He adds: “It’s off trend. There are very few organic or paleo options [eg. grass-fed], and most products are still sold in big canisters with candy-inspired flavors like cookies and cream or salted caramel, and a lot of the marketing is still to the 1980s body-building set.
“We knew that if we wanted to get into this space, we’d have to be different and look different.”
Grass fed whey + whole fruit powders
On the ‘being different’ front, Levels uses grass-fed whey protein and blends it with freeze-dried whole fruit/veg powders [as opposed to drum- or spray-dried powders], providing a full serving of fruit/veg per serving.
“The fruits/vegetables provide the flavor, so we don’t have to add natural or artificial flavors to make the product taste acceptable," says Niemann, who launched Levels earlier this year. "We can label the powders as whole fruits because that is what they are, just freeze dried whole fruits that have been ground into powders, so we have a very clean label."
On the ‘looking different’ front, Levels (a name Niemann’s girlfriend came up with) markets its products in a big 5lb box (as opposed to a cylindrical tub) with a modern, clean design (which Niemann created himself), but also offers single serve sachets to encourage trial.
More than half of Amazon users have Prime membership now
And so far, says Niemann – a runner up in Food Vision USA’s 2016 ‘trailblazers’ challenge - the strategy is paying off.
“We’ve only been on the market for a couple of months on Amazon and via our own website, and I’m really encouraged by the sales and the feedback [via reviews on Amazon]. The top comments are people love the flavors of the fruit and the super-clean packaging. We’re going to approach brick and mortar outlets but for products like this, online really works well, especially to start with.
“Amazon is eating up many traditional bricks and mortar retailers and more than half of Amazon users have Prime membership now.”
Consumers are looking for grass-fed meat and dairy
So who’s the target audience for Levels?
“We are looking for consumers that buy grass fed dairy or meat, cross fitters, people looking for organic and grass fed, and people already in the category that want to trade up," says Niemann, who says there are other brands [Naked Whey, Natural Force, ProMix, Reserveage etc] offering grass-fed whey, “but they are still using traditional flavors and packaging formats.”
So what lessons did he learn from his previous food start up (quinoa-based snacking brand eatKeenwa)?
Lots of things, says New York City-based Niemann, who majored in global supply chains & operations management at college, and says spending time on due diligence to ensure that the manufacturing partners you work with meet the highest standards is critical for early stage companies
Go deep before you go wide
Perhaps the biggest learning, however, is the importance of going deep before going wide, building steadily and not spreading yourself too thinly when you’re going into bricks and mortar stores, he says.
“When you first launch a product you want to be on every shelf, in every store, but what really matters is velocity, not the number of stores you are in. You need to drive your sales strategy to where the product sells the best and that’s my focus now.”