Why Successful Supplement Brands Don’t Lead with the Science

Science is critical, but when everyone is making the same claims, science becomes the cost of entry—and just noise to the consumer.

If there is a single rallying cry I’m helping our clients in the dietary supplement space get on board with, it’s “Don’t lead with the science!”

I speak about this topic from a brand strategy perspective regularly at supplement industry events, and I’m heartened by the fact that I’ve even been approached after my talks by scientists who’ve said to me, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

Credibility ultimately comes from brand meaning, and not the science.

Science is critically important because it ensures that your products are effective, and 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.

If the father of what we know as modern positioning, the late Jack Trout, were alive today, he would have called supplement science the “credentials”—it has to be there to support your claim of difference, the reasons to believe. 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.

So many supplement brands have built their positioning around structure/function, features, and benefits—communication that often leads with the science. The issue is not whether scientific evidence exists and should be shared, but rather how that evidence is positioned in relation to gaining the trust of the consumer.

We know from our research that credibility ultimately comes from brand meaning, and not the science. The science just adds assurance. The clarity of a successful brand allows us to connect with it beyond the clutter of competing claims and features by allowing us to meet it more authentically and humanly.

So if I’m telling you not to lead with the science, what should you lead with?

I believe you should lead with passion.

We live in a world where consumers expect transparency, where they can access as much or as little information about your brand as they need. This new expectation of transparency can lead to emotional connection with the brand. At every point of connection, there needs to be a human element to connect with.

Talking about aspects of your business that have a human element creates an emotional connection that often translates into belief that the product is of higher quality and therefore more desirable than similar products. This is backed up by recent research Pure Branding conducted on The ROI of Transparency, which reveals the human factors—beyond the supply chain—that consumers value most and will pay more for when it comes to supplement brand transparency.

We have a saying at Pure Branding: “When it comes to dietary supplements, passion trumps science.” Although this passion is manifested differently for each brand, at its core it seeks to inspire, guide, and motivate—and, in its largest sense, inspire a movement that defines a way of life. A brand that taps into this passion with its consumers doesn’t need to lead with the science.

In the brand strategy work we do with dietary supplement brands, we look through the lens of the five forces—organization, offering, trade, category and participant—to identify the unique opportunity for the brand in each of those forces. Ultimately, we look to uncover the deeper intersection of why the brand exists in the world, how that informs what it makes, how it makes it, and who it serves. This uncovers a much richer story and symbolism, and informs the foundation of the brand strategy, as well as what the brand should lead with to connect with their consumers’ passion.

Here are some examples of successful legacy and emerging supplement brands that don’t lead with the science and what they lead with instead:

Gaia Herbs. Full disclosure: My agency, Pure Branding, was responsible for the rebrand of Gaia Herbs and their “Meet Your Herbs” transparency platform. The rebrand tapped into the emotive story of Gaia Herbs’ role as stewards of a natural continuum between plants and people—a role that still compels the brand toward sustainability, environmental responsibility, and a commitment to the vitality of every inhabitant of the earth. The rebrand led to a tripling of sales in a four-year period.

Charlotte’s Web. CBD is big, and Charlotte’s Web has built its brand not on science, but on building out a Hollywood movie-like story of seven brothers and a little girl named Charlotte. For those of you who got to hear some of the founding Stanley brothers and Charlotte’s mom speak at the most recent Expo West, you know what I’m talking about. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but you won’t be looking for the science. The brand seeks to connect its participants through a Spartacus-like self-identification moment—that we are all Charlotte.

Olly. A nutrition brand that’s bottling happiness as the foundation of health, with a commitment to making nutrition easy, fun, delightful and delicious. Olly’s founder has a history of disruption, having built the Method brand and selling it to Ecover in 2012. Olly has tapped into something basic that every supplement brand should be doing—selling the benefit, not the ingredient. 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.

Natural Factors Whole Earth & Sea. All food-based supplement brands are tapping into our universal understanding that food offers intrinsic benefits not found in synthetic or isolated nutrients. But Whole Earth & Sea takes it a step further and focuses on the vibrant energy of nature itself, conjuring up the pure, yet primal, life force found on its own farms and in the vegetables it sources from the sea.

MegaFood. Another food-based supplement brand (full disclosure No. 2: a Pure Branding client), MegaFood places a big emphasis on transparency expressed through a commitment to regenerative agriculture, and by lobbying to ban glyphosate, setting agricultural standards for its farm partners (and observing an ethical supplier code of conduct), following fair employment practices, and offering living wages. Individually, each of these is a powerful commitment, but together they begin to define a much more powerful and passionate platform for the brand.

Persona. A digitally native subscription brand (full disclosure No. 3: also a Pure Branding client) at the forefront of the intersection of personalization and nutrition, Persona leads with the understanding that all of us are unique and that a brand that gets the “whole me” speaks to a much deeper relationship than just pills in a pack. Persona’s online assessment is built from a proprietary algorithm that factors individual needs, lifestyles, and current prescription medications to deliver a recommendation as unique as each consumer.

iWi (pronounced “ee-wee”). Algae grower Qualitas Health launched this brand of vegan, plant-based omega-3 with a humorous national advertising campaign featuring actress Beth Dover in a spot that suggests cutting out the “middle fish” by getting your omega-3s from algae, taking the pressure off overfished marine ecosystems. We don’t often see supplement brands harnessing humor within the DNA of their brand, but iWi does it extremely effectively, connecting it to the core of what it stands for.

Barleans. What started as merely a pioneering flax oil ingredient brand has emerged in the past few years as a powerful mission-based company, with the brand serving as the primary vehicle for realizing its purpose of “paving a Pathway to a Better Life for those most in need throughout the world.” Barleans achieves this by focusing on issues like human trafficking, autism and childhood blindness, by supporting local food banks, and by helping children around the world transcend poverty.

Let the science validate, but lead with the heart.

These brands all express why they are, not just what they are. The science is there. They have quality ingredients, and they do what they are supposed to do from a scientific standpoint, yet what makes them successful is that they connect on an emotional level with the consumer. They allow the consumer to feel they are aligned with them from a values standpoint, from a place that matters on a human level. So when you are thinking about positioning and marketing your brand, let the science validate, but lead with the heart. Because at the core of every brand there is a unique and human passion that has guided the creation of the brand and deserves to be shared.

This article was originally published in Nutrition Industry Executive‘s May issue.