"If you look at the sales data, even Atkins did well [during COVID]. It’s the big boys that are sugar laden that are not truly better-for-you nutrition bars that took a nose dive," Christensen told FoodNavigator-USA, noting how NuSkool Snacks has increased its sales in both e-commerce and at brick-and-mortar retail over the past year.
According to Rabobank's Talking Points report citing Euromonitor and IRI data on the US bar market, big CPG players such as General Mills' Nature Valley and Kellogg's Special K bars suffered the biggest hit to their sales and were down double digits in 2020, losing out to brands such as Kellogg’s RXBAR (acquired in 2017), Simply Good Foods’ Quest Nutrition, and Atkins. The ‘Others’ category, noted Rabobank, now has the biggest slice of the market, with an estimated 35% market share in 2020.
"Now retailers are forced to take a look at these legacy brands that were once driving their top line sales," said Christensen.
NuSkool MCTbars contain 190 calories, 10g of protein, 3g of net carbs per bar, and are sweetened with monk fruit extract.
'Our retail numbers are off the charts..."
Christensen shared that like many other brands trying to make it through the pandemic, NuSkool spent a lot of time and resources on the direct-to-consumer (DTC) channel, as a way to ultimately drive retail traffic once the world opened back up, he said.
"We were a DTC brand in COVID because you had to be to survive, but we are very much not a DTC brand, we are a brick-and-mortar retail brand," he said, explaining that the company used DTC primarily as its trial and sampling funnel.
"We used DTC as a lead capture tool to then bring the consumer into our awareness sphere, and then we were able to effectively remarket to drive these same consumers that have already tried our product, who can then go find our product at retail.
"We started that strategy and our retail numbers are off the charts right now."
NuSkool Snacks is currently distributed in Sprouts stores and H-E-B, and will be entering the East Coast retail market in the coming months including distribution with CVS as part of the CVS Launch program, first launching in a small test batch of 10 to 20 stores, then quickly expanding to 2,000+ locations, said Christensen.
'We never really had a brand, we had a product'
Despite a solid product concept and strong consumer traction driven by a growing consumer preference towards low- to zero-sugar products, Christensen believed that the name 'MCTco' wasn't quite the right brand identity to reach a broader consumer audience.
"Quite bluntly, we never really had a brand, we had a product. We intentionally called it a very in-your-face (MCTCo) name to plant our flag in the ground that this is a keto product, which is a wildly competitive category," he said.
"We wanted to be more approachable, we didn’t want to pigeon hole ourselves into any specific diet or protein source," said Christensen, clarifying the product formulation, which makes the bars keto-friendly, has stayed the same, but that its marketing and branding has pivoted.
Under its new name of NuSkool Snacks, which was introduced in early June with a formal brand re-launch slated for mid-August, the company will be able to more easily enter new retail accounts and markets as it launches new products, including a targeted launch into conventional retail, under the refreshed brand name and packaging.
While the company's original MCT Collagen Bar is intended for the natural and drug channels, the brand's upcoming launch - its NuSkool plant-based Crunch Bar made with pea and soy protein – is a product specifically for the conventional channel.
"In the nutrition bar category, in general, being keto/low-carbohydrate and being plant-based have typically been mutually exclusive tenets," he said.
"That’s where we saw some white space, and it’s really shaping up to be a winner in the conventional channel. It’s a mass-appeal, middle America product."
In terms of flavor for the plant-based crunch bar, NuSkool is sticking with the classics, said Christensen.
"In any sort of IRI or SPINS data you look at, the top seller is always chocolate peanut butter," he noted, adding that NuSkool will also be launching a French Toast and Lemon Cookie SKU.
Lessons learned from Mondelēz SnackFutures CoLab
Another gust of wind beneath NuSkool's sails, was that the company was among nine small brands selected for the inaugural CoLab accelerator focusing on emerging better-for-you snacking trends launched by SnackFutures, the venture arm of Mondelēz International, earlier this year.
"It’s basically a complete end-to-end, CPG brand-building curriculum. It’s truly a deep dive into their world, and it’s been incredibly helpful," he said.
Aside from having to rewrite the brand's playbook to rapidly adapt to an e-commerce world, Christensen shared that sourcing of particular ingredients has been the brand's biggest roadblock, and also its biggest lesson learned from the accelerator program.
"Chicory root fiber is the bane of our existence," he said. As NuSkool's second ingredient in its bars, chicory root fiber provides the brand with added gut health benefits as well as improves taste and texture of the product.
Procuring the ingredient has been nothing short of a struggle, but being able to tap into Mondelēz's endless resources has helped the brand immensely, said Christensen.
"The part [of the CoLab program] that was most relevant to us, was how to be collaborative but also stern with your supply chain partners and co-manufacturers. And really looking multiple layers deep to the root cause."