Impressions of an expo newbie

Impressions of an expo newbie

Last week in Baltimore, I dove headlong into the world of Natural Products Expo for the first time. Here’s what I’ve been mulling over in the aftermath of the show. 

Confession: last week’s Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore was my first. Since joining the New Hope tribe earlier this year, I’d been awaiting the event with equal parts excitement and trepidation. As expected, Expo East felt a bit like a singularity, bringing together everything I’ve learned about the natural products industry over the past several months and condensing it into one place, space and time. (I know, West is apocalyptically bigger … I'm certainly glad I started here.)

From trying ingredients I’d never tasted before (hello cricket flour and tiger nuts) to attending illuminating education panels and watching the stories of entrepreneurs and retailers evolve in real-time, I absorbed so much—by the end, I felt a bit like a sponge dripping excess water.

It'd be impossible to sum up everything I experienced in a blog, but in the aftermath, here are a few things I’ve been mulling over:

The importance of mission.

Whether it’s front and center (the reason the brand exists at all) or something initiated on the side (a way for the brand to put its money where its mouth is), it was rare to see a company on the show floor not driven by mission. In many ways, I feel like this is the biggest pull the natural products industry has on me—and potentially on many others who are not yet natural lifestyle adherents. Sure, I want to be healthier … but the world isn't just about me. In this consumer-driven society I'm a part of, exercising a bit of altruism whenever possible is as important to my overall health as what I put in my body.

So when a brand exposes me to a cause I wasn’t previously aware of and gives me the simplest way in the world to contribute to it? That’s incredibly valuable to me, and I think it will remain one of the most compelling ways to convince people that the higher price point of natural and organic foods is worth it. Who doesn't want their dollars to make a difference?

Supplements could use some better branding, yeah?

Working on the Delicious Living side of things, I’ve noticed that more often than not, supplements tend to be the category that our readers pass over the most. People love our recipes, health articles and natural beauty tips, but getting them excited about supplements can be a trick. Why? Well, one possible reason that became apparent as I walked the floor: branding.

It's shallow but true: aesthetics matter, especially with this much competition going around. New food, beverage and beauty products made me stop in their tracks with inspired branding and packaging design. What’s preventing supplement companies from getting in on some of this magic?

The faces behind the names matter.

While preparing for a presentation, a speaker summed up to me what he loved about the natural products industry: “There’s so much energy and so little negativity. Everyone’s excited about what they’re doing, and what others are doing.” From what I could see, that was true. Sure, there was plenty of friendly competition going on in the exhibit hall—especially in popular categories like cold-pressed juice or gluten-free baked goods—but absolutely no one I talked to wanted to see another brand fail. All of the exhibitors had their favorites on the show floor, products they were just as passionate about as everyone else.

In the end, after all the conversations I had, that’s what stayed with me most: how this is an industry defined by individuals. The people I met at certain booths stuck in my mind just as much as the products they were selling. When the faces behind these company names become as memorable as the brand itself, the community all of a sudden feels that much smaller and more personal, even while it’s growing at an exponential rate.

Transparency really is the name of the game, in more ways than one. And if we can keep up the demand for it—if just a little bit of that desire for a face-to-face, human connection and partnership can rub off on the mainstream food system—then the future of both worlds seems bright, indeed. 

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