Each year, Expo West, the world’s largest exhibition of natural products, offers a snapshot into how future category propositions might be shaped by brands looking to address the evolving needs of consumers. Last year, it was functional beverages, CBD, and alternative meats. This year, plant-based everything, nonalcoholic beverages, natural sweeteners, and mushrooms took the stage.
At Expo West 2023, Bain cohosted an event with Whipstitch Capital titled “Building the Next $1 Billion Brand: How to Successfully Scale Insurgent Brands.” The event featured a panel of insurgent brand leaders—Bill Creelman of Spindrift Beverage, Brian Rudolph of Banza, and Risa Cretella of Rao’s (owned by Sovos Brands)—who shared their journeys as they scale their brands.
At the event, we revealed our annual curated list of insurgent brands—that is, brands that are outgrowing their product category by more than 10 times and that have at least $25 million in annual sales in tracked channels. Among the 99 insurgent brands that made our list this year, 36 are making their first appearance. Despite a drop in performance caused by the pandemic, supply chain constraints, and inflation, these brands continue to have an outsized impact on the consumer products sector, capturing more than $20 billion of sales growth since 2018, while accounting for a fraction of market share.
With more than 3,000 brands on display, Expo West 2023 provided an opportunity to step back and assess how insurgent activity is changing consumer products and what the implications are for incumbent consumer goods companies. This year, we identified five distinct ways insurgent brands are shaping the sector.
Rising tides are flooding some categories. We’re seeing a revival of previously sleepy categories, such as noodles and breads, in which insurgents are introducing high-protein, low-carb, grain-free, and other varieties to a category that traditionally has been slow to innovate. For example, The Only Bean’s noodles contain the sole ingredient of edamame and deliver 25 grams of protein per serving. BetterBrand uses food tech to transform ordinarily carb-heavy bagels into lower net carb bagels. Meanwhile, a handful of already crowded categories, such as plant-based proteins, better-for-you snacks, and water, continue to attract new brands, often with value propositions that are increasingly difficult to discern.
New waves of innovation tap into more targeted spaces. As consumers seek science-based nutrition and turn to food as medicine, insurgent brands are pursuing innovations in functional health and mental well-being. They are delivering those innovations in new forms such as The Good Patch’s wearable wellness patches, BoomBoom’s nasal stick designed to refresh and enhance one’s mood, Crush & Brush’s tablet-based toothpaste, and Jarrow’s fast-melt immune booster. And increasingly, insurgents are using functional ingredients such as mushrooms and natural sweeteners such as figs and dates. They are also targeting more specific consumer segments with the likes of protein bars for menopausal women, cruelty-free shaving products for men, and protein supplements in gummy form for kids.
Product quality and taste (still) trump branding. Many of the products introduced at Expo West 2023 came in attention-grabbing, colorful packaging or contained clean labels with a modern feel. The products receiving the greatest attention, however, were those that focused on quality and taste. Bold flavors and authentic origins were highlighted by brands such as MiLa’s soup dumplings and Bachan’s original Japanese barbecue sauce, which uses premium ingredients based on a recipe from the founder’s grandmother.
Sustainability is everywhere—but often not enough of a true differentiator. Many of these brands are looking to address the challenges of our food system and offer consumers options in which they don’t need to make trade-offs among taste, health, and the planet. As such, there was a proliferation of brands promoting their products as “better for you” or “better for the planet.” The sea of plant-based, free-from and other sustainability claims risked leaving consumers confused about the true benefits of these products. Nonetheless, a few brands did stand out in their efforts to put sustainability at the heart of what they do. Brands such as Alter Eco use regenerative farming, and Rind Snacks focuses on upcycling ingredients to reduce waste. Other brands such as Brixy bar shampoo, Blueland cleaning tablets, and Tru Earth detergent strips aim to reduce single-use plastics and eliminate the cost of shipping liquids.
Incumbent consumer goods companies are increasingly applying the insurgent brand playbook. Brands launched or acquired by top consumer products companies were out in force at Expo West, demonstrating that traditional companies are applying the insurgent mindset for innovation as they use corporate venture capital or internal incubators to tap into new growth. Nestlé utilized prime exhibition real estate to introduce one of its brands in incubation: keto-friendly coffee creamer Boosted Brew, alongside its Rallies Nut Butter Bombs. Meanwhile, many acquired insurgents such as Nature’s Bakery, Trü Frü, and Hu Kitchen, kept their booths separate despite being part of larger consumer goods company portfolios, reflecting the benefits of remaining independent but connected post-acquisition.
As we consider the display of activity at Expo West each year, the relentless proliferation of brands raises questions about how the industry will continue to absorb them. At a time when both large suppliers and retailers are looking to cut down on assortment complexity and when macroeconomic conditions lend themselves to scale benefits and more affordable offerings, only those insurgents that remain diligent in their scaling model and excel at responding to consumer and customer needs will thrive.
Meanwhile, winning incumbents will be doubling down on consumer-driven innovation, rethinking their portfolios, and mindfully using M&A to buy some of this growth. The best-positioned players will infuse insurgent learnings into their offerings and operating model to remain relevant and agile, while strategically using their scale to continue creating advantages in today’s more challenging environment.
Explore additional Bain research on insurgent brands.