Ten years ago you had to work to find healthy options. They were either hidden in the forgotten corners of hard-to-acquire shelf space or you had to drive to your nearest college-town 'Whole Paycheck'.

Because of this, consumers started to believe two incorrect things about healthy products; they were more expensive and less convenient.

But neither were true. Eventually healthy companies achieved economy of scale--they could produce at competitive prices and command shelf space. Companies started to ditch the conventional marketing wisdom that healthy products were a niche industry for people willing to pay a premium for health benefits but sacrifice taste. Who would pay more for something that tastes worse? Exactly.

Healthy product companies today are thinking less about being an alternative and more about being a taste-first norm. Changing consumer preferences, a migration to more online shopping and opportunities in the food service business are making this possible.

The New Marketing Wisdom

Over 25 years Paddy Spence helped build Kashi, Nature's Gate and is now the CEO of Zevia. His goal has never been to change consumer behavior but rather create a better, healthier version of what people already love.

"In my experience, the path to creating a game-changing healthy consumer product starts with familiarity," said Spence. "A product or brand that combines the nostalgic feelings many of us have about the familiar favorites we grew up with, but replaces their artificial or unhealthy ingredients with better for you alternatives, is likely to be a winner. This is the path that we followed at Kashi cereal, and my colleague Robert Gay pursued with Silk Soy Milk."

Rob Volpe, CEO of Ignite 360, a consumer insights and strategy firm based in San Francisco builds on that same idea.

"The ante for healthy products has been raised. It used to be which product requires the least sacrifice on taste to give me the health benefit I want. Today, taste has come a long way. The focus is on your brand's promise to the consumer," said Volpe.

"Gluten free? Yawn, lots of options. What's your one thing? What makes you different? And listen to your consumers -- they'll tell you why they try you and then why they bought you again. The results might not align to your pre-conceptions...so won't you be glad you listened?"

Listening To Customers Creates Success

Baltimore's True Citrus started as an idea for the beverage industry to develop a product that maintained all the properties of fresh citrus (natural, health benefits, taste). The small company in a tough economy has grown an average of 30 percent per year in to a national beverage competitor found on shelves next to Crystal Light.

How did they do it? They never fell in to the trap of being a healthy product company. Instead they were a great-tasting company. That key distinction, a focus on taste above all else, allowed them to succeed.

True Citrus CEO, Al Soricelli said, "We try to identify what the consumer wants. We want a meaningful and trusting relationship. That's what makes us succeed. People organically loved the product and shared it. Social media has given us a platform."

Every new product, every decision True Citrus makes is run by their customers first. Customers are involved in choosing new product lines and flavors. That listening has created a consumer-company bond. In April 2016 independent research polled 700 True Citrus customers and found that 96 percent recommended their product to friends and family. The firm thought they had made a mistake.

Now the company has its sight set on changing another category. "One of the areas we are focusing the next 2/3 years is the food service business. It's even bigger than retail business," said Soricelli. "When people eat away from home, often they don't have a choice other than water. We can offer a choice."

Getting in to fast-food, schools, vending machines and other opportunities are where healthy products can go next as they deliver comparable prices and have economy of scale.

Direct To Consumer

People are buying their groceries more and more off Amazon or through services that buy and deliver their groceries from local supermarkets. Savvy marketers are making appeals to this trend.

"As online grocery shopping increases, research shows that shoppers search for products by name, making top of mind awareness and branding even more important," said Victoria Nuevo-Celeste, VP Marketing at Sun Pacific. "Cuties and Mighties (Sun Pacific brands) provide consumers the peace of mind that the fresh products they are buying, without being able to smell or touch, deliver on the quality promise they come to expect from our brands.

More than 7-out-of-10 millennial moms look for kid-friendly brands as a way to get their kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, and when surveyed about their favorite kid-friendly brand, Cuties was at the top. In fact, Cuties are now the preferred mandarin brand of millennials.

"We invest in building an emotional connection between our brand and parents and their children. We tap into what is important to them, so we can deliver on it," said Nuevo-Celeste.

It's the connection with the consumer that is key. Consumer taste may change but they'll always value taste. Build a great brand that is also healthy instead of trying to turn a health benefit in to a brand.

Published on: Apr 13, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.