No matter how much or how little consumers understand the concept of “energy”, one thing’s for certain. They want more of it.
And they’re open to all sorts of delivery formats. “I’d almost change the word ‘open’ to desperate,” said Deborah Schulz, product manager for Cargill Health & Nutrition, with a laugh. “One thing we’ve noticed through our research and other consumer research is that Americans in particular are tired. Whether that means physically or mentally is debatable, but they’re definitely looking for something.”
But then the inevitable question becomes: How does one talk about energy to consumers in meaningful way? “You have a lot of energy products out there on the market, but a lot of language gets thrown around. Sustained, slow release, quick, glycemic index: it is difficult to pinpoint what resonates in the energy space.”
Cargill conducted research on consumers’ response to messages surrounding the concept of energy, with the hypothesis that “sustained energy” would resonate the most, but they were wrong. “What we found was the concept of steady or balanced energy was actually pretty powerful,” Schulz said.
Cargill’s market development manager Jack Heffern noted that this is likely because consumers often associate energy with physical benefits. “Consumers responded better to this idea of steady energy and fueling your body,” he said. “It goes back to that physical benefit of energy. They see it as enabling them to work throughout day, giving them balanced energy throughout day—around stamina and physical strength.”
We still like caffeine, but we’re afraid of it
The challenge, then, is determining how to frame the message.
“When it comes to energy, manufacturers have different criteria for how they make claims they feel comfortable with,” Schulz noted. “There’s no regulation, so we leave that up to customers and work with them to determine what makes sense and what’s going to give the most benefit to consumers.”
Unlike the quick “boost of energy” associated with caffeinated products like energy drinks and shots, slow-release comes with the assumption that “you can do something, whatever that activity is you’re doing, for a longer period of time,” Heffern said.
Especially when applied to beverages, this concept appeals to the growing number of consumers who are feeling the effects of all the negative press attention surrounding caffeine in recent months.
“There’s almost renewed interest in the context of people becoming afraid of caffeine,” Schulz noted. “We still like caffeine, but we’re afraid of it. What can we do instead? That’s why beverage is such a key category in this steady energy arena.”
Consumers also tend to associate different forms of energy with different eating occasions, presenting a range of possibilities—be they biscuits or bars or beverages.
“Breakfast is number one, because it gets them going,” Heffern said. But morning and afternoon snacks are also strong potential areas to capture consumers looking for a jumpstart later in the day. That’s where energy can sometimes venture beyond the physical—into areas ranging from staying alert and social stimulation even to cognition and memory, which Heffern said is largely being driven by consumers. “This idea that with the right energy, your brain is working best is a leap consumers are making. I don’t think they’re seeing a lot of claims on pack, especially for memory.”
Some manufacturers are linking energy with very soft cognitive claims (think Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats “keeps you full and focused all morning long” tagline) as consumers are already linking steady energy with keeping them alert, which Schulz said was reflected in Cargill’s research.
“In context of having breakfast, sustained energy is often about focus. This was key for moms in our research group, when the language was geared toward kids and helping them focus,” she said.
Glycemic index sounds meaningful, but consumers still don’t get it
Cargill supplies Xtend Sucromalt, a sweetener syrup that’s 70% sucrose with a carbohydrate composition that’s about 50% glucose polymer. “The linkages between the glucose molecules such that takes body longer to digest them, but it’s still fully digestable at 4 kcals per gram.”
In other words, it’s low on the glycemic index (doesn’t cause spikes in blood glucose)—a well-known concept among diabetics but one the industry tends to avoid, Schulz noted. Indeed, through its consumer research Cargill found that when it comes to GI specifically, mainstream consumers think it sounds important, but they have no idea what it is.
“It sounds medical and scientific, so consumers think it’s meaningful, but they don’t understand it,” Heffern said. “So a product that makes that claim sounds good, but GI simply doesn’t have wide-range appeal right now.”