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While the soy foods market continues to grow, the soy supplement market hasn't experienced the same success. In fact, according to Nutrition Business Journal, soy supplement sales declined for the past three years (2004–2006) from their reported high of $106 million in 2003. In contrast, Packaged Facts (Rockville, MD) estimates the soy food and beverage market at $2.1 billion in 2007, up 7% from the prior year. This same report forecasts continued growth through 2012, estimating the market at $3 billion.
In order for supplement manufacturers to capture some of this continued growth, a better understanding of the consumer dynamics occurring in the market is necessary, along with revitalized marketing efforts.
Understanding the Soy Consumer
Marketers of soy products have done well in establishing awareness and growing use of soy products. Over the past 10 years, consumer awareness of soy as a healthy food increased from 67% in 1998 to 85% in 2007, according to information from the 14th Annual Nation Report, Consumer Attitudes about Nutrition: Insights into Nutrition, Health & Soyfoods, conducted by the United Soybean Board (St. Louis). This same report indicated that 25% of consumers use soy foods or beverages once a week or more. This report is available for download at www.soyconnection.com/health_nutrition/pdf/ConsumerAttitudes2007.pdf
The question remains, with awareness and use so high, what are the consumer demographics of those buying or not buying these products?
Women remain a key audience and primary user of soy products. However, what is surprising are the age groups of soy users. While most supplement users tend to be older, the audience buying soy foods or beverages is significantly younger.
"The data from the Natural Marketing Institute's Health & Wellness Trends Database clearly show that the soy food user is significantly younger than the common supplement user. This not only indicates an opportunity with this younger age segment, but the information also clearly demonstrates an opportunity to expand usage with the older demographics," says Greg Stephens, vice president of strategic consulting for the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI; Harleysville, PA).
In addition to age being an important market segment, the soy foods category has benefited from the vegetarian and organic movements. NMI data confirm that soy users are more likely to be vegetarians and are high users of organic foods. In order to appeal to these segments, it will be necessary for soy supplement manufacturers to comply with vegetarian and organic guidelines.
Investing in Consumer Education
It has been a common practice for supplement marketers to position ingredients such as soy with a specific health condition—such as the case for glucosamine and healthy joints, or lutein for eye health. When soy first generated attention in the mid- to late 1990s, the health condition most commonly associated with soy was menopause or associated women's health issues.
These benefits were further expanded in 1999 to cardiovascular health when FDA approved a health claim that consuming 25 g of soy protein per day reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. Later research related the benefits of soy for weight management.
"We've seen a significant amount of research associating soy to a number of health benefits over the past ten years. When the research was first initiated by companies like Indena, most of it focused on menopause and women's health issues. However, the focus has expanded to other areas such as heart health, cancer prevention, and weight management," says Greg Ris, vice president of sales for Indena USA (Seattle).
As the research and health benefits have expanded quickly, consumer knowledge of these benefits has not kept pace. Although awareness of soy as a healthy food is extremely high at 85%, knowledge of soy beyond just "being better for me" is limited—no single health condition is strongly associated with it.
According to NMI, a staggering 51% of consumers do not associate a health benefit with soy. The most common benefit cited in the NMI study was PMS/menopause at 20% of the general population. This result differs from the United Soybean Board's Consumer Attitudes study indicating the most common health benefit for soy related to weight management (36% aided awareness). There are a number of other health conditions cited, but overall the association of soy to any specific health benefit is limited and no one health condition prevails. The data clearly demonstrate that most consumers have little or no knowledge of the specific health benefits of soy.
This information indicates the opportunity to reconsider your marketing efforts. Supplement manufacturers that are able to associate their soy brands with a specific health benefit through aggressive educational and public relations efforts are likely to succeed.
Making It Work
Soy supplement companies willing to invest in understanding the soy supplement consumer and developing a long-term marketing and sales strategy are likely to capitalize on the market's continued growth. Also important is creating a plan encompassing a number of years as opposed to monthly or quarterly increments. Doing so will allow you to better allocate resources, make adjustments as needed, and measure your performance relative to awareness and sales, making sure your efforts are on track.
Steve Hanson is owner of Grip Ideas (Cave Creek, AZ), which focuses on providing market development strategies to build businesses and organizations in the vitamin, dietary supplement, and food and nutrition industries. Grip Ideas' client base features many of the industry's leading companies both in the United States and internationally.