March 03, 2019
Things are getting weird in the world of natural products. We’re waking up to a new relationship with science, Silicon Valley, and legalized marijuana. Lab nerds, startup stoners, and flower children unite at this year’s Expo West!
America’s health food craze has morphed into an obsession. And like any obsession, it’s starting to get weird. We’re making impossible foods in laboratories and infusing snack foods with CBD oil. That’s just the beginning. That’s also why we are so excited to check out this year’s Natural Products Expo West.
The Natural Products Expo West (also known as Expo West) is the largest natural products expo in the world. Launched in 1981 to 3,000 attendees, the event now draws over 85,000 industry professionals and thousands of exhibits. Spanning natural and specialty foods to supplements to beauty, this is the trade show that connects innovators, funders, brands, and a host of like-minded professionals. If you have any stake in the retail food world and can swing it, go.
This year, CBXers Rick Barrack (Partner and Chief Creative Officer), Tina Mangan (Sr. Client Services Director), Audra Nebolini (Design Director), and Vannett Li (Sr. Strategist) will be on the ground at Expo West soaking up the scene and keeping an eye out for all that’s new.
In particular we’ll be looking out for the companies and brands who are successfully adapting to some pretty radical changes in food production. Gone are the simple days when picking an apple from a tree was the healthiest thing you could do. Today’s health market is taking a counter-intuitive turn back into processed foods– all with the gusto of startup culture and the disruptive ambitions of Silicon Valley.
In this new era of multidisciplinary food production, innovations like 3D printing, lab-grown food, vertical farming and cellular culturing are changing the way we think about nutrition. And the implications go beyond just food. These innovations could eventually support the so-called “post-animal bio-economy,” which could cue the end of traditional agriculture and animal farms. Put another way, we could be extinguishing the very methods that allowed us to settle and grow civilizations in the first place. How’s that for today’s special?
This disruptive innovation has not only been driven by market opportunity but by global market need. According to a recent study, we need 60% more food than we are currently producing today to feed the growing population, which is estimated to be 9 billion by 2050. Healthier, more sustainably produced products may not be just for health food nuts. We may depend on them for our very survival.
But food isn’t just sustenance, right? It’s a source of pleasure, culture, and tradition. Layered on top is a splintered competitive landscape flush with viable brands of all sizes. How will new products flourish in this era? What will it take to succeed commercially and respond to an increasingly complicated industry? Can technology save the planet?
OK. Let’s talk brand and design.
It’s been over a decade since smaller, more conscientious brands became a viable threat to big, global giants (see Chobani vs Yoplait). Clean ingredients, transparent labels, and implementation of sustainable and fair practices are now table stakes today for any food or beauty brand that cares even a little bit about staying relevant. We’re getting weird now. In the health food department, brands big and small will have to work even harder to break through with today’s super-savvy consumers.
Going green, organic, natural? Old news. In order to disrupt, brands are going to have to up the ante. What about going clear with radical transparency and inclusion using open-hiring models targeting those who have traditionally faced barriers to employment? Moringa powder brand (a supergreen alternative to kale) Kuli Kuli has provided more than $1.5 million to women-led farms in West Africa. Or what about walking the talk of eco-conscious with sustainable, eco-conscious packaging design? Is it time for edible wrappers? Or designer metal straws from forward-thinking beverage brands that we can take with us wherever we go?
We love this movement and recognize the edge they can give brands who can fully commit. But let’s be honest. While consumers expect brands to be more responsible, they first and foremost want food that tastes good and products that deliver. That’s why we’re looking out for ingredients to bump brands up to new levels of disruptive weird. Given the steep competition in today’s market, it looks like we won’t be disappointed. Take longganisa for example. It’s a Filipino pork sausage, and apparently it’s trending. What about luo han guo? It’s an extract of monk fruit that can be used as a sweetener. In fact, because many of these ingredients are so weird, one of this year’s biggest design and brand strategy challenges will be how to educate consumers on what these things are, and why we should care. Not to mention familiar ingredients that we don’t quite understand yet – like collagen, or cannabis. How will brands educate us on their benefits and why they belong in our lives (besides just putting a pot leaf on your front panel)?
And while we’re talking about design, we are eager to see what graphic trends are winning this year in the health world. We’re anticipating a fair share of the minimalist design, more flat illustration styles, blacks and whites, and bright gradients that have come to represent pure, all-natural products. But how will design be used to communicate a changing concept of health? For example, Impossible Foods, while plant-based, is far from simple or natural. And yet it remains at the forefront of disruptive, better-for-you and eco-conscious food brands. What will define the verbal and visual language for this moment in time?
The same need for disruptive innovation in food and beverage is facing the beauty and personal care sector as well. For example, UK-based Neal’s Yard Remedies developed an anti-ageing skincare ingredient made from waste material. And they’re not alone. Many brands are beginning to use other discarded goods, like coffee grounds, as beauty enhancers.
Will we see alternatives to alcohol and caffeine, clean energy drinks, keto-friendly chocolate, plant-based meat that actually tastes amazing? Will we see beauty products that can promise benefits we haven’t seen a thousand times before?
We are in an intensely pressurized moment in history. As a nation, we remain profoundly addicted to our consumerism. At the same time, we’ve come to our senses about the damage we’ve done to our bodies and our planet. Now it seems that without products that can properly nourish our bodies, leave minimal carbon footprint, and support an ethical supply chain we may face our own extinction. In short, brands need to deliver triple bottom line products (oh, and they better be delivered in packaging that is designed to delight).
To that we say, game on. Let’s get weird, Expo West! We’re counting on it.