Our journey at Levels began with a commitment to do something no other supplement company was doing.
Since then, we’ve learned more than we ever imagined about the sports nutrition business, about finding and listening to our core customers, and about how goals can evolve and change in unexpected ways.
And now we’re advancing the Levels brand with a serious upgrade.
We’re not just talking about cosmetics, here. Whether you’re a loyal customer, a potential affiliate, or a branding and design geek, this article will give you a look behind the scenes and deeper insight into our future direction.
My name is Blake Niemann. I’m the Founder and CEO of Levels and a lifelong entrepreneur, fitness enthusiast and self-improvement junkie. This is the story of how and why I founded Levels.
When I was 13 years old, I first became fascinated with exercise and weight training and started spending a lot of time working out in a commercial gym. I made it a habit, and it soon became an anchor for me that helped me become more confident and develop as a young person.
More recently, as an adult, I became passionate about metabolic conditioning (CrossFit, in other words), strength training, endurance training, and yoga for recovery and flexibility.
That’s when I took a closer look at the sports supplement industry and realized it hadn’t changed since I first started weight training.
I noticed that most of the products and their presentation were severely outdated: all-black canisters, synthetic or “pharmaceutical” style branding, an old-school meathead feel, and ingredients that many consumers would rather avoid (sucralose, dyes, artificial flavors, fillers, and so forth).
I studied Global Supply Chain Management and Entrepreneurship in school, and my family had always supported my desire to take risks and pursue my ideas in the form of starting a business. So I began a thorough assessment of the supplement market.
I soon learned that supplements were a $250-300 billion market globally, and that the protein powder market was a huge chunk of that.
I’m not going to tell you that my motivation to start Levels originated from “trying to find something that didn’t exist for myself,” but I did see a huge business opportunity here. As I saw it, I'd also be able to engage and create value in an area that I’d been passionate about for well over half my life.
Back before Levels, my first startup failed because of manufacturing issues, so I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. My very first real step towards creating Levels was to identify suppliers.
I nailed down whey protein for the initial product launch, because I knew it was the highest quality protein powder supported by the best research for fitness and nutrition purposes — as well as one of the biggest sectors of the supplement market.
The idea was to launch on Amazon first and foremost, because it has such a low barrier to entry. I could potentially get my new company’s products in front of 200-300 million customers practically overnight, which could take several lifetimes to do in a brick and mortar setting. Not to mention the fact that instant feedback (in the form of sales numbers, reviews and ratings, and comments) is the single most valuable thing an entrepreneur can receive in the early stages of business.
Once I was confident I’d spent enough time scouting and vetting suppliers, I designed the packaging and logo myself. As a detail-oriented perfectionist without formal training in graphic design, let’s just say that the process was laborious.
I thought showcasing a cow would be emblematic of what sets us apart in the eyes of customers. Back then, and even now, if you do an Amazon search for whey protein powder, nearly all the results scream synthetic, pharmaceutical, or meathead (or all three).
I knew Bessie the cow (as we call her at the office) would stand out next to all the aggressive, over the top, red and black fonts and glossy labels. The original label design looks amateur to me now, but it was a start.
Another innovation I came up with was to offer protein in a bag inside of a box, which our original customers will most likely remember. Essentially, it was a bag of protein powder inside of an oversized cereal box.
Finally, I also wanted to distinguish Levels by offering unique flavors. The ice cream and candy style flavors most manufacturers offered felt played out, boring, and less than healthy.
So I offered healthy, all-natural flavors: unflavored, chocolate, and strawberry. But I also went out on a limb and invented some fruit and veggie blended flavors like “Orange Pineapple Carrot” and “Pineapple Apple Beet.”
Sure enough, post-launch, I got the instant feedback I was looking for on Amazon. And fortunately, I lucked out with more positive reviews than negative.
Sometimes startups get obliterated by Amazon reviews, but that didn’t happen. Very quickly, sales velocity actually reached a point where I had enough input to draw some important conclusions.
Here’s a summary of the critical feedback, which was unbelievably helpful:
- Bag and box isn’t the way to go. Canisters are popular for a reason: customers believe it preserves freshness better, and it’s certainly easier to access.
- Mixed fruit/veg flavors are too weird. People were still expecting traditional flavors, and the fruit and veggie blends were out of left field. (But customers did like our understated, classic flavors.)
- Price point matters. Our initial price points were above the threshold many customers wanted to pay for the product, regardless of quality. I realized that needed to change for our growth to continue.
Equally important, here’s what customers loved, and what ultimately helped me make informed decisions about my next major moves:
- Simple was refreshing and different. Levels didn’t over-promise, over-hype, or market people to death. Surprisingly, it turned out that simple was the best way to get people’s attention.
