Sports performance has long been focused on achievement, strength, physical power, and the ability to push beyond everyday limits. To assist in these goals, for professionals and amateurs alike, there are now a huge range of food and drink options promising energy during matches, races, and workouts, as well as recovery and strength building. These products are often specially engineered to offer athletes exactly what is needed, in a way that goes beyond, say, a humble banana.

Many performance supplement brands rely on a range of cues that blend ideas of strength and power with scientific expertise. Black as a primary colourway is common, drawing on conventional cues of gyms, and the dark colour palettes of action movies to communicate a sense of physical intensity. Alongside this sense of intensity we often see the use of metallics, evoking both scientific expertise and engineering, as well as the colours of medals and trophies suggesting eventual competitive success.

These themes are seen across a range of sports performance products. The energy chew Clif Bloks, for example come in packs featuring capitalised, italicised type and radiating strips of silver-grey and saturated colours. Many protein powders use similar conventions of metallics, hints of saturated colour, and bold typefaces. These cues communicate products that provide a boost of power and energy. However they also imply an unnatural energy source, supporting a cultural narrative that performance is something beyond nature, and requires products that help the user go above and beyond what most humans (or foods) are capable of.

Other brands such as Styrkr and Maurten take a more scientific-minimalist approach, with all-black energy gel packets and very little type or imagery. In terms of language and product naming Maurten’s “Gel 100” or the straightforward “gel” language on Styrkr with a numerical suggesting to the ‘nth’ degree connotes mathematical and scientific formulation to take results above and beyond normal levels. These cues reinforce the idea of sports performance as something almost super-natural, an ability to transcend the natural limits of what is possible. However, with this pared-back approach these brands also invite the athlete in as a part of the scientific process, with gels, bars, etc. as ingredients and building blocks in a structured, thoughtful plan.

However, a handful of brands are demonstrating another evolution of performance, and how it is achieved. Veloforte is one example, with packs that retain some of the familiar cues of strength and performance – particularly elements of silver and bold capitalised type – while introducing gentle cursive fonts and imagery of food ingredients and flavours, set against coloured backgrounds. These packs suggest an idea of performance that emerges through an understanding of nutrition that is gentler and less ‘engineered.’ Form nutrition also shows a softer side to strength and performance, eschewing the convention of black for a soft shade of cream, alongside sun-washed imagery of natural landscapes. The photography of mountain peaks and untouched natural landscapes is associated with a different type of physical intensity, found in rugged outdoor activities and a close relationship with the natural world. In this sense achievement and performance are found less through escaping natural limits through artificial means, and more through engaging with and mastering what nature offers. By breaking with many conventions of performance food packaging, these brands are showing another understanding of “performance” which brings in a sense of balance and steadiness, more aligned with broader narratives of wellness and sustainability.

The range of representations of performance demonstrates a need to understand that consumer needs often involve an intersection of various interests and preferences, for example high performance but incorporating natural wellbeing and sustainability or thoughtful precision and agency over outcomes. Consumers take on many roles and identities in their lives, and specialised products such as performance nutrition must fit alongside their other needs and values. Ideas of nutrition, performance, success, and athleticism are all evolving and influencing one another, and there is an opportunity to create unique and specific offerings in this category by understanding the nuanced ways that products fit within consumers’ lives.

3 key takeaways for brands:

  1. Consider the wider social and cultural values of your target audience (e.g. natural wellness) and how your specific offering (for example performance) intersects with these other cultural narratives.
  2. Consider what makes your product unique – scientific formulation, natural ingredients, etc. – and how that can be used to communicate a unique perspective on performance.
  3. Consider how, when, and why consumers will use your product – how can your branding fit within those specific subcultural contexts and use moments?

Isobel Grad, Project Director

High Performance Semiotics: How performance brands can win in a crowded category