LOS ANGELES — For thinkThin, L.L.C., a key to remaining relevant in the crowded nutrition bar category is consistency.
“When we look at the protein bar aisle, we call it a ‘rainbow of confusion’ because there are a lot of products all screaming for attention,” said Michele Kessler, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based thinkThin. “Over time we have chosen to really stick to our roots; our packaging has a simple blonde background that highlights our flavors with high-quality food photography. We put the most important nutritional information on the front, like the protein and fiber and sugars. We like to think we are the oasis in the rainbow of confusion with a presence that tends to stand out in a very crowded, busy colorful shelf.”
Founded in 1999, the thinkThin brand in the past year has expanded beyond bars into new categories. Last year, the company introduced thinkThin Protein & Fiber Hot Oatmeal with 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 200 calories or fewer per serving, in such flavors as farmer’s market berry crumble, Madagascar vanilla with almonds and pecans, honey peanut butter, and original sprouted grains.
And slated to hit shelves in the coming months is a new line of high-protein smoothie mixes, featuring real fruit pieces, a protein boost from almonds and sunflower seeds, and mix-ins such as chia seeds and ground flaxseed. Available in blueberry banana, strawberry raspberry, and peanut butter banana flavors, the products contain 15 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, 160 mg of omega-3 ALA fatty acid and a serving of fruit.
“We had seen in third-party research that smoothie sales had been growing over 160% over the past five years, and we saw there was an opportunity to get a better-for-you, three-in-one option,” Ms. Kessler said.
Two other new product lines to debut last year were thinkThin Protein Bites and thinkThin Protein Nut Bites, which are unwrapped, bite-size pieces with 9 to 10 grams of protein, 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving and fewer than 200 calories per serving. Flavor varieties include salted caramel, peanut butter, chocolate almond brownie, white chocolate nut bites and dark chocolate nut bites.
“We’ve seen consumer preference for more snackable items, and this is one way we can align with that trend with the traditional thinkThin flavors they have come to love but in a bite-size format,” Ms. Kessler said.
With sales last year of $84 million, thinkThin has national distribution across major retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Inc., Trader Joe’s, Kroger Co., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Target Corp., CVS, Walgreen Co. and 7-Eleven, Inc. The company recently was acquired by Glanbia P.L.C., Kilkenny, Ireland, in a transaction valued at $217 million.
While a number of lifestyle brands, such as Lean Cuisine, Special K and Healthy Choice, have struggled to evolve with changing consumer perceptions of health and wellness, thinkThin continues to resonate, Ms. Kessler said.
“We have found that our consumers really aren’t dieting consumers,” she told Food Business News. “We don’t consider ourselves a diet brand, and we don’t think our consumers do either. The vast majority of our consumers aren’t on a diet when they’re eating our product. It’s just part of their healthy active lifestyle. Our ads don’t talk about dieting in our messaging.
“Certainly we try to develop products that meet a broad range of consumer needs. We have zero-sugar products that could meet a diabetic’s needs, for example. Gluten-free is also something that the brand has stood for for many years now. We don’t associate with any specific diet; we just like to have a range of products to meet consumers’ individual needs.”
The company offers several ranges of bars with varying protein and fiber content. A line of fiber and protein bars, with 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 150 calories, features such flavors as chocolate almond brownie, cinnamon bun white chocolate, salted caramel, pumpkin spice, chunky chocolate peanut, and honey drizzle. The thinkThin high protein bars contain 20 grams of protein and 0 grams of sugar and include such flavors as chocolate strawberry, maple almond and caramel fudge. There’s also a line of protein nut bars with 9 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, available in chocolate coconut almond, dark chocolate, dark chocolate salted caramel, original roasted almond and white chocolate varieties. All thinkThin bars are gluten-free.
“There are a lot of categories we’re exploring,” Ms. Kessler said. “We start out looking at protein-rich foods that taste great and then think about whether there are additional benefits we can bring to the party, like we did with fiber in our oatmeal. We lead with protein and then support it with other things that are hopefully new and different than what’s already in the marketplace.”
In product development, thinkThin strikes a balance between niche and mainstream, innovating with unique flavor twists where appropriate while remaining approachable to conventional shoppers.
“We have a dedicated innovation team that is always looking at consumer trends and flavors going into the market,” Ms. Kessler said. “We’re fortunate to be in Southern California, which is a hotbed of trends, and so we kind of live it. It’s around us all the time, and the innovation team plays with interesting combinations of new flavors that are on trend.”
New product lines typically take less than a year to develop, Ms. Kessler said.
“We like to think that we’ve got the discipline and rigor of a bigger C.P.G. company, but when the rubber meets the road, we have the speed and agility of a small company to make things happen quickly,” she said.
What’s next for thinkThin?
“We don’t want to give too much away, but we want to continue to be thought leaders in the bar category,” Ms. Kessler said. “That remains super important to us. We’re not just moving on from the protein bar category. We’re working on new innovation in the protein bar category as well as looking at other categories to enter.
“We are paying close attention to the growing demand for plant-based protein, and you’ll probably see more innovation from us that uses a mix of those types of protein sources. We think our consumers are looking for protein-rich, whole food ingredients that give them a break from processed foods.“In our oatmeal, for example, we use ingredients like steel-cut oats and red quinoa and sprouted buckwheat. So you’ll continue to see more new product innovation that combines rich, nutritious ingredients, and everything will always taste great.”