- Bessie the cow told a story. Before customers clicked buy or even added our product to the cart, she told them what our brand was all about and what made it different.
- What wasn’t in the product was also important. Customers loved the lack of weird, artificial ingredients and unnecessary fillers.
The next step was to apply these valuable lessons in a meaningful way.
So in late 2017, one year after launch, I made the switch to a simple, stark white canister with a black cap. The new label used old-timey branding, a slightly whimsical font, and a stamp of approval logo to convey the cleanliness of our products.
And I knew the cow was essential — she symbolized clean, natural ingredients to customers (and to me). I commissioned a new rendition of Bessie by a renowned graphite artist out of Oklahoma.
The “back to basics” style label was intended to not only look good in person, but also to be clear, powerful, and legible on the screen in thumbnail form (on an eCommerce shelf, in other words).
Along with the aesthetic and packaging changes, I tweaked the price of our flagship 5 pound whey protein downward and discontinued the fruit-veggie blends. In place of the old blends, I introduced Vanilla Cinnamon (inspired by cereal milk) and Chocolate Mocha, a coffee-based flavor.
From that moment in late 2017, Levels took off like a rocket ship. In a nutshell, it was hockey stick growth fueled by overwhelmingly positive reviews.
These small changes soon took Levels from a little-known protein powder to a top brand.
At that point, it was all still me (Blake). I did the vast majority of the work, never took any venture capital (still haven’t), and remained a completely profitable company.
From “I” to “We”
Sustained, grassroots-driven profitability is what’s driven the ability to grow the company bigger.
Today, the full-time team at Levels consists of Koren, Max, and Matt, all hired thanks to our exponential growth.
We’ve experienced a level of success we never anticipated, run out of stock a few times, and had our struggles, but we knew we were headed somewhere.
The question was: where?
I knew we had an authentic, compelling story, and a different way of doing things that set us apart from the competition.
Here’s our brand’s story up to 2018-2019, as conveyed by a writer I hired to help:
"We recognized supplements hadn’t changed but everything around them had. What existed was a hellscape of products loaded with artificial sweeteners, imitation flavors, and bogus fillers. We ditched the played out model that’s been used for years and began to reimagine supplements with purposeful nutrition and clean ingredients. What emerged were products for anyone’s lifestyle, whether a daily grinder or powerlifter, yogi or martial artist, jogger or surfer."
We still use this today, but we decided together we wanted to develop a culture as a company that would serve us for many years to come. We knew we could improve and grow.
The Next Level
By that point in the story, we felt we had a good understanding of what our products were about and what they meant to people.
Here’s Levels, described in three words: “Nothing Fake. Ever./b>.”
It resonates with customers, it motivates our team, and it’s simply the truth.
But what did these insights mean for everything and everyone else? For us, for what we do, and for the customers we serve and the things they do?
We put plenty of time into thinking about it, and here’s what we concluded.
At its core, the entire Levels brand is built around quality, simplicity, and NOT seeing anything out of place on the ingredients list.
So our task became to apply that philosophy to every area of the business, not just the literal, physical ingredients on our product labels.
Just because a competitor, or even the industry as a whole does something, doesn’t mean we should do the same. We started questioning everything in exactly the same way I’d first gone about branding Levels: by removing what wasn’t vital.
This new perspective has led to the reworking of existing product labels, a brand new creative process, a website overhaul, and the discovery of extremely inspirational and ambitious goals for the future.
New Branding & Identity at Levels
Team members Matt Legrice and Koren Delos Santos are heading up branding direction at Levels from now on. They’re in charge of brand look, aesthetics, packaging labels, photo direction, and more.
They have the final say in those areas, and it’s their responsibility to hone in and make sure they’re all executed appropriately and cohesively.
Here are some thoughts from Matt, whom we consider to be a master of conveying substance through style.
- We don't want to hide behind flashy graphics and gimmicky marketing tactics. We want our brand to speak for itself. As clear as possible and to the point.
- A photo of a ripped athlete with a canister in front of them feels forced and unnatural. That’s selling the product, not selling the lifestyle. We want to promote the everyday fitness lifestyle in an approachable way.
- We want our photography to capture real people in real moments. In a way that doesn’t feel staged but instead reflects the grit and glory as someone is grinding out their last rep or recovering from a grueling sprint.
- Our branding and imagery is about embodying the Levels credo. Levels feels spot-on for athletes in general, but also for the daily grinder who goes on a run every morning.
- We know the selling points of our products, so we don’t feel a need to over-promise or over-sell. Our focus is on the impact of words: talking to you directly and honestly without bullshitting, not hard-selling. Transparency at its finest.
