Whey protein bars, Post
Post recently launched its PowerBar Clean Whey line of protein bars, made with whey protein and no artificial sweeteners.

EMERYVILLE, CALIF. — Overhauling PowerBar has been a priority of Post Holdings, Inc., St. Louis, since it acquired the brand from Nestle S.A. two years ago. Now managed by a team of athletes, foodies and trend experts, the energy bar brand is in the midst of a “massive relaunch,” with forthcoming innovation focusing on macronutrients, lower sugar, whole food ingredients and easy-to-understand labels.

An example is the new PowerBar Clean Whey line of protein bars and drinks, made with whey protein and no artificial sweeteners. The products were in development for nearly two years, said Nick Stiritz, senior brand manager for PowerBar.

Nick Stiritz, PowerBar, Post
Nick Stiritz, senior brand manager for PowerBar

“We have been closely monitoring consumer trends — the drive toward cleaner ingredient labels and higher quality ingredients — and we saw there was an opportunity in the marketplace to bring real innovation that met consumers’ needs,” Mr. Stiritz told Food Business News. “That being said, these weren’t easy products to make. When you’re bringing this type of innovation, there are significant technological challenges to do it, to make sure we were hitting the right sensory attributes, taste and texture. Because while all consumers say they want cleaner ingredient labels and more healthy ingredients, taste remains king. So we had to not only nail the nutritionals, nail the ingredients, but, first and foremost, nail the taste on it.”

In such flavors as chocolate chip cookie dough, cookies and cream, and white fudge raspberry, the bars contain 20 grams of protein and 2 grams of sugar. The beverages, developed as a light, refreshing alternative to traditional dairy-based protein shakes, contain 15 grams of protein, 0 grams of sugar and 70 calories. Flavors include berry pomegranate and fruit punch.

PowerBar Clean Whey protein drink, Post
PowerBar Clean Whey protein drinks contain 15 grams of protein, 0 grams of sugar and 70 calories.
 

The products are formulated with whey protein rather than another source of protein because whey is quickly absorbed in the body, aiding in muscle regeneration after a workout, Mr. Stiritz said.

“However, we also added in a milk protein because milk protein is digested and absorbed in a longer time frame than whey protein, so it provides a longer energy delivery of protein, which is great for people who are looking not just for the end-game usage but more so the out-of-game usage, such as on-the-go snacking or a quick breakfast replacement.”

He added: “While, yes, there are a lot of rising trends around the pea proteins and the hemp proteins of the world, plant-based proteins from a taste standpoint, don’t hit the mark. It’s very challenging to make a great tasting plant-based protein bar. And a lot of those plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins, so they do not provide the same nutrient density that a whey protein or milk protein provides.”

These types of insights are a critical part of product development at PowerBar.

PowerBar Clean Whey protein bars, Post
PowerBar Clean Whey protein bars are available in such flavors as chocolate chip cookie dough, cookies and cream, and white fudge raspberry.

“As we think about the PowerBar turnaround and all of the things we’ve been working on, this is a big opportunity we see for the brand,” Mr. Stiritz said. “To move beyond just being an end-game-only product, but more so to being a product and brand for all times of your day.”

In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Stiritz discussed the new products and other elements of PowerBar’s transformation.

Food Business News: Are you broadening your consumer base with the repositioning of PowerBar?

Nick Stiritz: With the mainstreaming of protein and everyone seeking to get more protein in their diet, we see this as an opportunity for PowerBar to build its protein credentials. We have a very successful line of bars, Protein Plus bars, which are leaders in the category. Building on those strengths there and then innovating to some of these other areas with protein-forward formulations has really guided how we’re bringing products to the market this year and in the foreseeable future.

PowerBar Protein Plus bars
PowerBar has seen great success with its line of Protein Plus bars.

As we look to innovation in the years ahead, there are other energy sources out there that we have our eyes on in making sure we continue to innovate and stay ahead of the game in bringing energy to the people however they want it.

What other new products can we expect to see from PowerBar?

Mr. Stiritz: I can’t speak to them directly. But, rest assured, we’ve invested significantly in our R.&D. capabilities here. We have a newly created R.&D. team. Eric Zaltas (vice-president of R.&.D. at Premier Nutrition Corp.), who heads that up, has a whole team dedicated to innovating and bringing new products to life.

