Trends in Consumer Products Innovation: Insights from Expo East 2023

As the consumer products industry faces the challenges of limited volume growth and the aftermath of multiple rounds of price increases, it will be crucial for brands to find new pockets of growth to stimulate demand and justify higher price points. With large consumer product companies heavily focused on managing inflation-driven margin pressures and consolidating their core scale positions, much of the growth opportunity is being taken up by smaller players, some of which were featured in Bain’s Insurgent Brands 2023, its seventh annual review.

To identify the latest trends shaping the sector, Bain attended Expo East 2023, a natural and organic trade show introducing the latest innovations from over 1,000 emerging brands. We also co-hosted with Whipstitch Capital a “speakeasy” networking event, connecting over 250 financial investors, consumer product companies, and insurgent brands.

Here are our top five takeaways on the key trends shaping the consumer sector that strategics and financial investors should be aware of as they consider their innovation and M&A agendas.

The ingredient replacement curve continues

As in recent years, plant-based proteins continue to be featured prominently across categories, reflecting Bain’s Consumer Lab research indicating that about 30% of US consumers plan to increase their intake of plant-based substitutes. While plant-based meat replacements were far less prevalent at Expo East this year, reflecting overproliferation and headwinds to expansion in new product formats, plant proteins as dairy replacements continued to be heavily featured.  Brands innovating in this space include Pirq’s shakes with protein derived from peas and brown rice, Good PLANeT’s olive oil cheese, and Elmhurst’s nut-based milks, which include less common varieties such as walnut, hazelnut, and pistachio.

Sugar replacements continue to expand beyond stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol into more traditional (albeit calorie-laden) sweeteners such as dates and honey. Mushrooms are expanding as a popular adaptogen trend, with beverages including mushroom ingredients growing nearly fourfold (3.8 times) year over year, according to SPINS. Other categories are embracing mushrooms as well, with brands such as Peak State’s mood-enhancing coffee, Odyssey Elixir energy drinks, and Host Defense mushroom supplements tapping into the trend. Magnesium, ginseng, and ashwagandha were featured prominently in food and beverages as well as supplements, while MSM and beetroot are emerging as up-and-coming “superfood” ingredients.

Enhanced tastes and authentic flavors enter the mainstream

As consumers continue to expect more from their brands and show a greater willingness to experiment, brands are responding with bigger and bolder flavors. Tia Lupita’s hot sauces and snacks are inspired by the family kitchen and generations-old recipes of the founder’s mother, which bring out both Mexican heritage and flavors. Fila Manila taps into Filipino American cuisine by offering traditional sauces and spreads, such as ube (purple yam) spread, with authentic recipes. Similarly, Omsom, cofounded by Bain alumna Vanessa Pham, offers prepackaged starter sets for popular Asian dishes, embracing the tastes of the founders’ heritage.

In beverages, brands are expanding from purely functional benefits to adding differentiated flavors that celebrate their founders’ origins, such as Juni sparkling teas, Halmi’s Korean-inspired drink, and Sanzo’s Asian-style sparkling water.

Food and beverage as medicine becomes more sophisticated

Brands continue to find innovative ways to deliver both physical and mental benefits. Functional benefits are expanding from beverages into food, and from a focus on protein into gut health and other benefits. Sunny Fruit’s dried fruit snack has added prebiotics, for example, and Wildbrine uses “probiotic sriracha” as a key ingredient in its fermented condiments.

Cognitive benefits remain a priority, too. Products range from mood-enhancing and calming beverages using formulations with magnesium and lion’s mane to those that boost energy in more sophisticated ways through the use of nootropics and caffeine alternatives. According to SPINS, mood support beverages grew 34% year over year while cognitive health beverages grew 13%. Multiple brands are tapping these consumer needs, including Mab & Stoke’s powdered mixes and the carbonated, ready-to-drink beverages from Utility and Moment.

At the same time, brand propositions across food and beauty are blurring category lines. Energy drink brand GORGIE offers both beauty and health benefits by including L-theanine and biotin, as well as vitamins B6 and B12, as key ingredients, in addition to its green tea–based caffeine. Collagen supplements prevailed in edible formats, with Reserveage’s pixie-stick collagen candy, Youtheory’s collagen liquid, and Fx Chocolate’s collagen bars. And ESW Beauty incorporates better-for-you food ingredients such as avocado, spinach, and guava in their beauty masks.

Categories maturing at different rates

On one end of the spectrum, the non-alcoholic beverage category has finally become mainstream, with 17 different brands featured in a designated non-alcohol pavilion. Brands such as Mockly, KUL MOCKS, and Mingle are tapping into a broader set of consumption spaces and consumer segments to go beyond female-focused seltzer water into fully flavored drinks that have the taste and depth of a cocktail. This activity has extended into de-alcoholized wines with brands such as Grüvi, and non-alcohol beer such as Summer State’s HOP WTR. Established soft drink brands are tapping into this trend, too, with new flavors resembling cocktails. Spindrift and LaCroix showcased new mojito-flavored versions of their sparkling waters.

On the other end of the spectrum, growth in snacking continues to drive proliferation across brands, with Gen Z snacking 1.5 times more than boomers do in the US and 73% snacking more than once a day, according to Bain’s Consumer Lab research. In the past, we’ve seen this increase the number of bars, chips, and crackers on the market. This year, we are seeing this expansion in the gummies and fruit candies category. While a few brands such as Solely, Patience Fruit & Co., and Sunny Fruit stood out for either better-for-you or better-for-the-planet offerings, the explosion of brands in this space, all vying to be distinctive through lower sugar, cleaner ingredients, and better tastes, makes it harder for individual brands to differentiate.

Sustainability-led brands thriving in new ways

Brands have struggled over the years with how to meaningfully embed sustainability into their business models amid tension between offering better performing or tasting products versus better-for-the planet processes. A few brands have been able to strike this balance by using sustainability to bolster their brand promise. For example, regenerative farming has allowed Painterland Sisters’ organic skyr yogurt and Singing Pastures’ salami and meat sticks to deliver unique, high-quality tastes.

We saw similar advances in beauty, where sustainability measures have historically been more focused on packaging (paper deodorant tubes), new formats (shampoo bars), and refillable or reusable delivery models. Now brands such as Attitude and Clean Age deliver sustainably created formulations alongside better products. In household care, Cleanery’s low-waste cleaning products use natural plants and minerals. By extracting water, they create a powdered solution that performs better and is packaged sustainably.

These five trends will shape how the consumer products sector evolves in the years ahead and will inform the M&A and innovation agendas for larger strategic players and investors. Our team will keep a close eye on these and other themes as we look forward to Expo West in March 2024, where we’ll host our annual event in partnership with Whipstitch Capital.

We are happy to further discuss the impact these themes may have on your business as well as share our broader perspectives on how insurgent brands are disrupting consumer products. Please visit Bain’s Insurgent Brands homepage for further Bain research on this topic.


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