The Soda Academy
"If you’re an agency considering specialization, focus on an area that aligns with your core values and select a domain where you already have a moderate-to-high level of ‘literacy’ as well as a desire to learn more."

Sei-Wook Kim, Barrel

Connecting with the Healthy Lifestyle Consumer

Experience Prototyping

Consumers are allocating more and more of their financial resources toward living healthy and active lives. Nielson’s 2015 Global Health & Wellness Survey of 30,000 people showed that 88% of those polled are willing to pay more for healthy foods, especially those that are GMO-free and all-natural. The number of people who are passionate about living a health life is skyrocketing. Especially among Generation Z and Millennials, participation in physical activities, eating healthy diets, and getting more sleep are behaviors that are on the rise. As “healthy” is becoming mainstream, it’s important to differentiate products and educate consumers.

At Barrel, we made the decision in early 2015 to focus on working with healthy lifestyle brands. As a team, we align with the values of companies trying to empower positive changes in people’s lives. This was a deliberate decision to focus our company’s positioning and strengthen our expertise in a single vertical.

Specialization is increasingly common in the agency space. But being a specialized agency can mean many different things. It can signify a specific focus on a type of work product (place-based digital experiences, analytics or user experience). It can mean a niche focus on a particular industry (finance, CPG or pharmaceuticals) or a consumer segment (babies, moms or teens). If you’re considering becoming more specialized, it’s important to focus on an area that aligns with your agency’s core values and to select a domain where you already have a moderate-to-high level of ‘literacy’ as well as a desire to learn more.

We attended healthy lifestyle industry conferences and spent time understanding the industry, consumer, and competitive landscape. Through these experiences, we have developed industry-specific thought leadership that supports our new agency positioning.

Through our experience working with a range of healthy lifestyle brands in food and fitness, there are some common challenges that companies in this space are facing.


With more and more entrants to the healthy lifestyle space, brands are seeing a tremendous increase in competition. The scale became evident when we attended the 2015 Natural Products Expo West, the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event. There were over 2,700 and 634 of them were first-time exhibitors at the Expo with 634 of them being first-time exhibitors. With competitors popping up every day, it’s crucial to communicate unique values and benefits through strong brand positioning.


Consumers in this segment care about what they’re putting in (and on) their bodies and are getting savvier and more discerning with their research. To gain the trust of consumers, brands must become more transparent about their health claims and be clear about their manufacturing processes. For food companies, this means greater clarity into ingredients and the source of those ingredients. It’s important to help educate consumers about health and wellness claims. The pressure is on brands to create impactful content through channels like blogs, white papers and social media.


Living a healthier life is a decision that often requires changing old habits. Research shows that when people go through the process of trying something healthy, they’re likely to fall back into bad habits. Not terribly surprising. However, one thing we’ve learned is that personalization can be a highly effective way to help drive habit change. This can start from the purchase phase – creating unique interactive content to guide people to choose the right products or programs for them, and then taking it further post-purchase to push relevant content based on previous interests and behavior.

To continue to engage consumers, brands can provide relevant incentives or rewards to encourage the repetition needed for developing healthy habits. Automated email marketing can be a powerful tool to send timely reminders to support the new habit. The data gathered about interests can be used to push information through wearables and social networks. The goal is to create reminders and triggers that people can act upon to engage with a brand.

Future Opportunity

Brands can drive positive change in consumers’ lives by developing innovative products that clearly (and honestly) communicate healthy lifestyle benefits. The market opportunities are immense, but – increasingly – so is the competition. Strongly consider strategies, platforms and tactics that support personalization as an approach that will not only help you stand out from the competition that also reinforce the positive changes your consumers are trying to make in their lives.

Side note for agencies: Be smart about how you approach specialization. Choose your focus wisely and do the work necessary to turn your acumen in a particular area into unparalleled and widely acknowledged expertise.

About the author:

Sei-Wook Kim is a Principal and Co-Founder of Barrel, a digital agency based in New York City. He oversees Technology and Operations at the company. He started Barrel with Peter Kang in June 2006 while at Columbia University and graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. Barrel is now a 30-person agency with a broad range of clients including KIND Healthy Snacks, McGraw-Hill Education, Columbia University and NCR.

Illustration provided by Kate Sheridan