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Students Help Solve the China Protein Bar Riddle

Students present on Come Ready nutrition bars in China to company executives

No market currently exists for protein bars in China. Pat Cavanaugh (A&S ’90, MBA ‘93), founder and CEO of Come Ready Nutrition, is interested in changing that. This past spring term, he enlisted the help of Pitt Business undergraduate students to complete a comprehensive market-entry study for China for two of their protein bar products: Come Ready Clean and Come Ready Kids.

The experience was part of the Projects in Global Management course, taught by Executive-in-Residence and adjunct professor of international business Michael Johns, who has more than twenty years of experience in international marketing roles in China, Japan and Singapore.

Over the course of a semester, Pitt Business students completed a strategic analysis of Come Ready Nutrition’s proposal to bring its protein bars to the Chinese market. Students touched upon all key 

functional areas of marketing and sales, supply chain and logistics, and finance and accounting. In the process, they assessed everything from which flavors would be most appealing to Chinese consumers, to how the nutrition bars should be displayed at point of sale, to which Chinese cities and stores should participate in the rollout. The culmination of their work was a 60-minute strategy recommendation presentation to Cavanaugh and his director of marketing, Dave Sykes (MBA ’07).

From Concept to Implementation

Because the nutraceutical market is currently almost non-existent in China, awareness of the benefits of protein bars and other muscle-building health foods is low. In fact, the students discovered that the closest competitor to the Come Ready protein bars was SoyJoy, a soy-bean based, fruit-flavored bar.

To help Come Ready Nutrition make a splash in the market, the students suggested that Come Ready Nutrition target three primary consumer types — two for the Clean bar for adults, and one for the kid’s bar for children. The first consumer type, known as the “Sea Turtles,” are upper-middle-class consumers who travelled abroad and returned with a taste for western products, but have few places to get them. The second group, the Millennials, represent health-conscious calorie counters who are much like their counterparts in the U.S. The third group, the “Rushing Clan,” which refers to people born between 1975 and 1985, are highly concerned with purchasing healthy food for their children.

Among the Pitt Business students’ business ideas were:

  • Changing the nutrition bars’ flavors to something more palatable to Chinese tastes. For the adult bar: mango walnut, lychee vanilla, and green tea. For the children’s bar: kiwi and goji berry, red bean cake, and durian and vanilla.

  • Reducing the protein content in the bars to align them with local tastes and to help lower costs.

  • Reducing the size of the bars to more closely align them with candy bars and soy bars in the market.

  •  Implementing a multi-phased rollout strategy over a five-year period. The students suggested which retail stores and distributors would make the best partners.

From the Classroom, to the City, to the World

Executive in Residence Michael Johns reacts to the students' work

Projects in Global Management is the capstone requirement for Pitt Business Global Management majors. Experience-based Learning is the defining feature of the course. Rather than simply read about management theory, students read relevant case studies in international business and then apply their knowledge by working directly with a real client.

“Every year the project is for a real company, is a real project, and has to have an international component,” Johns said.

The Come Ready Nutrition team lead was Lauren Mills (BSBA ’15), who this fall will be pursuing her master’s degree in international business at IE Business School in Spain through a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship. She oversaw the work of her 12 peers, who were organized into the three different functional groups based on their backgrounds and interests.

Company owner Cavanaugh, a former Pitt basketball player, is involved in a number of sports marketing initiatives through his Cavanaugh Marketing Network. The Come Ready protein bars are part of The Crons Brand (“Come Ready or Never Start”), which also includes licensed sports apparel that has been worn by NCAA basketball teams.

At the close of the students’ presentation, Cavanaugh and Sykes complimented the students on their professionalism. They joked that it was a shame the students’ semester was ending because they wanted them to continue working with them on the project.

 “From a strategy standpoint, they’ve given us a lot of good background information that we can incorporate into our final plans,” Cavanaugh told the class.

Thanks to the students’ efforts, the day when protein bars are widely available in China may be sooner rather than later.