The 12 Most Common Supplement Branding Mistakes

From startups to established brands, here are the 12 patterns we’ve seen supplement brands falling into over the last 20 years.

From years of working with leading dietary supplement brands, we know these are the hard truths you face. While each company has its own unique set of challenges, there is more commonality than difference. Established leaders, with decades of success and revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, aren’t any more immune to these mistakes than their smaller competitors with $20 million in revenue.

1. They lead with the science.

Science is critically important because it ensures that your products are efficacious, that you’re using the right ingredient in the right dose. But when everyone is making the same claims, science becomes the cost of entry at best and just noise to the consumer at worst. The father of what we know as modern “positioning,” the late Jack Trout, may have called supplement science the “credentials” — they have to be there to support your claim of difference. But when everyone is using the same claim of difference (and let’s be realistic, your competitors are making those very same claims), it becomes meaningless.

2. They are hindered by a lack of consumer insight.

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 clients ask us is: “We don’t know who our customers or consumers are. Can you help us find out?” Understanding your customers empowers you to make decisions informed by data — not by guesses.

3. They don’t know what they stand for, their bigger mission in the world.

This isn’t always the case in the larger natural products space. But with supplement brands, too often the mission identified is generic — “to help people optimize their health.” From conducting dozens of workshops with supplement companies’ leadership teams, we know that behind every successful brand there’s a deeper mission just waiting to be articulated. Don’t fall back on generic platitudes.

4. They believe that technology/science differentiates them.

I told you earlier about the mistake of leading with the science. The other trap is thinking that your technology or science differentiates you from the competition. It doesn’t. Differentiation comes from what you believe and what you stand for in the world. Your technology and science should support that, but they don’t differentiate you to your consumer.

5. They believe their solution is the best.

You can test this yourself by walking the floor of any trade show where supplement brands, both B2C and B2B, are on display. Everyone thinks they have the best something. Research psychologists have identified that humans have a natural tendency to overestimate their own abilities, achievements and performance, best exemplified by the proverbial “Lake Wobegon effect,” where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” If you hear this nonstop from every brand, it becomes unbelievable.

6. They believe they’re competing against similar products only, rather than larger need states.

We often do a simple exercise with our clients called “Don’t Sell Me.” If we were to use the Volvo brand as an example, the exercise would go something like this: “Don’t sell me a Volvo, sell me ________.” You can fill in the blank yourself here and if you landed on “safety,” you get it. Volvo isn’t selling a car. They’re selling the need state of safety. For nutrition brands, we need to move beyond structure/function — not because it’s limiting, but because it doesn’t address the human needs behind the features and benefits.

7. They work from historical or anecdotal assumptions rather than data.

My colleague Peter Littell recently wrote a piece on confirmation bias after reading the new book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project. In the book, Lewis shares that as humans, we’re naturally inclined to fixate on first impressions, and those end up informing our decision making. Historical or anecdotal assumptions also are a form of bias, and good market research can either prove or disprove them.

8. They believe that high quality is more than just the cost of entry.

See number 5, “They believe their solution is the best,” above. Enough said.

9. They focus on their operations at the expense of their marketing.

If only the marketing departments were given as much attention as the manufacturing plants. In the plant, everything is measurable, and there are feedback loops to bring things back into spec if they fall out. In contrast, marketing is treated as a dark art or the thing that the fun people on the second floor get to do. It’s not seen as a business driver. I encourage all of you to invest in marketing the way you would your new encapsulation machine. And make it measurable.

10. They struggle to communicate their manufacturing processes/IP in a clear and simple way.

This one is a partner to the science. Don’t create fancy names for simple things. Don’t get too detailed, or share information that is uninteresting to anyone without an engineering degree. Be clear, honest and human. You all have interesting, unique stories to tell. And even if they’re not unique, other people may not be telling them.

11. They are afraid of and/or resistant to transparency.

I’ve written about this extensively here, here and here. It’s 2017 and transparency is happening, with or without your blessing. If Amazon can do it, so can you. But here’s the thing about transparency: don’t confuse it with just putting things on the label or making your testing and manufacturing specifications accessible. Transparency is about a relationship, one of trust and accountability. You don’t have to be doing everything perfectly before deciding to be “transparent.” Transparency is about not only celebrating your achievements but also sharing where you aren’t living up to your own standards. Just as you’ll forgive a friend who confides in you with a painful truth, so will your brand users forgive you.

12. They reactively let small competitors frame the conversation.

Many brands get distracted by the “ankle biters,” the upstart brands that start co-opting the language of the leader. That’s their job. Of course they’re going to do that. But it’s your job as a leader not to take the bait. Leaders don’t react, they innovate. They stay in front by having a vision for the future. Go ahead and let the followers copy you. Chances are, you’ll be so far ahead of them, they won’t be able to keep up.

OK, so you’ve made it through this list. You can take a breath. Recognize your situation in any of these patterns? I encourage you to take the time and revisit each of these 12 mistakes, determining the unique way your brand can avoid the pitfalls that so many of your peers in the supplement industry fall into.