Musings on Natural Products Expo East 2016

Just got back from Natural Products Expo East 2016, in Baltimore. New Hope, the company that puts on the show, sent me an email on Monday announcing that it was the biggest ever. More booths. More attendees. More hype. So why did I feel that I had so much space to walk in, that there were so many exhibitor booths peopled by bored representatives? I must not be observant.

Trend #1: Small Companies

The first thing that struck me about this year’s show is that it is the show for smaller companies. This has been a trend I’ve sensed for the past couple years, but this year it was confirmed. Many of the big boys and girls don’t show up, which leaves more space for the new, the up-and-coming, and mid-sized. That translates into more kombucha companies, coffee and tea companies, and snack food companies than ever before. But seriously, if you are a small company trying to gain some attention, you have a better chance in Baltimore than you do at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim. The third and fourth floors showcasing the newcomers were packed.

Favorite Booth

I look for booths that create interaction, that stand out and that generate buzz. Last year it was the Reserveage booth with its terroir experience (full disclosure: Pure Branding concepted this with Researveage, so we have a little bias).

This year it was MegaFood’s all-white, no product, magic marker booth. In the center was a large cube, each side with a different header: Transparency. Improving Lives. New Products. People walked up and wrote in what inspired them. So what does that say about a company who is willing to accept publicly anything anyone writes? Courageous? How about just plain memorable?

Favorite Idea

Reversing global warming. Paul Hawken was Thursday morning’s keynote speaker. If you don’t know who he is, here’s a link. (Some of you seasoned natural industry veterans may remember him as the founder of Erewhon and Smith & Hawken.) So much has been talked about slowing down global warming and reducing carbon emissions. Paul Hawken and his newest initiative, Project Drawdown, is the first serious organization whose goal is to reverse — not slow down — global warming. It’s not every day I get inspired, and I don’t look for trade shows to do that, but it happened at this year’s keynote address.

Trend #2: Certification Overload

This has been going on for some time, but what hit me this year was how separate each certification body is, with little to no reciprocity. Let me give you an example — if you are certified organic, you are not GMO. However, there is a clause in the standards that allows for trace amounts of GMOs. That opens the door for the non-GMO verified organization to make a case for their certification with a certified organic product. But (and here’s the interesting thing), they too have clauses that allow micro amounts.

What this means is that a great company like Lundberg Family Farms has to reserve almost half of its front packaging to certifications. It’s like passing one of those cars with a million bumper stickers. Pretty soon they blend together.

There was some talk at a couple meetings I attended about reciprocity of certifications: if you are certified one way, you can automatically be certified for another. That would be nice. Of course, it does not do away with the stickers.

New Trends That Aren’t New

I attended the NEXT trends session titled “See which natural products trends have the highest probability of mainstream success.”

Here’s the list:

  1. Mission-driven brands
  2. Pre/probiotics
  3. Sourcing local
  4. Paleo
  5. Hidden veggies
  6. Brain health
  7. Compostable packaging
  8. Grass-fed dairy and meat

The folks at NEXT use a representative sample population of the U.S., present product concepts, and ask the sample two questions:

  • Based on everything you know, would this concept sell a lot in the next 12 months? (Market Prediction)
  • Will you purchase this product concept in the next 12 months? (Purchase Intent)

They then determine the probability for success based on the market prediction and purchase intent scores.

Anyone who has been involved in the natural products industry would recognize that these trends are integral to our industry, and have been for many years. For us, they are not new, but it’s nice to be reminded that we live in a “natural” bubble, and that there’s still a huge population of shoppers who are hungry for what we stand for.

Final Thoughts

One of the main reasons companies exhibit at trade shows is to introduce new products. In between meetings, I like to roam the floor and discover something new, something that the market is looking for that doesn’t exist yet.

I’m not talking about the bulk of “new products,” which are replications of other existing products but branded by another company — what I mean is really new. Sometimes it’s as simple as a new tea, or a new type of protein, or a new grain from a remote part of the world.

This year I did not see anything new, but what was encouraging was that some of last year’s new brands were still around. Still in the game, waiting to be picked up by more stores, and maybe, just maybe, lasting long enough to enjoy probable success in the mainstream.

It’s that hope that still exists in every booth at Expo East.