“Drink. Evolve.” is the tagline for Muscle Milk, the flagship product from CytoSport Inc., Benicia, Calif. As the protein-enhanced beverage market expands beyond fitness enthusiasts, the company’s innovations are aligning with its slogan. Since the introduction of ready-to-drink Muscle Milk in 2004, CytoSport has seen a wider range of consumers drawn to its protein-enhanced products. In response, the company is evolving its product lineup to take advantage of protein’s broader appeal, says Greg Pickett, founder of CytoSport.

“Our classic Muscle Milk products, both in powder and ready-to-drink form, are used by different parts of our customer base – different people, different age groups and different activity levels – to support different things in their life,” Pickett says.

Moving forward, CytoSport is planning innovations that capitalize on the company’s science-driven focus, address mainstream consumer interest in protein-enhanced beverages and leverage its current go-to-market partners.

The company also welcomes the proliferation of entries in the protein beverage landscape, Pickett says.

“We are competitive by nature and welcome the competition that is shaping up in the protein-enhanced functional beverage category,” he says.

To expand its consumer base, CytoSport’s new products target previously untapped demographics, Pickett says.

“We think we are bringing the power of protein to just about anyone,” he says. “We have products in market or near-term innovation entries that address the needs of athletes that demand performance, active lifestyle people that want to look and feel good, ‘future actives’ or kids, ‘lifetime actives’ or seniors, and those simply wanting alternatives in the weight loss and management areas.”

The escalation in appeal of protein-fortified products has redefined CytoSport’s business, Pickett says.

“We started as a sports nutrition company and today see ourselves as running a functional food and beverage company that also makes sports nutrition products for people that lead healthy, active lifestyles,” he says.

Ready for growth
CytoSport was founded in 1998 by Greg Pickett, who remains involved in the company’s direction and product innovation, and his son Michael, who is currently CytoSport’s chief executive officer. In addition, Greg’s daughter Nikki Brown serves as the company’s chief marketing officer.

Over the years, CytoSport has recognized the widespread popularity of its products, says Michael Pickett.

“It really all starts with a great product,” Michael says. “Nike started with a great running shoe. We have a great core protein product and are taking that to users in adjacent categories with specialized functionalities. It really is simple: we know our customers use our product for many different reasons – meal replacement, snack, grab-and-go nutrition – so we are getting specialized and fashioning products to meet consumer needs in adjacent categories.”

In addition to new releases, the company remains dedicated to its flagship Muscle Milk product line. Muscle Milk contains a blend of protein, complex carbohydrates, functional fats, vitamins and minerals. The product is lactose-free and is available in various flavors, sizes and formats, including powders, bars and breakfast cereal.

“I think today, good-for-you products actually taste good,” Pickett says. “It used to be that a big bodybuilder would gulp down whatever he thought was going to help him reach his goals. … Remembering when Rocky was training, and it was classic, when he broke the whole eggs in a glass, and he nailed them down. He knew it was going to be good for him. It’s great protein, but not everybody is going to do that.”

The company recently added a Cake Batter variety to its line of 17-ounce Muscle Milk RTD beverages. The new flavor was inspired by the success of the flavor in Muscle Milk’s powdered form, Pickett says. The flavor’s popularity skews a little bit more female than male, he says. Appealing to both genders also represents a shift in the industry, which at one time was predominately male consumers, but has since evolved to roughly 50 percent male and 50 percent female, he says.

To keep up in the competitive category, CytoSport has a dedicated research and development team that can release a new RTD product in as little as three months from concept to finished product, Pickett says. The company manufactures its powdered products and pre-blends for the RTD lineup at its 250,000-square-foot facility in Benicia, Calif.

Maintaining the specialty niche
While embracing new opportunities, CytoSport is careful not to dismiss its heritage as a sports nutrition company and continued success in the specialty fitness market, Pickett says.

“Over the last couple of years, we have spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on how do we make products, package sizes and all of that, so we can broaden the product’s appeal and its distribution, but at the same time, bring our core customers and our core retailers along with us,” he says.

CytoSport opted to manage the package size, price point and distribution of specific products between the specialty fitness market and broader market. To innovate for the specialty market, the company introduced its Monster Milk line of products. Monster Milk leverages the recent science and new efficacious ingredients that the company has observed as desirable to the gym consumer, Pickett says.

“Monster Milk is a range of specialty products that are for that hard core gym consumer,” he says. “What we’ve done is that we tried to reinnovate with a product more just for them, and that’s been really successful.”

Monster Milk’s ready-to-drink product contains 45 grams of protein in a blend of rapid-releasing whey protein and slower-releasing caseins and milk protein isolates, the company says. Monster Milk also is fortified with high levels of branch chain amino acids for muscle growth and 5 grams of fiber. The product is available in a Chocolate variety in 20-ounce PET bottles.

Also made for the athletic market is the Cytomax family of products. Cytomax products are premium isotonic formulations based on patented energy technology that deliver energy to working muscles, Brown explains. The Cytomax lineup includes powders and RTD Cytomax Fast Twitch, Performance Plus and Protein.

In March, CytoSport introduced Muscle Milk Protein H2O in GNC stores and through Europa, the company’s largest gym partner, Brown says. Launching products in the specialty fitness market is a model that has been successful for the company, she says. Muscle Milk Protein H2O is for consumers with an active lifestyle or protein-seeking water customers, she says. Available in Grape, Grapefruit, Orange and Raspberry varieties, Protein H2O contains electrolytes, 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per 16-ounce serving. The product contains 60 calories and is sugar-free. Protein H2O also will be distributed in select direct-store-distribution partners and Costco stores, Brown says.