We spent the time to build solid design systems and guidelines to drive our design choices as opposed to following short term design trends.
Future-proofing is more important than chasing short-term goals, and helps us stay focused on what matters in the long run.
Thinking long-term, we knew the illustrative package labeling style featuring Bessie (the cow) could only go so far.
First off, it wouldn’t work with capsules or pre-workout style products.
And second, it was already causing some confusion between whey protein and collagen protein, because both packages featured cows.
We were also facing some incongruence between the MCT Oil packaging and the rest of our products, which made the branding feel less than cohesive overall.
The new labels (other than whey) are pictureless to reflect our focus on simplicity and essentialism.
Now we can fast-track new offerings without redesigning labels from the ground up.
We didn’t want to risk removing Bessie from our flagship whey protein, and we wanted our loyal customers to easily know by looking at any of our labels that we’re still the same brand they trust.
Side by side, you can see it’s still the same brand.
And this label rebrand gives us more agility and a way to expand our product line going forward without rethinking every product or confusing customers.
Another central feature of our rebrand is the new Levels logo. It’s what’s known as a chevron, which is a line or stripe in the shape of a V. In our case, that V is inverted, indicating upward movement: progressing forward and upward.
Matt was instrumental in redesigning the UI (user interface) of our website and product pages.
The new website features tons of open space. Instead of a graphics-heavy format, we are using minimal imagery to convey an established, “refined” image that reflects how far we’ve come.
We are striving for a super-clean user experience with images of customers and real people. The product pages feature no-nonsense explanations in ultra-simple terms.
The purpose of open space is to keep the website clean and straightforward, like our products.
We want photos of people to be the opposite of stock photos. To capture what it truly feels like in the moment when you’re doing the work, exercising hard or competing.
That’s what makes the look of the Levels brand unique.
Our typography choices paired with our photography style implies simplicity, cleanliness, intentionality, and focus.
We are also adopting a consistent voice and tone that reflect our values across our entire web presence. Blogs, product pages, advertising, FAQs, emails, social media, and everywhere else.
Here are the key elements:
- Authentic conversation
We want our customer base to trust us for the right reasons.
Regardless of experience level, from first-timers to advanced individuals, elite athletes, and even experts, we want to offer something of value to everyone.
That means our content needs to be understandable to someone at a starter level, but also ring true (and hopefully even offer real value) to someone who’s at the top of their field.
In the end, the marketing is less about us and more about the athletes and passionate individuals that drive our brand.
Our team is made up of athletes, fitness goers, and daily grinders. We like to spend our free time exercising and being active, looking for ways to get better.
We want Levels to be a destination and a home for people with similar passions.
We’re turning our site into an active, dynamic platform that delivers value for our entire readership and customer base, while also attracting more people who resonate with our mission.
We want to earn a reputation as an authority on fitness and nutrition and to nurture a lifestyle that’s inclusive for everyone from beginners to pros. It’s about featuring and honoring people from athletes and people from all walks of life who strive to better themselves.
All of that without compromising, diluting, or straying from our core values.
New Ways of Providing Value
Over the past year, our content strategy has become an essential way to create value, reach our audience, and educate people on health and fitness and the science behind them.
The key has been to break these complex topics down into layman’s terms that everyday people can understand, but with proper scientific sources and attention to detail.
So of course we’ll continue what’s been working, while also expanding and branching out.
One way we’re building on that success is by offering video versions of popular blogs, which allow us to reach a different audience with high-performing content.
We’ll also feature content that honors the people behind the products. We want to explore the ways and reasons people use our products, including athletes, beginners, intermediate level people, advanced individuals, and people on transformation journeys.
And now that we’ve established what works, we also have the freedom to explore new product offerings.
In the near future you can expect food products, more gear, and more top-of-the-line supplements.
Finally, we’re upping our transparency in a few different ways.
- Levels Unlocked: a video series inviting customers behind the scenes, targeted at explaining our brand and who’s behind the company and why we do what we do.
- Our thought process: why we create what we create and why we select certain ingredients.
- Product sourcing: fully disclosing where products come from.
- Quality testing: certificates of analysis, heavy metal testing, and more.
This level of transparency is rare in any industry, let alone the supplement industry.
If our mission gets you fired up too, here are the best ways to get in touch and stay up to date:
Follow us on Instagram, subscribe to our YouTube channel for new content based on our most popular guides and articles, or like us on Facebook (be sure to “Follow” and “See First” if you want to get all our updates).
We’re also interested in potential team members.
If you think you could contribute to what we do, the best way to contact us is sending an email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether you’ve been a customer from the start or just caught wind of what we do, we want to thank you for your support and input and for being a part of the Levels journey.
We’ll see you out there.