I, like so many others in the nutrition industry, can trace my introduction to integrative medicine through my own health journey, which included receiving a protocol 30 years ago that included handfuls of dietary and herbal supplements. My conventional doctors were astonished when subsequent tests returned negative results for a condition they assumed I’d be managing over a lifetime.
What was once a sales-centric channel characterized by brands making undifferentiated claims of professionalism and superior quality, in which relationships held substantial sway, is undergoing a transformation into a brand-centric and marketing-driven domain.
The integrative medicine landscape for health care professional (HCP) supplement brands was notably simpler during the 1980s and mid-1990s. Back then, establishing a presence in the industry primarily entailed crafting a superior line of supplements, securing the endorsement of a charismatic founder or influential key opinion leaders (KOLs), and assembling a proficient sales force that functioned as educators as much as they did as salespeople. These dedicated sales representatives would diligently visit HCP offices, conducting informative seminars and engaging in lunch-and-learn sessions. As a result, professional grade formulations became a central component of integrative care, and similarly, a key source of revenue that helped support the practitioner to spend more time with the complexities of this kind of care.
During this nascent period, patients displayed little concern for the brands themselves; their loyalty lay with their trusted practitioners. To those patients, the HCP was the brand. Patients exclusively procured these products from the physical dispensary of their HCPs, who had purchased these products at wholesale prices, retailed them to patients with a significant markup, and required patients to return to their offices for subsequent purchases. This environment fostered the growth and exclusivity of these brands within this controlled domain.
Throughout the 1980s and mid-1990s, the channel experienced steady expansion, as consumers encountered a growing array of supplement brands in health food stores and mainstream retail channels. Concurrently, an increasing influx of health and wellness information from various sources, including media and friends and family, contributed to consumer choices. Nevertheless, the HCP retained ownership of the direct sales relationship with the patient, enjoying the assurance of patients returning for office consultations and supplement replenishments.
The early 2000s to the early 2010s marked a pivotal shift driven by the rapid expansion of digital and e-commerce platforms. Distributors that were founded in the preceding decades evolved into influential entities, providing wholesale supplies to physical dispensaries and offering patient fulfillment and drop ship options. Additionally, many HCPs discovered opportunities to generate supplementary income by diverting or reselling the products they procured at wholesale prices, both from the brands themselves and through distributors, on emerging e-commerce platforms like Amazon. Consequently, numerous HCP brands initiated legal actions to thwart such product diversion, attempting to safeguard their exclusivity within the HCP channel.
During this transformative period, consumers began seeking health information through online platforms such as Google and WebMD, alongside the wealth of health-related content from news media and interpersonal connections.
Today’s HCP brands now face the imperative of reevaluating their HCP exclusivity strategies.
The last decade leading up to the present day has been characterized by marketplace adaptation. Consumers are inundated with an abundance of content accessible through online research, the influence of social media personalities, health and wellness websites, mobile applications, as well as input from friends and family members. Large strategic entities and private equity firms have initiated consolidation efforts within the HCP brand landscape, exerting pressure on brands to expand beyond the traditional HCP channel.
HCP brands, which previously committed to maintaining exclusivity within the HCP channel, now face the imperative of reevaluating their strategies. Consumers increasingly seek the convenience of purchasing products from wherever they choose, with Amazon serving as the preferred destination for many. Consequently, most HCP brands have assumed direct control over their presence on Amazon, while even those that have not formalized such arrangements may tacitly permit resellers to do so, rather than forgoing potential revenue from this channel. Consequently, consumers may initially acquire products through their HCP’s office or online dispensary but subsequently opt for repurchases via Amazon.
What was once a sales-centric channel characterized by brands making undifferentiated claims of professionalism and superior quality, in which relationships held substantial sway, is undergoing a transformation into a brand-centric and marketing-driven domain. Brands must now confront the imperative of enhancing their marketing competencies in both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) spheres to maintain their relevance and standing in this evolving landscape.
As brands navigate this transformative era where professional supplement brands evolve into omnichannel consumer brands, it is imperative to recognize and address the challenges that lie ahead. These challenges underscore the need for adaptability, innovation, and a nuanced understanding of healthcare professional and consumer dynamics.
Here are the top issues that professional supplement brands must confront to ensure their continued relevance in this changing landscape:
Bridge Science with Emotion
A commitment to scientific rigor remains paramount. Brands must continue to prioritize the dissemination of evidence-based information, emphasizing the scientific foundations of their products for their HCP customers. But when all professional brands use the same claims of difference, it becomes meaningless. And to the consumer, the science is just noise. Brands must aim to evoke emotion, forging authentic connections by aligning with shared values. Balancing science with emotion allows brands to stand out, ensuring their message resonates profoundly with both healthcare professionals and consumers in a crowded marketplace.
Increase Customer Insight
HCP supplement brands may be rigorous in terms of their commitment to research, but they more often than not fall short when it comes to furthering their understanding of their own customers through market research. Often the first question our clients ask us is: “We don’t know who our customers are. Can you help us find out?” Understanding your customers empowers you to make decisions informed by data — not by guesses.
Define a Bigger Mission
With professional supplement brands, too often the mission identified is a generic “supporting healthier lives”-type platform. From conducting dozens of workshops with supplement companies’ leadership teams, we know that behind every successful professional supplement brand there’s a deeper mission just waiting to be articulated. Don’t fall back on generic platitudes.
Go Beyond Product Superiority
It’s commonplace in the practitioner channel to claim one’s product line is unequivocally superior. Clean products and exceptional quality are no longer distinguishing features for professional brands — they are a fundamental expectation rather than a competitive edge. HCP brands need to craft a brand-level compelling story that resonates with an increasingly knowledgeable and skeptical customer.
Balance Operations & Marketing
While operational excellence is crucial, brands must strike a balance between optimizing operations and investing in robust brand and marketing strategies. We’ve seen many brands in this space prioritize operational CapEx at the expense of long-term brand and marketing investments.
The intricacies of manufacturing processes and intellectual property (IP) can be challenging to convey. HCP brands must invest in clear and transparent communication to build trust with their customers. In an era of increasing demand for transparency, resistance to openness can be detrimental. Brands should proactively embrace transparency as a means of building credibility and trust.
In navigating these challenges, it’s essential for professional brands to proactively shape the narrative rather than allowing competitors to dictate the conversation. Marketing strategies need to evolve to engage both practitioners and consumers effectively. By addressing these issues head-on, brands can not only adapt to this new world but also thrive in an environment where consumers expect more than ever before from the products they choose to embrace.
This article originally appeared in the Nutrition Business Journal October 2023 Branding & Marketing Issue.