As CytoSport’s lineup grows, the company is careful to balance the performance and the lifestyle appeal of its products, Brown says.

“I think our biggest strength [in specialty fitness industry] is that we fully acknowledge how important that heritage is in terms of authenticating who we are and what we’re about,” she says. “… We remind ourselves everyday how critical and important that entire specialty group of retailers and consumers are to our products.”

Pursuing new opportunities
CytoSport first noted the mainstream potential for Muscle Milk with the debut of a 14-ounce wide-mouth PET bottle package in 2007, Pickett says. The move into 14-ounce PET bottles made the product more convenient and positioned it for wider appeal, he says.

The combination of the convenient packaging and a reputation for good-tasting flavors helped Muscle Milk become one of the first protein beverage brands to successfully crossover from the sports nutrition industry to a broader audience, Pickett says.

In late 2008, the company partnered with Pepsi Bottling Group, now part of Pepsi Beverages Co., for distribution of Muscle Milk. The distribution partnership provided Pepsi with an entry in the growing protein-enhanced beverage category and opened new markets for CytoSport, Pickett says. The addition of new distribution channels inspired its new product development, he says.

“We’ve thought about the market being broader for our products and our retail partners are encouraging us to look at those peripheral categories from where we are now and to come with innovative, new, delicious, convenient and handy products that can be used by customers from children all the way to mature adults and outside of our legendary background with athletes and active people,” Pickett says.

The company launched Muscle Milk Light packaged in 14-ounce PET bottles in 2008. Muscle Milk Light contains 20 grams of protein to help manage caloric intake, build lean muscle and provide consumers with a healthy grab-and-go nutritional option, the company says. The company also promotes 100 Calorie Muscle Milk Light as a snack option. Available in Chocolate and Vanilla Crème, 100 Calorie Muscle Milk Light is sold in four-packs of 8.25-ounce cartons.

Targeted for the diet shelves in grocery retailers, CytoSport released Diet Muscle Milk earlier this year. Diet Muscle Milk is marketed as a hunger-control weight-loss protein shake. In addition to Muscle Milk’s standard formula of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, Diet Muscle Milk includes an all-natural ingredient that has been shown to reduce appetite, the company says. Diet Muscle Milk is available in Chocolate and Vanilla.

CytoSport continues to widen its reach with this month’s release of Mighty Milk, a product for what Pickett calls “future actives.” Mighty Milk is aimed at parents who are looking for healthy snack alternatives for their children, Brown says. The naturally flavored and sweetened product contains 50 percent more protein than milk and 50 percent less sugar than orange juice, the company says. In addition, the product contains omega-3 fatty acids and is an excellent source of calcium and vitamins C, D, and E, the company says.

Mighty Milk will be available in three-packs of 6.5-ounce cartons in Choc-a-Shake and Vanill-a-Shake varieties. The product, like many of the company’s new releases, targets a specific customer, Pickett says.

“Moms are the gatekeepers of what the family ingests and are looking for quicker, easier, more convenient ways all the time to add those real benefits, those functional health benefits, to her family’s diet in a cost-effective, easy and convenient way,” he says.

The company also will soon release Muscle Milk Protein Power Shot with 20 grams of protein, caffeine and B vitamins, Brown says.

Spreading the word
In addition to merchandising in new channels and launching new products, education is an integral part in boosting consumer awareness of protein-enhanced beverages, Pickett says.

“Protein needs education,” he says. “How much do you need? What are the best sources? When do you use it? We’re really getting very proactive about getting a broader segment of the population understanding those benefits of protein.”

The company employs Protein Education Teams in 16 of its largest metropolitan markets. The teams interact with consumers at the time that they would use Muscle Milk, such as on jogging trails, ski slopes and even at New York’s Fashion Week, Pickett says.

The company also created a month-long Muscle Milk Light Women’s Fitness Retreat. Hosted in June in Los Angeles, the retreat featured workouts designed by fitness trainers and attracted a variety of young female celebrities who learned more about Muscle Milk Light. The fitness retreat along with the company’s viral “Sexy Pilgrim” and “Spring Break It Down” videos, attracted buzz and make the brand more approachable to a broader, performance and lifestyle focused audience, Brown says. Muscle Milk’s viral videos each attracted nearly 1 million views on You Tube.

The company also has relationships with notable celebrities and athletes who use CytoSport’s products as part of their active lifestyle. Its roster includes basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, Major League Baseball All-Star Ryan Braun and three-time Ironman winner Chrissie Wellington. CytoSport ensures the relationships are fostered with people who come into the brand on their own, Pickett says.

“It’s not that having athletes is important alone,” Pickett says. “It’s more about your relationship with them and their relationship with our brand. Because athletes utilize our products for day-to-day performance, they, in turn, influence others from weekend warriors to active lifestyle people.”

Muscle Milk recently embarked on projects to make the product more locally relevant through two limited-edition partnerships with O’Neal and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. In January, Muscle Milk released a limited-edition bottle featuring O’Neal, who played in Cleveland in the 2009-2010 season, in select retailers in Ohio. The special-edition bottle featured augmented reality technology in which an image of O’Neal was released when the product was held in front of a webcam. In the Chicago area, Muscle Milk released a limited-edition bottle to select retailers this summer featuring a baseball theme and the logo for the Chicago Cubs.

Overall, CytoSport continues to experience growth with its distribution partners, including Pepsi and in the specialty fitness market, Michael says.

“Our specialty/health food and gym business continues to grow, and we have partners like GNC, Europa and Vitamin Shoppe to thank for that,” he says. “We see this specialty business, the core of our business, critical to our success moving forward.” BI