Why Gnarly Nutrition Ditched Plastic Tubs for Steel

Marketing director Liz Esche makes the case for progress through packaging

Gnarly Nutrition was founded in 2012 to offer clean, nutritional products and educational information to elite athletes, people who work with a trainer, and the everyday, active person looking to make gains.

The company made headlines in September when it announced it would begin using steel packaging for most products, replacing plastic tubs. This change resulted in an increase in price, marking the first time the company raised prices in its nearly decade-long existence.

For our On Brand series, we spoke with Liz Esche, Gnarly's marketing director, about the company's transition to steel, why it was important, and how most plastic tubs are unable to be recycled more than a few times.

"Gnarly's founder and president, Eli Kerr, worked for a long time in this realm of outdoor recreation with athletes and realized there was this gap of knowledge that was lacking," says Esche. "Nutritional information was only given to high-level athletes who are competitive and professional, or athletes who are really gym-focused and working with trainers who might acquire that knowledge."

"But a lot of athletes in the outdoor realm and in mountain sports were not getting this knowledge or realizing what supplements and nutrition would help their performance build strength," continues Esche.

Kerr saw this gap and along with some others created Gnarly Nutrition. 

"It's a very outdoor-minded brand," Esche says. "We're there for everyone from the weekend warriors to Olympic climbers. Nathaniel Coleman was on our athlete team. He just took silver in sport climbing at the Tokyo Olympics. We're there to help fill that nutritional gap and help people perform stronger, get out there for longer, and just feel good while they're doing it. Almost our entire line is NSF certified, which is label tested. That's a standard that not every other company has. Our entire line is GMO-free, it's gluten free, it's soy free."

With a penchant for the outdoors and awareness of the environment, Gnarly's CPO and COO, Shannon O'Grady, began researching eco-friendly ways to package the protein that didn't involve plastic tubs, which have a small shelf life on the frequency they can be recycled. The company struck steel.

"We are very conscious of our impact on the environment, and the supplement industry is frankly one of the worst offenders," Esche says. "If you walk into any grocery store, you're going to see a sea of plastic tubs. And that really was bothering us as a company, especially our CPO [O'Grady]."

The plastic tubs are not curbside recyclable throughout the country. "In addition, plastic has about one to two lifecycles—if recycled correctly—before it starts breaking down into microplastics," Esche explains. "So that was incredibly problematic. We knew it was problematic as we were growing this brand. It was just not something we wanted to continue. After a ton of research, Shannon landed on these steel canisters."

The beauty of steel is it's infinitely recyclable, so it will never break down.

"All new manufactured steel is already using 75 percent of recycled steel," Esche says. "I believe 70-80 percent of steel is recycled properly. It can go on curbside. It's also magnetic, which means a lot of sorting systems, when they are sorting through trash or recyclables, use magnets to pull out metals. So even if it does get tossed in the wrong bin, there's still a large chance that it will be pulled out and sorted correctly. We felt much much better about that. We are the only supplement brand that we know of that is using steel in this way. We're by no means thinking that we are the only ones that are going to do this. We hope to inspire others as well, because it is an industry-wide issue." 

The move from plastic to steel was in line with Gnarly's overall brand positioning of respecting the outdoors—the recreational playground used by so many of Gnarly's consumers—and doing their part to keep their environmental footprint down to a minimum. It also came with a price increase, marking the first time the company did so in nine years.

"We raised our prices between $1 and $1.50 per product because of this overall update in packaging," Esche says. "In the past year we also upgraded our bags, so our bags are recyclable plastic. We're still investigating even better solutions. And then we upgraded our plastic tubs to steel.

"In order to get it down to a price that we could afford—because we're not massive—we had to buy more products in advance, more than we've ever bought at one time. Raised prices across the entire line made sure that we could cover the costs and continue to keep searching for new solutions and look toward the future and invest in the research on how we can continue to improve our packaging, because this is definitely not the end of the story. We are not perfect and we know we're not perfect, and we want to continue to address the issues that we see in our packaging and shipping. Nobody seems to mind the extra money. For our customer base, the outdoors is their play space so anything we can do to protect it they are 100 percent on board. We've definitely had some questions about how to open the cans."

Think of the packaging as something similar to a paint can. Users pry open the lid, remove the seal and pop the lid back on. Esche feels the steel packaging reseals better than the plastic tubs ever did.

While Gnarly has a dedicated elite-athlete following, the brand considers itself a marketer to athletes of any fitness levels, from elites to someone who exercises a few times a week.

"We're one of the few companies in the outdoor industry that really approaches the full spectrum of every customer," notes Esche. "Any level of athlete is who we want to talk to. That's actually where we usually see this huge educational gap between what you can use that will help you reach your fitness and strength goals versus someone who is achieving those super high levels, climbing those mountains. They are probably aware of nutrition. Someone talked to them. But the daily weekend warrior, the person who is running a couple of times a week, whether it's on the road or on the trail, probably hasn't been approached about nutrition.

"If you look at everything we put out there, it's very educational first because we want people to understand that there are products that can make you feel better while you are doing the activities you enjoy. It can make you stronger and help you achieve those very personal goals. We are not trying to sell something to someone that they don't need."

The small, community vibe is how word about the brand began to spread—on a local, grassroots level. These days, Gnarly dabbles in nearly every form of advertising, from influencer marketing to social media and athlete sponsorships.

"Gnarly was built on relationships," says Esche. "We were getting that immediate feedback from the athletes and the community using our products. Gnarly's based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and there were a lot of friends of friends who were immediately engaged and interested in using the products that Gnarly was putting out.

"We were founded on that influencer and grassroots marketing style. In 2022, we're looking to grow quite quickly. We amped up digital spend, social advertising. We have some really strong partnerships. We've been a sponsor of USA Climbing for a number of years, working with them to put out a lot of educational information. We're working with Trail Sisters this year. It's this combination of partnerships and very select, targeted advertising. I'm not looking to send a vague message to as many people as I could possibly reach. I want to send very targeted messaging to select audiences that's based on education that's helping people understand what's best for them."

The rise of user-generated content and posting videos online of workouts and meal plans/prepping has served as a boost to Gnarly and the nutrition industry as a whole.

"One of the reasons it's very important for us to be a relationship-focused company is because nutrition is not something that is often very visible," concludes Esche. "We've benefited a lot—and I think all nutrition and supplement brands have benefitted—from this new age of user-generated content and video content. It allows more eyes to see how you might prepare something in a certain type of shake or favorite recipe.

"When the world was just super image focused, it wasn't easy to get an image of an athlete using your nutrition that felt authentic because it's not something you do in front of the world. If you're a climber or a runner repping an apparel brand, the apparel is going to be right there at every moment. Nutrition happens behind closed doors. Or it's in your water bottle or in your pocket. The video age has been much kinder to nutritional and supplement brands."

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