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The ingestible beauty boom: How Vital Proteins made collagen cool

Collagen supplements are suddenly found everywhere, from Costco to Sephora, even Drybar. For that, you can credit one company that saw way beyond the GNC market.

The ingestible beauty boom: How Vital Proteins made collagen cool
[Photo: Vital Proteins]

Collagen is the breakout star of the $31 billion U.S. supplement industry.

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The broken-down amino acids of cattle—pulverized into a chalky white, fluffy powder—are beloved by athletes and beauty bloggers for their supposed skin-boosting and joint health benefits. The ingredient spawned a host of new food and beverage startups touting snack bars, gummy candy, and coffee creamers. Even Silicon Valley is in on the trend, with VCs pouring in over $100 million to fund a single bone broth company.

The global collagen market was valued at $4 billion just three years ago. Now, it’s expected to grow to $6.5 billion by 2025.

[Photo: Vital Proteins]
One brand cornered—and some say started—this gold rush. Vital Proteins, known for its bulky blue tubs of collagen peptides, is found in 20,000 stores. The product occupies prime shelf space at grocers like Whole Foods and Costco, as well as retailers like Target and Urban Outfitters. In Sephora stores, travel-size versions beckon customers from the checkout area alongside lip glosses and skin masks.

It’s even seeped into the hospitality space: At L.A.’s upscale natural health market Erewhon, baristas brew coffee with a shot of Vital Proteins. And pretty soon, it will be available on JetBlue flights. (That’ll likely appeal to Jennifer Aniston, who says she depends on the brand for her morning routine.) You can also pick it up at WeWork or Drybar.

Basically, it’s everywhere.

“I’ve heard people say that we made protein cool,” says Vital Proteins founder and CEO Kurt Seidensticker.

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An unexpected customer

Our bodies naturally produce collagen, a structural protein found in the connective tissue—hair, skin, muscles, bones, etc. But as we age, we produce less of it. That leads to achy joints and weakened muscles, along with less lustrous-looking hair or dull skin. To ensure more collagen, one can eat protein-heavy foods like beef, fish, or poultry.

But one idea gaining widespread traction is that we can boost collagen by consuming large amounts of it in supplement format. (It’s not meant to be a complete nutritional replacement.) Vital Proteins collagen peptides, for example, come “from grass-fed, pasture-raised” bovine hides in Brazil. The company’s marine collagen product is sourced “from wild-caught, non-GMO Red Snapper off the coast of Hawaii.”

Seidensticker, 54, launched the company after noticing it took longer to recover from runs as he aged. A former NASA aerospace engineer, he began investigating ways to quicken joint recovery when he stumbled upon a German research study that suggested athletes who consumed 40-70 grams of collagen experienced a reduction in injuries and joint deterioration. (There have been similar studies since.)

The findings showed promising results for the average consumer, with one catch: One would need to consume roughly 80 supplement pills to witness effects. Basically, the most efficient delivery method is via powder.


Related: CVS will now require third-party testing of supplements. Is it enough?


In 2012, Seidensticker launched Chicago-based Vital Proteins. The direct-to-consumer company advertised a “clean,” simple, and allergen-free collagen that was both easily soluble and flavorless. That means no fishy aftertaste or funky smell, lending itself to anything you might want to add it to. Each 20 oz. tub ($43) advocated consuming 20g of protein powder per day, the minimum to see visible results.

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This was around the time when the Paleo diet and nondairy nutrition models gained traction, so Seidensticker targeted the fitness community by making the rounds at health expos.

In those first two years, recalls Seidensticker, Vital Proteins focused on educating the consumer about the benefits of collagen. It differed from whey protein or plant protein in that it’s a functional protein, meaning it could seamlessly integrate into one’s lifestyle. It pledged a host of additional benefits beyond joint repair, like more “vibrant” skin or better digestion.

Their efforts quickly took off as fitness influencers and health leaders like Whole30 founder Melissa Hartwig advocated its use. By 2014, Seidensticker was going to nearly 40 health and wellness trade shows, building partnerships with fitness bloggers who displayed the big blue tubs on their sites. By 2015, it was over 50 shows. It was then he realized how valuable influencers could be to Vital Proteins marketing strategy. The following year, Seidensticker hired 16 people in social media and public relations.

