Consumer trends that matter: personalization

Consumer trends that matter: personalization

Some trends are just bigger than others. Personalization is one of those. As the balance of power between consumer and corporate interests realigns itself in the new world order, products will have to meet consumers closer to where they live to resonate in the years to come.

I spend most of my time in the thick of the fray tracking industry sales and product trends, but the real fun comes in rising above that fray to better frame the systems of logic that first set it in motion. Some trends are just bigger than others. Some trends kick off a whole host of smaller trends designed to capture the imagination of investors, marketers and press, alike. Personalization is one of those. It’s a biggie.

When Ryan Caldbeck, CEO of CircleUp, asked me to develop our thoughts on mass personalization, I took the bait. The quest for targeted products better personalized to a cluster of consumers—or even an individual consumer—is just beginning to strut its stuff as a real driver of new product formulations and marketing across most of the industries inside consumer products. It’s a trend that his team at CircleUp sees, both in the companies they evaluate and investor interest on their site, and it’s also a trend I’m seeing pop through my conversations with dozens of consumer companies each month.

So what is personalization? Is it just category fragmentation with a fancier name, or is there something deeper at play? I would argue the latter. It starts with fragmentation—from one size fits all to one size fits many and, ultimately, one size built to fit the complexities of you alone—but it speaks to something much bigger than that. As the balance of power between consumer and corporate interests realigns itself in the new world order—thanks to the internet, transparency and smartphones giving consumers real agency to shop their beliefs and desires—products will have to meet consumers closer to where they live to resonate in the years to come.

We’re in the early stages here and terminology is still pretty fluid, so let’s profile a few companies in natural products right on the bleeding edge of this trend to give it better clarity.

Personalize my juice

Consider BluePrint, a juice company with an estimated $20 million in 2012 revenues off a dedicated core of high-end customers willing to pay $80 for organic juices overnighted to their doorstep. What’s the draw? Nutrient density and raw ingredients for sure, but customers get to pick their cleanse. They personalize the regimen for their specific needs, and the product set reconfigures itself accordingly. As BluePrint extends into cold-pressed juices distributed through Whole Foods, that attention to customization seems to have carried forward with a range of beverages designed to let you pick your path to health. You choose kale, I’ll choose beets and ginger. BluePrint sold to Hain Celestial earlier this year for an undisclosed amount. According to NBJ research, the natural & organic juice market grew 13% in 2012 to reach $2.4 billion in sales across fresh and canned product categories.

Personalize my shampoo

Consider Yes To, the personal care brand perhaps best known for its Yes To Carrots line of babycare products in Targets nationwide. Carrots was just the beginning, of course, as customers can now choose among active ingredients such as blueberry, cucumber, tomato and grapefruit to better match their skin types and conditions. Here again, the product promise might begin with safety (no toxins, please) and natural ingredients, but it matures through personalizable attributes that make better sense to a segmented consumer base. Yes To raised $14 million back in 2008 with San Francisco Equity Partners as lead investor, but company sales are now north of $70 million. In 2012, natural & organic personal care products collectively grew 10% to $10 billion in sales, according to NBJ research.

Personalize my health

Consider I AM and LODAAT, both in the dietary supplement category. Over at I AM Enlightened Nutrition, consumers choose among 2.5-ounce shots designed to target specific needs—I Am Sleepy, I Am Happy, I Am Focused. Similarly, LODAAT—Live One Day at a Time—personalizes ayurvedic medicine with condition-specific formulas just begging for engagement—I Want Genuis, I Want My Youth, I Want To Stop Pain. Both examples here point to first-person, me-centric branding as a gatekeeper for personalization. This is the clearest evidence I’ve seen so far that personalization has begun to find real traction in the marketplace, on the heels of its more obvious tear through medicine and the promise of low-cost genomics. NBJ tracks the supplement market at an estimated $32 billion in 2012 U.S. consumer sales, up 7% from year-ago levels.

And the story goes on, with clever approaches to customization in the watch world—Modify lets you mix and match your watch face—and sports nutrition, where CalNaturale’s Svelte protein shakes invite you to “enjoy your self” in “just your style.”

It’s a smart move, all this me-centricity. Millennials, that next great wave of consumer power, are known for their fickle tastes and aversion to big brands. They want points of affinity in the products they choose. Millennials want engagement. They want the possibility to customize and make the brand their own somehow. The larger, savvier CPGs have embraced this with all manner of social media strategies and interactive marketing campaigns, but the smaller brands are out there right now figuring out how to bake personalization right into their DNA.

Full disclosure: I'm affiliated with two organizations on this personalization front—CircleUp, as a strategic advisor; and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute as an opinion leader.

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