The pandemic has been a change catalyst for the supplement industry. Early on, from late February through the spring months, supplement brands shifted their focus from sales and marketing to maintaining inventory and protecting their supply chains. Both legacy and emerging supplement brands experienced unprecedented growth. The 2019 conversation about CBD ended abruptly and switched to immunity. An influx of casual and new supplement users were prompted to become more attentive to the benefits of herbal and dietary supplements, and those millions of supplement users who were already engaged in the category doubled down on their health and wellness routines.
The increasing proliferation of digitally-native brands has caused legacy supplement brands to see cracks emerging in their relevancy and market share.
Over the last few years, dozens of new supplement brands have launched as digitally-native, direct-to-consumer brands, and they’ve received heightened consumer attention during the pandemic while everyone is working from home and scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds. And because of this ever-increasing proliferation, many of the legacy brands that were for years the backbone behind what is now a $50+ billion dollar industry in the US, began to see cracks emerging in their relevancy and market share. Yet these challenges may currently be masked by the sheer force of pandemic demand.
This is an important time for legacy brands to wake up to these hidden challenges so that after the pandemic ends and the dust settles, they don’t find themselves running far behind the newer, upstart competition.
Maintaining a brand’s relevance in the supplement industry is an ongoing process and is key to long-term success. Brands that have enjoyed success over a long period of time are more susceptible to losing relevance than ever before. A brand’s long history can be both a blessing and a curse. Legacy brands can leverage their storied history, or they can feel out of touch with the times.
The new direct-to-consumer (DTC) supplement brands operate from the premise that if they can identify a target consumer segment that has a specific need, they will look to fulfill that need. Legacy brands often operate inversely: they first look at what they can make, and then seek the market. Unlike legacy brands that have broad portfolios of products and consumer targets, DTC brands often launch as single-product or single-purpose brands. These new brands therefore are able to focus their marketing with singular attention. It is not that these brands have a superstar product, but rather the product itself becomes the brand.
Take, for example, Ritual. At its core it launched a multi-vitamin for women — not a novel concept. Where the brand has excelled is knowing who its consumers are, not just demographically but also what motivates them and what they care about. It created a story that spoke directly to women and addressed their concerns. The result was a breakthrough brand. Once it established its high degree of relevance, its next step was to take that brand equity and expand into other products that target very specific audiences — teens, pregnant women, and men — while being strategic in creating the same kind of engagement with these new consumers.
Another DTC brand with a singular message is Persona, one of the first digitally-native personalization brands, that was acquired by Nestlé Health Science in 2019. (Full disclosure: my company, Pure Branding, helped them with their brand strategy and development and was an early investor.) Persona at first blush looks like a brand that offers many different supplements, but in truth it offers a single solution to an individual’s needs, not multiple solutions. Early on, the brand recognized who its target consumer segment was through the segmentation research that we fielded, and was then able to refine its brand messaging and marketing to that segment. This allowed the company to significantly reduce its cost of customer acquisition, and gain customers with the strongest lifetime value.
Another advantage that new DTC supplement brands are leveraging is their understanding of digital storytelling. Too many of the legacy brands have relied mainly on features and benefits, and with thousands of brands having so many of the same features and benefits, these ‘differentiators’ have become table stakes, not the reason to choose.
At Pure Branding we believe that when it comes to dietary supplements, passion trumps science. We don’t discount science — it’s the cost of entry for the supplement category and without it a brand can’t succeed. But many legacy supplement brands treat it as their primary value proposition. It is essential, but it isn’t what creates a passionate and committed brand following.
Instead, it is the ability to lead with the science in a brand voice that is emotionally engaging that encourages passion in a brand. What is striking about some of the emerging DTC brands is how they have been able to do this by humanizing the science through compelling and accessible storytelling.
Take Elysium, for example, and its new brain health supplement, Matter. It uses classic storytelling techniques and creates dramatic tension in its narrative. Because it knows who its consumer is, Elysium speaks intelligently to its audience without losing them. And being digitally native, with all of the metrics available with a digital platform, it knows how much information is enough and how much too little.
Another new DTC brand that leads with scientific, yet emotional storytelling is fatty15. Built around the discovery of the first essential fatty acid to be discovered in 90 years, its storytelling voice is smart, approachable, and engages as though the reader is in a two-way conversation. Without ever saying outright “our science and technology is superior” it engenders increasing trust the more you engage. And it also has multiple layers of storytelling, beyond the product itself to how it came into being and for whom. (Because the storytelling is so exquisite, I don’t want to ruin the experience for you, so I’ll just tease you with a single word — dolphins).
The new probiotic brand, Seed, weaves a fantastic tale of the potential of the microbiome and acts as a translational storyteller. This comes through in a depth of communication that celebrates the curiosity of scientific exploration in but makes it fun and engaging at the same time.
This is not to say that all legacy brands aren’t good at storytelling. Many are, but many have not chosen to tell their story, or they are telling the same story the same way that they have done for the past 20 years. And because they believe in the adage that ‘no one reads,’ they often end up with brand communication comprised mainly of bulleted text. The truth is, no one reads what is not interesting.
Another advantage that these emerging DTC brands leverage better than many legacy brands is the understanding that they are in a relationship with their customers; they are not just selling a product but an experience. And this is perhaps the most important edge they have in a pandemic. Because eventually the pandemic will end, and those who built a relationship that is memorable during this time will be considered the most trustworthy after it passes.
Another advantage that these emerging DTC brands leverage better than many legacy brands is the understanding that they are in a relationship with their customers; they are not just selling a product but an experience.
The relationship that these DTC brands foster is not transactional. They understand that they need to respond to what the consumer wants. This often entails a content marketing strategy that is prepared with relevant and timely responses. It may mean offering consumers a way to access health care professionals directly. It recognizes that people want to be seen as “the whole me” rather than just “the supplement consumer me.”
Ritual, for example, engages in serialized written and video content. It goes deep rather than shallow when communicating with its consumers, looking to address its community’s interests.
Some DTC brands are on a mission, and the supplements they sell are a part of their solution. A relatively new brand, De Lune, puts its “why” front and center as a rallying point. It is all about de-catastrophizing the menstrual cycle, and building a world where menstrual wellness is supported and celebrated. The fact that they sell natural supplements for specific relief is almost secondary to the cause. They are building community. And community creates a reason to stay connected to the brand.
Personalized nutrition brands like Persona and Care/of have expertly leveraged these different ways of communicating with their customers. Many legacy brands have begun to implement personalized nutrition platforms, but whether they will be communicating beyond the transaction (and providing a brand promise that’s more than just pills in a pack) is yet to be seen.
Know Thy Consumer
None of this is to say that after the pandemic the DTC brands will be the dominant brands. Not at all. What this does say is that right now consumers are attentive to brands that speak to them in ways that go beyond sale pricing or auto-ship discounts. That means it is just as important now to know exactly who your target consumers are and what they believe, think and do about their health and wellness. The mistake would be to look at year over year sales and think this tells you who your consumers are. Any lack of insight about your consumers prior to the pandemic remains a gap today.
The herbal and dietary supplement brands that will succeed post-pandemic and far into the future will be those that stay relevant by having a deep understanding of their consumer, engage through storytelling, and foster experiential relationships beyond the transactional.
A version of this article first appeared in Nutrition Business Journal’s December 2020 edition.