Then something interesting happened. The company website’s analytics found that 80% of customers were female—and they weren’t purchasing the product to be better runners. They were taking it to improve their appearance. It happened rather accidentally, explains Caryn Johnson, SVP of marketing for Vital Proteins, via word of mouth and online reviews.

Basically, the “side” benefit Vital Proteins had long advertised—the strong nails, shiny hair—became its chief selling point.

As Johnson notes, “the customers chose us as a beauty brand.”

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A new kind of beauty company

Vital Proteins pivoted to target female millennials. The company updated its packaging with brighter, more feminine colors. The team ventured to beauty trade shows and reached out to beauty influencers like Olivia Culpo, who boasts 4 million followers. It started a paid advocate program wherein enthusiasts conduct in-store demos at retailers like Whole Foods. To date, Vital Proteins has hundreds of brand advocates.

At the time, the supplement space was still very much relegated to GNC-style marketing. The market had not yet played to millennials. This was years before the likes of popular brands like Hums, Hims/Hers, or Ro.

“The marketing tactics were a bit behind in terms of beauty and fashion industry,” says Johnson. “We played well into the digital space and maximized digital opportunities.”

Vital Proteins skipped print advertisements and instead prioritized social media, digital advertising, and fostering influencer relationships. If someone visited their website, he or she would then see the brand advertised in multiple touch points on their computer or phone.

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By 2017, “beauty-from-within” was quickly becoming a top dietary supplement trend. Millennials suddenly saw nutricosmetics as part of their skincare routine, with collagen leading the way.

“It’s kind of unprecedented that we’ve seen such strong growth for a category year-over-year,” says Claire Morton Reynolds, senior industry analyst for Nutrition Business Journal, of collagen’s success. Reynolds notes a number of factors for collagen’s growth, including well-rounded benefits. But more than anything, “collagen has been really easy for people to integrate into their daily lives.”

Millennials crave simplicity and comfort. With Vital Proteins, they can simply add a spoonful to their beverage of choice (versus taking several pills throughout the day). The company quickly expanded its inventory to over 100 SKUs, incorporating hip flavors like matcha and caramel latte in addition to new delivery formats like shots, bottled beverages, or sweetened creamers. More recently, it launched single packets so fans could take collagen with them on the go.

“The millennial generation of consumers is really interested in those kinds of applications,” says Reynolds. “Vital Proteins represents this new phase of supplements that look so different from what it looks like, you know, 15 years ago.”

With such product diversification, Vital Proteins accommodates a consumer’s entire day. Consuming 20g of protein is easy if you can have it during multiple touch points: in your morning coffee, in a water bottle at the gym, or in a calming tea before bed. The company saw multiple sectors—beauty, health, nutrition—blending together. Wellness enthusiasts increasingly look to incorporate it into all their pursuits.

“What we’re seeing is the evolution of the market space into a lifestyle,” muses Seidensticker. “People are seeing that fitness and beauty go together, wellness and fitness or wellness and beauty go together . . . in almost an integrative lifestyle.”

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Vital Proteins resonates strongest with females aged between 29 and 44, with a household income of $80,000. Johnson describes their typical customer as someone who is very “wellness-minded,” in that she cares about her nutrition, takes weekly fitness classes, and looks for products that make her feel “confident and empowered.”

In 2017, Vital Proteins expanded into retail. The brand sought out partners one wouldn’t generally associate with protein pills: Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Revolve, and Sephora.

The goal was to shift the perception of supplements from a stodgy health aid to a hip beauty product. Mainstream retailers were interested in carrying Vital Proteins, says Seidensticker, because the brand amassed a substantial social media following: “Retailers are more apt to choose Vital Proteins over a competitor brand because we bring consumers to the retailer.”

Today, Vital Proteins is found in fashion and beauty stores like Anthropologie, along with digital retailers such as Goop. In May, Kourtney Kardashian partnered with the brand to launch an exclusive flavor for her new lifestyle site Poosh. (That one comes in blueberry and lemon flavor “collagen vibes.”)

The company grew 240% year-over-year and anticipates $200 million in revenue for 2019. It counts 250 employees. Still, Seidensticker thinks they’re just at the tip of what’s to come. Beauty is just one sector Vital Proteins aims to conquer.

