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Quest Nutrition invites die-hard fans to invent the future at Quest Labs

By Elaine Watson+

05-May-2016
Last updated on 05-May-2016 at 03:36 GMT2016-05-05T03:36:11Z

Quest Nutrition invites fans to invent the future at Quest Labs

When Nick Robinson joined Quest Nutrition in January 2011, it had just sold its first protein bar. “The world didn't know who we were,” he says. “But they were about to.” Five years later, Quest is valued at more than a billion dollars, and Robinson is spearheading a new initiative inviting its biggest fans to help shape the company’s new product development strategy.

Quest Labs – unveiled via facebook live last month – is an online community where “die-hard fans” can join discussion forums, get a glimpse of new product development plans and provide feedback, and most importantly, buy products that are not yet available via the main website or in retail stores, helping the leadership team learn what works and what doesn't before committing to a broader rollout.

 “If people are ordering – and more importantly re-ordering  - the new products on Quest Labs, we’ll bring those products to our public facing website on Questnutrition.com and if that goes well we’ll start talking them to our retail partners,” says Robinson (chief marketing officer).

“So it will take probably 30-60 days in Quest Labs to validate, then another 30-60- days on direct to consumer [via the main website], and only then we’ll go to retail, but not every product will make it.”

A deeper conversation than what is possible on facebook

While Quest has already amassed an army of digital fans (it has 2.5million followers across multiple social media platforms), Quest Labs is designed to be a forum for the brand’s heaviest users, along with influencers – nutritionists and scientists - who scrutinize its ingredients and claims (it has the somewhat lofty goal of ‘ending metabolic disease’), he says.

“There is a hardcore contingent of super fans that we’re engaging with on Quest Labs. To date we have around 20,000 members and about another 20,000 on a waiting list. We want them to get the latest greatest products before anyone else but we also want to allow for a deeper conversation vs what is possible on facebook.”

El Segundo, CA-based Quest Nutrition was founded by Tom Bilyeu (president), Ron Penna (CEO) and Mike Osborn (CFO) in 2010 after they sold their data loss prevention company, Awareness Technologies. 

Its core product is the protein bar (flavors range from white chocolate raspberry to strawberry cheesecake), but it has recently expanded its portfolio to include potato chips with dairy proteins, plus a range of protein powders and pastas, says Bilyeu, who has a somewhat ambitious mission statement for the company: ‘Our goal is to end metabolic disease.’

This was probably the most important lesson in our history  

Quest Labs will also help stop Quest from making avoidable mistakes, he says, citing a flood of negative feedback the brand received when it switched its fiber source from isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMO) to soluble corn fiber, but didn’t spend sufficient time bedding down and testing the new recipe to ensure that the taste and texture was right.

This was probably the most important lesson in our history. We’re more like a tech start up so we are constantly evolving our recipes based on science. Initially we used chicory root fiber and then we moved to isomalto-oligosaccharides (IMO) as our fiber source until we found that it was digested as a carbohydrate by some people*, so we immediately moved to soluble corn fiber, which is far superior.

Chocolate chip cookie dough – Quest’s best-selling protein bar – contains 21g protein, 190 calories and 14g of dietary fiber. The ingredients are: Protein Blend (Milk Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate), Soluble Corn Fiber (Prebiotic Fiber), Almonds, Water, Unsweetened Chocolate, Natural Flavors, Erythritol, Cocoa Butter, Palm Oil, Sea Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Sucralose, Steviol Glycosides (Stevia).

“The problem was, we didn’t involve our fans at the earliest stages, and there was about a month when it [the newly reformulated product] just wasn’t to our taste standards, and we didn’t catch it in time because when the bar was fresh it tasted fine, but after a few weeks it got hard and lost taste. We fixed it, but had we had Quest Labs we would have learned there was a problem before we rolled it out.”

People are hyper-connected

But why not just use facebook for this kind of stuff?

Says Robinson: “Facebook was our first social media platform in 2011, and it’s great, but there is also great value in having an owned and operated channel where you can reach everyone.

“Having our own forum is exactly that. I don’t have to pay any money to make sure that people on the forums see the messages and the interactions are off the charts, people are hyper-connected, and as they are self-selected, they are super fans and they want to engage and be part of this deeper community.

“The feedback we’re getting is multitudes of times greater than what you’ll see on facebook especially on a facebook post you are not paying to promote.”

Testing new ingredients

Quest Labs is also a great place to test out new ingredients such as allulose , a sweetener Quest is using in a new product on trial at Quest Labs.

A new ultra-low-calorie sugar that is found naturally in jackfruit and raisins, but is being made in commercial quantities via the enzymatic conversion of corn, allulose has 70% of the sweetness of table sugar, but 90% fewer calories (it’s absorbed by the body, but not metabolized).

One challenge is that while it is ultra-low-calorie, it is still classified as a sugar, which means that it counts towards the sugar grams on the Nutrition Facts panel, he says.

And if – as the FDA has proposed – manufacturers will in future have to list 'added sugars' on this panel, you could get a confusing scenario whereby you could have a product that is very low in calories thanks to allulose, but still has several grams of ‘added sugar’ on the label, he adds.

We are really excited about allulose because it doesn't raise your blood sugar, but if you quickly look at the Nutrition Facts label, you’d think oh this product has 10g sugar, so we see Quest Labs as a great forum to communicate with our fans about what the ingredient is.”

“Before Quest the marketing messages for protein bars and shakes were all ripped guys with sweat on their faces and chains around their necks, so the message was that to be healthy you need to live a lifestyle of discipline and sacrifice.

"We came in and said no, you can enjoy yourself and we’ll still give you the best [nutritional] profile of any protein bar on the market, and that was a radical shift and transformation in sports nutrition.”

 Nick Robinson, CMO Quest Nutrition

We prompted a radical shift and transformation in sports nutrition

So who are Quest’s biggest fans?

The brand has broad appeal, but the core users are Millennial women – not perhaps what you might expect for a protein bar company.

But this is the point, says Robinson: “Before Quest the marketing messages for protein bars and shakes were all ripped guys with sweat on their faces and chains around their necks, so the message was that to be healthy you need to live a lifestyle of discipline and sacrifice.

“We came in and said no, you can enjoy yourself and we’ll still give you the best [nutrition] profile of any protein bar on the market, and that was a radical shift and transformation in sports nutrition.

“Look at a lot of the competition out there and they have completely changed their packaging and the way they market their products [since Quest started gaining traction], which from my perspective is great. It’s brought in a lot of people that were previously intimidated by the protein category, particularly women, who are really becoming aware of the power of low carbs and controlling their fat and protein intake to meet their goals.”

*Quest was also hit with a lawsuit over the fiber content listed in bars using IMO. This was subsequently dismissed on primary jurisdiction grounds after the FDA published proposed changes to dietary fiber definitions as part of its overhaul of the nutrition facts panel (click HERE ).

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