PowerBar new products, Post
This year, PowerBar also launched Reduced Sugar PowerBar ProteinPlus 20-gram bars and PowerBar Simple Fruit Energy Food.

Additionally, we’ve developed an entire innovation team that works with Doug Cornille, our v.p. of marketing. They are focused on trendspotting, looking at what’s out there and looking ahead of the market, looking for those white space opportunities, not just what our competition is doing, but looking at the places where we can really play and bring something new and exciting to consumers.

Speaking of competition, the bar category has become more and more crowded. How does PowerBar stand out?

Mr. Stiritz: The bar category is very competitive. You walk into your local supermarket, and there will probably be 100 different bar items there on shelf. It is a challenging marketplace to play in, and protein continues to be hotter and hotter. It’s no longer a differentiator, but in many ways it has become a price of admission.

We’re doing a much better job of communicating to consumers. For example, we just refreshed our entire product line with new packaging to better call out our protein benefits as well as some of our other nutritional benefits because consumers are becoming much smarter about what they need.

Protein bar aisle
PowerBar recently refreshed its packaging to stand out on the shelves.

 As we look to compete in that highly competitive landscape, we’re giving consumers credit to their knowledge and just making sure our products are effectively messaging and meeting these consumers’ needs. And we think through that, by meeting these consumer needs, whether it’s on our existing products or these new ones, like the Clean Whey bars and drinks, we’ll be able to win in the marketplace.

PowerBar has been around for 30 years. Does that help or hurt the brand as you try to reach more consumers?

Mr. Stiritz: We have a fantastic benefit of being PowerBar. In many cases, we are the category generic term for active nutrition bars. I’ve been in supermarkets before where you have the milk aisle, the cereal aisle, and I’ve seen the sign that says “power bars.” It’s great to be the Google or Xerox of the world where people just refer to your entire category as your brand name.

But … we were born as an in-sport brand that was squarely targeted on that endurance athlete, and the products were all designed for that specific need. There is still a need for the slab bar. There are still people out there running marathons and doing triathlons, and we will continue to meet their needs, but also the category has expanded greatly. You see products like Kind and Clif Bar as examples that bring a more approachable product and brand to the marketplace, and consumers can really connect with it.

We have completely been relaunching this brand to show off that shift in our positioning and who we are talking to because what we realize is that 30 years ago when PowerBar was invented … to be considered an athlete you had to be running a marathon or running a 10K in under 40 minutes. Today’s athlete is very different than that.

PowerBar giving samples at NYC marathon
Marketing for PowerBar has historically centered on events, such as showing up at marathons and handing out product samples.

We realize this whole society of athletes in sports has moved on from being that intense, hardcore, narrowly focused, almost semi-professional athlete, to people going out there and playing sports with their friends… The SoulCycles, the CrossFits, the various boot camps of the world are getting people involved in sports and bringing it into their daily lives.

While we will always stand for sports, our definition of sports and athletes has changed and evolved.

Tell me about the brand’s new marketing strategy.

Mr. Stiritz: Marketing for PowerBar has historically been around event activation, such as showing up at marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, handing out product samples and having a banner there. We will continue to do that for the right events, as an example, the New York City Marathon … but we are shifting our investment strategy to meet our consumers and today’s athletes where they are.

This year we have completely overhauled our social and digital program. You’ll see an all new personality of PowerBar on our social channels, on Facebook and Instagram. We have a dedicated in-house team that manages building and engaging that community.

PowerBar Twitter post, social media, Post
PowerBar has revamped its social media to engage in the community.

We’ve completely redone our web site.  It has a much more modern, more approachable look and feel. I think it’s a great example of the brand’s new personality and persona. And we are continuing to activate in select print accounts. Most of the print you’ll see will be in more sports focused print for endurance athletes.

Were any of these turnaround efforts in the works before Post acquired the brand?

Mr. Stiritz: I can’t speak to what the prior owner’s strategic vision was for it, but I will say as the brand came into our four walls — obviously there’s time as you do the due diligence on the acquisition that you’re doing research — there has been and continues to be a lot of excitement for this brand.

Everybody has their PowerBar story. Everybody connects with PowerBar in one shape or another. I think as soon as we took control of it, we immediately got to work and were pretty quick to determine a solid strategy forward and began innovating immediately. 
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