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“I don’t think everyone’s going to add powder to their coffee or smoothie,” he concedes, “but I think what you’re going to find is incorporation of collagen into your diet will go mainstream.”

[Photo: Vital Proteins]

A tub of promises?

Collagen constituted 1% of the beauty-from-within supplements market just five years ago, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Today, it’s 9%.

It’s believed that collagen, which has been huge in Asia for over a decade, migrated west along with the Korean beauty trend. In the last two years, American food and beverage companies rushed to add collagen to their inventory. E-commerce retailer Thrive Market, for example, counted collagen supplements and peptides as a top 10 seller since 2015. (Thrive Market now sells more than 100 items with added collagen.)

Then there are the countless number of beauty companies touting beauty ingestibles. Cosmetics titan Bobbi Brown, for example, sells her new line of supplements, EVOLUTION_18, in Walmart.

In 2017 alone, collagen supplements grew 30%, reaching $98 million.

“It’s definitely the strongest growing ingredient in the [beauty supplement] category,” says Reynolds. It’s estimated to grow 33% this year in the overall supplement sector.

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Related: How did this bone broth company raise over $100 million?


But for all its rapid success, numerous dietitian and health experts doubts its strong claims. Marisa Moore, a registered nutritionist, says that while there’s promising research that collagen supplementation might improve joint health and skin elasticity, there simply aren’t enough studies to firmly vouch for its use.

Not to mention, “they are expensive,” says Moore. “So the question is whether or not it’s actually going to benefit you.”

(Seidensticker says Vital Proteins averages around $1.10 at cost-per-serving, which is “cheaper than a cup of coffee every day” and far less than, say, buying a chicken breast.)

Moore would sooner suggest a client concentrate on a balanced diet than look to supplements. In some cases, some people do have a collagen deficiency and would benefit from supplements—but that’s a concern to be evaluated by a nutritionist or a doctor, not necessarily a Sephora rep.

“If you’re following a great diet and all of your numbers are great, then there’s no reason for you to spend money on the supplements,” says Moore. “I encourage people to take a look at what they specifically need and not get caught up in what they might see on Instagram.”

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It’s an ongoing debate between the medical establishment and online reviewers, many of whom swear by collagen’s effects. Of over 3,600 Amazon reviews, 70% are five stars. Customers claim their nails are tougher to clip, they perform better at Pilates, and that hair is thicker, shinier, and healthier.

One Sephora reviewer boldly stated, “My skin is the bomb! I rarely wear foundation now, just under-eye concealer.”

[Photo: Vital Proteins]

Back to the start

Placebo or not, Vital Proteins made a substantial impact on the beauty industry. But as the company looks to establish a more mainstream reputation, expect it to venture into more lifestyle categories—especially for men. Sleep, athletic performance, and post-workout recovery are just a few of the areas the brand will tackle with a full men’s line this summer.

“Men are starting to evolve, too,” says Seidensticker. “It’s not all about working out. They’re concerned about their hair and skin. They want to look young and feel vibrant.”

The men’s wellness scene, though nascent, is seeing a flux of new competitors. Hims, the direct-to-consumer brand selling men’s penis pills, hygiene products, and vitamin gummies, launched in late 2017—it’s already a unicorn. There are startups targeting everything from male fertility to hair loss. Even Goop is making a play for men.

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In 2016, every single player of the Chicago Cubs took Vital Proteins. At the end of the season, the team’s nutritionist reported no injuries. And of course, they ended up winning the World Series, which Seidensticker believes his product had some part in. Unsurprisingly, just a few months later, Vital Proteins became an official partner of the Chicago Cubs.

Moving forward, those are the kind of bold moves the brand will entertain to target a larger male audience. Already, the team has onboarded male influencers such as athlete Eric Hinman and Terminator actor Nick Stahl. Nothing is off the table when it comes to Vital Proteins—a strategy that’s embedded in their success.

“We’re really doing a full-circle encompass of the lifestyle,” stresses Seidensticker. “I mean, our product is in Sephora. Who would ever think that a dietary supplement is in Sephora?

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About the author

Rina Raphael is a writer who covers technology, health, and wellness for Fast Company. Sign up for her newsletter on the wellness economy here: https://welltodo.substack.com/

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