Turning an Innovative Moment into an Essential (Bowel) Movement

How a leading food company discovered the tools to unlock value from underutilized proprietary technology – and in the process identified an overlooked, but high-potential market, eager to be served.

The Challenge the challenge

When what goes in doesn’t come back out

Diet has always been a key aspect of wellness, but today there have never been more opportunities to use food for improving one’s health. Emerging research is helping us better understand that what we eat affects the microbiome — all the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa living on and in the human body — and how food can play a key role in maintaining its delicate balance in order to improve and maintain overall health.

In exploring white spaces in the emerging functional food arena with Bionic, one of the world’s largest food companies found a wide-open market opportunity in the area of treating an issue that affects millions of young children around the world: constipation.

experiment

Children of all ages and demographics suffer from this common ailment; in the US, 11% of children require regular doctor visits and chronic care for constipation. Of course, we know eating more fruits and vegetables would nurture their gut health and provide the necessary dietary fiber, but kids have to want to eat them regularly in order to make an impact, and many refuse. Instead of turning every mealtime into a battle, parents want a solution that is natural and safe to use long-term. They want something that is palatable enough that their kids will be eager to consume it without a fight. And most of all, they want to be able to understand and trust what they’re buying for their families.

This created a double-barreled challenge for this food company: to develop a functional food product that promotes digestive health naturally and effectively in a form that is both enticing to children and reassuring to their parents.

The Experiment the experiment

Parents think the current options are crappy

In supporting this company in exploring how its existing assets might apply to gut health, the team identified a specific natural ingredient that is already marketed to adults as an effective treatment for constipation, but is locked out of most food formats due to its reactions to moisture. Unfortunately, its limitations also make the ingredient unappetizing to children. Searching for proprietary gifts and internal enablers to leverage, Bionic discovered that the company had a long-shelved proprietary technology that microscopically encapsulated ingredients. Combining the company’s proprietary gifts with the concept of functional foods that have an effect beyond basic nutrition revealed a commercial opportunity: encapsulating the ingredient to incorporate it into child-friendly foods without giving them an unpleasant experience. We worked with this company to create a joint team to explore the possibilities.

We began by running a series of digital ads for a range of proxy products to discover what parents of kids under the age of 12 with digestive issues thought about natural fiber as a solution. That led to three key considerations that shaped the company’s product decisions:

First, parents would prefer to solve the problem through “eating the rainbow,” i.e., a varied diet of fruits and vegetables, because it’s simple, natural, and easy to understand. However, it’s only as effective as their ability to get their kids to eat it.

Second, because parents’ fallback solution of Miralax is perceived as “not natural” and can’t be used long-term, they have been eager to consider food as a way to improve and promote gut health. They aren’t interested in alternative, culturally significant remedies, like kombucha, that aren’t already familiar to them or their children. They want a simple, low-stress (for both parent and child) way to control dosage. And they also believe perishability and efficacy go hand in hand, i.e., that a product that needs refrigeration is more likely to be effective.

experiment

Third, the proxy products would focus around previously unviable food formats.

Given a range of eight simulated food products containing doses of the encapsulated natural ingredient, two products really stood out — 83% of parents liked the idea of bottled smoothies, and 75% liked fruit gummies.

The right words get things moving

Once the team had arrived at two potential products, we needed a clearer picture of its first and primary (“beachhead”) market. We started with two research-driven insights: that American families are rapidly becoming majority-minority, and that lower-income consumers are more likely to suffer from digestive issues. Recognizing that most products are targeted at the white middle-class demographic, we realized that groups outside that demographic might actually be more interested than the general population in food-based solutions to their children’s digestive problems. We set out to determine whether the team could establish its beachhead among consumers that weren’t currently seeing any products that spoke to their specific needs.

The team initially ran experimental online ads to test the phrase “gut health,” only to find that it predominantly appealed to high earners. However, switching to the more common term “constipation” appealed to more potential customers in a significantly broader range of incomes.

solution-ameritrade-full

After secondary research indicated that Hispanic/LatinX and Black customers in the potential customer base were more likely to experience constipation, we created additional experimental ads on Facebook, using census data and zipcode geo-targeting to specify racial reach and translating the ads to Spanish to ensure accessibility. By comparing the results of the tests across white parents, Hispanic/LatinX parents, Black parents, and the general population, we discovered that Black parents had the highest clickthrough rate.

That brought another previously hidden beachhead market into focus: not just parents whose kids are constipated, but parents whose demographics make them significantly more likely to have constipated kids and significantly more interested in a solution that’s as simple, familiar, and child-friendly as it is effective.

The Solution the solution

Products for both ends (of the age spectrum)

Now that the team has identified its target audience, it’s preparing to launch the industry’s first line of smoothies and gummy candies containing the natural high-fiber ingredient in encapsulated form. The advertising is designed to appeal to all parents of children under 12 with digestive problems, but the team has taken particular care to gather and apply input from health and wellness experts who are especially respected in the Black community specifically.

A surprising additional area of potential that emerged in responses to the digital test ads are people in their 50s and 60s, who are interested in accessible, natural approaches to better gut health as they develop common aging-related digestive issues. The team is considering developing marketing strategies for this demographic once it has established itself among parents.

The Insight the insight

Dumping preconceptions about your consumers

Although the food and beverage company was already aware of an emerging market for functional foods, and even had the proprietary gifts that would allow it to develop innovative products for that market, they first needed to identify an unmet need for those products to satisfy.

They could have taken the obvious track of trying to appeal to everyone; after all, everybody poops. They could also have pursued a homogeneous group of high-income consumers on the assumption that it would be the most lucrative market. But instead, the company took the time to explore its data — which enabled it to identify a group of potential customers that is diverse and broad, yet extremely specific, and most importantly, hasn’t been finding the relief it needs anywhere else.

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