The sports nutrition market is tough – How can we stand out?

Protein Rebel founder reveals how he found his USP
Tim Boote
Protein Rebel founder Tim Boote with his new maple product

Launching a sports nutrition business during Lockdown in 2020 might well have been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. Then again, sometimes it takes tough decisions to make a profitable business. Protein Rebel came about after a number of my ideas and loves came together – a belief that natural foods are always better; an understanding about the importance of good gut health in sport; and somewhat unusually, the desire to bring to market edible insect protein as an alternative to whey. When we first launched, we didn’t get it right. I know that now. But I’m confident that we’re on the right path and that Protein Rebel is gearing-up to rival the big sports nutrition brands. Here’s how we’re setting ourselves apart from the pack.

Doing something new (or doing it better!)

The sports nutrition market is booming. Between 2022 and 2026, the European market is expected to grow by 8 percent with the UK accounting for 40 percent of market growth. The expansion of the sports nutrition market is being aided by people taking-up healthier lifestyles and a rise in the demand for protein-based goods. With this in mind, starting up yet another sports nutrition brand is not short of its challenges. In fact, there seems to be a new protein powder launched every day with whey protein currently dominating the market.

But we didn’t want Protein Rebel to be yet another whey-based sports nutrition business forced to compete with other brands on price alone. We wanted to grow a brand and provide sports nutrition that was different - all-natural, easy-to-digest and more sustainable. This meant no whey, and no lab-made ingredients including artificial sweeteners, gums and fillers, all of which currently dominate the sports nutrition sector.

We knew we were setting ourselves a huge challenge, and to up the ante, we decided to bring to market the UK’s first cricket-based protein powder. With high protein, vitamins, minerals and prebiotic fibre, together with impressive sustainability credentials, cricket protein offers an alternative to whey that’s unlikely to cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues and which can repair and build muscle fibres to the same extent, if not better, than whey protein. Plus, we’re about to launch the UK’s first maple syrup energy gel.

Sometimes the greatest risks deliver the greatest rewards. ‘Market firsts’ are a huge selling point and our products are helping to set us apart, start conversations and engender curiosity.

Finding a niche and focusing in on our USPs

One of our learning curves has been the importance of finding a niche. We initially thought that all-natural sports nutrition for fitness enthusiasts would be sufficiently niche, but sometimes you need to find a niche within a niche to ensure a laser-focus. So we took the decision to concentrate on natural and easy-to-digest products for endurance athletes in particular.

Runners, cyclists and hikers, for example, need sports nutrition products that don’t cause any GI issues (who wants to leap behind a bush for a toilet stop during a marathon?). Plus, endurance athletes tend to be tuned into what they’re putting into their bodies and so are more open to all-natural options, and with them being outside a lot of the time, our sustainable focus is also a good fit. Keeping these USPs front of mind is key for reinforcing what makes us different in a busy marketplace.

Backing our products with science

Now being different is all very well, but sports nutrition is a science-led sector in which finding ways to improve performance through diet and supplements are increasingly researched. Therefore customers need to trust that the products they’re using do what they claim, and aren’t just based on ‘marketing fluff’.

Investing in the science is always going to be a time-consuming approach for a start-up, but we recognised that to be taken seriously (especially when bringing something totally new and relatively unproven to market), research would be key. So we chose to partner with universities and academic spin-offs, with the initial research into the digestibility of cricket protein producing exciting results. Further Masters and PHD research into the effectiveness of different proteins on performance will be published over the next few years.

Building a community

Building a brand must be collaborative and purpose-led and we’re looking to harness this best we can to build a community of ‘Rebels’ who believe in the power of natural and more sustainable sports nutrition, and are prepared to emotionally invest in our business journey.

As part of this, we use ambassadors who believe in the brand and our products, and their influence on social media helps to market our products to runners, cyclists, triathletes and outdoor adventurers across the U.K and worldwide.

We also believe in getting to know our customers and delivering a personal service. So we include personalised messages in packages, and send tailored video messages thanking customers for their support and wishing them good luck in their forthcoming races.

In conjunction with building a community, we must add value. We can’t just be a sales machine, but must become a trusted authority on all things endurance and nutrition related. This means providing advice on training for first marathons; supplying free guides on nutrition before, during and after an ultra-marathon; and ultimately becoming a ‘go to’ resource for all things sports nutrition related.

To truly invest in a brand, people must feel that their decision to part with their money is valued and appreciated, and that they’re part of a ‘cause’ and not just a money-making machine. We hope that our personal and trusted approach rather than one that’s transactional and ‘faceless’, provides customers with a sense of belonging and helps to distinguish us from the big brands.

Aim to be the rule, not the exception!

Building a company from scratch is never going to be easy, but it’s especially challenging when you’re a start-up in an already congested sports nutrition market. We’re still at the beginning of our journey, but have learnt the importance of building a trusted, forward-thinking and purpose-led brand within a sector in which price wars are commonplace. By investing in innovative products, science, and growing our Rebel community, while continuing to deepen our understanding of endurance athletes and their sports nutrition needs, this puts us on a solid foundation for growth.

Written by
Tim Boote
Founder of Protein Rebel
September 16, 2022
Written by
September 16, 2022