Lessons for CPGs from Expo West

Natural Products Expo

A few of us at Traction just got back from Natural Products Expo West last week. Wow. What a show!

Over 80,000 people convened to get business done in the 1.6 million square foot Anaheim Convention Center (that’s 28 football fields if you’re counting). Here are a few lessons we believe are vital for CPG marketers to consider.

  1. Brand distinctly. There were 3,692 exhibitors crammed into endless rows of booths, scrapping to make an impression on buyers. Seeing them all side-by-side underscored just how incredibly important it is to have a visually distinct brand today. Good design is important, but just as important is being unique. There were many brands that had beautiful graphic design that was completely on trend—but still blended into the woodwork because that design wasn’t distinct.  It was so on trend, it was invisible. The shelf is a war zone—your visual brand identity is the most important weapon you have to put up a fight.
  2. Plant-a-mania is busting loose. Feed me, Seymour! There was no greater frenzy than the line to grab a sample at the Impossible Food and Beyond Meat booths. Perhaps that’s no surprise because so many folks are whispering about the magical meatless burgers, but the plant-based craze did not come close to stopping there. Plant-based foods were everywhere—perhaps more places than they should have been (I’m looking at you, plant-based scrambled eggs).

  3. Vegetarian-ish. The handful of products that are based on true consumer insight are destined to be breakout successes. One stand-out for me was Hormel’s Applegate Farms, who observed that while a huge number of people are wanting to eat more plants and less meat, very few of those people are actually going full-on vegan or vegetarian. Their solution? Less meat instead of no meat—The Great Organic Blend Burger blends turkey and mushrooms into one really tasty burger. I’m buying Hormel stock on this one.

  4. CBD is growing like a… weed. Um, speaking of plants… CBD products were everywhere. In drinks, in lotions, in gummy bears, in dog treats. There were over 170 vendors hawking some kind of hemp or cannabis product, but nothing was more persistent than CBD, which basically provides the medicinal benefits of marijuana without the psychoactive part (THC) that makes you stoned. This is an important opportunity because not only will many of these CBD brands become big in their own right, there is a great opportunity for non-CBD specific brands to start offering CBD options within their product portfolio.

  5. Purpose power. It is very easy for folks in ad-land to read reviews of Super Bowl ads and make judgement on the viability of purpose-driven branding based on how it’s worked for brands like Gillette and Nike. I will say that without a doubt at a convention filled with thousands of companies vying to differentiate themselves, brands that are truly committed to brand purpose—like The Soulfull Project who donates one hot cereal meal to food banks for every meal sold and Hope Hummus who used their booth to raise awareness of suicide rather than just hawk their products—really stood out. These are brands that have more than just a product, but a story, and more than anything else, consumers connect with great stories.
  6. Same product. New Story. I really loved what Sabra did at Expo West. Their product is hummus. It was hummus last year. It was hummus the year before. So, instead of just tossing out samples, they created an oasis in the middle of the convention floor. They created a sit-down restaurant where you could have a delicious r meal—with hummus as the main ingredient—prepared and served to you. This wasn’t just about giving conference goers a break from the chaos, however. It was a strategy to start to inspire using an old product—hummus—to be consumed in a new way.

  7. Gut instincts. I think it must be Gwyneth Paltrow's fault, but consumers are leaning into niche health trends like never before. For example, the concept of probiotics and a healthy gut spawned new brand introductions from a probiotic soda called Olipop to a probiotic counter cleaner called Counter Culture were all over the place. Other seemingly obscure trends are penetrating the mainstream with words like “keto” and “paleo” adorning packaging in place of things that “light” and “healthy” that used to give healthy-minded folks a nudge at the grocery store. The takeaway? Paleo products aren’t just for people on paleo diets. These are just new code words calling to the healthy-minded that over here are products that are a little bit better choices for you.
  8. The power of DTC. Let’s be frank—not every consumer packaged good is going to be successful as a direct-to-consumer brand. People don’t go to 50 different stores to buy their groceries and they aren’t going to do that in a digital world either. BUT for those brands that can find a model and a reason for establishing a direct relationship with their customers, the reward is powerful. Supermarket shelves are incredibly competitive. So is shopping on Amazon. If you’re thinking about it, consider our 6 point plan for DTC for CPGs.

  9. Trends are made to be broken. There was literally no end to the number of products that smushed together “on trend” ingredients into a bar, chip, cookie, shake or just some amorphous glop of quinoa and hemp covered in cacao. Meanwhile, brands that provided an experience that was unique—like freezers full of my/mo Mochi Ice Cream—or products that were completely off-trend like 4505 Meats Chicharrones (could fried pork skins be any less plant-based?) really stood out. When the whole world zigs, you might want to consider a zag.

Hummus booth
Cleaning product
March 14, 2019
Adam Kleinberg CEO
Adam is the CEO of Traction, an interactive agency broadly recognized as one of the top small agencies in the US. Kleinberg plays a hands-on role for all agency accounts and keeps his team at the leading edge of emerging digital channels. He is also a regular contributor to Ad Age, Forbes, Mashable, Digiday and iMediaConnection.