Shattering Shopper Myths: Identifying the Dietary Supplement Buyer in a Fragmenting Era

Sep 19, 2016
This is 2016. Categorizing consumers into types based on their preferences, motivations, or purchasing behaviors is just so…Y2K. At least that’s what Julian Mellentin, director, New Nutrition Business (London), seems to think. As he puts it, “The person who listens to Bach’s Goldberg Variations while working at home also listens to Aerosmith or Black Sabbath while driving to work—and sometimes jazz.”

For a company with a product to market, this fluidity makes it all the more difficult to pin potential purchasers down. Indeed, as market researcher Innova Market Insights points out in its report “Fragmentation—Where and How?,” “It is a truism that markets and consumer tastes are ‘fragmenting,’ which for most consumer marketers means that big brands are no longer reaching broad audiences as easily as they did.”

With fealty to mass markets crumbling in this era of fragmentation, the consumer-as-moving-target may be the norm going forward. Indeed, says Mellentin, “The idea that you do not have to be loyal to one musical genre or style of eating”—that you can inhabit many identities at once—“infuses our culture and drives people’s beliefs and choices in every area of their lives.”

This includes their approach to healthcare, which consumers “seem to regard as an extensive menu of options from which to select what makes the most sense in the context of their individual beliefs, health needs, and lifestyles,” says Mellentin. That’s a far cry from the days when dietary supplement manufacturers could put out a multivitamin and maybe a few specialty formulas for the “average” shopper and call it a day.

There is a silver lining, though. While diversity in the supplement marketplace complicates how the industry serves its audience, it also expands the audience the industry can serve.


Taking Health into Their Hands

Mellentin and his colleagues first noted this personalization of healthcare around the turn of the century. More than ten years on, “The fragmented, individualized view of health that was emerging back in 2003 has, in 2016, become the defining force,” he says. And what undergirds its definition is the extent to which consumers are taking health into their own hands.

In a sense, you can’t blame them. “As a result of the economic downturn over the past decade, consumers have turned to self-diagnosis as a way of cutting costs,” says Kimberly Kawa, senior nutrition researcher, SPINS LLC, a leading information provider for the natural and specialty products industry. For better or worse, consumers have also begun seeing the Internet and social media as first responders, enabling them “to compile and analyze their symptoms with the click of a mouse,” Kawa adds.

Moreover, a barrage of pharmaceutical advertising has convinced consumers that they might know better than their doctors how best to optimize their health. While the supplement industry isn’t “at the forefront of this marketing,” Kawa says, it’s nonetheless helped foster “a culture of acceptance” toward self-diagnosis that supplement consumers are embracing “as they explore more alternatives to conventional, over-the-counter medicine,” she says. “Over the next few years, expect to see more supplements introduced as alternatives to conventional products to attract this emboldened consumer.”


Who’s Influencing Whom?

Judy Blatman, senior vice president, communications, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington DC), says CRN’s annual extensive shopper survey shows “that physicians are still the number-one trusted source for information on supplements.” Still, she notes, consumers’ “world of influencers is changing” all the while. Bloggers, celebrity endorsements, and old-fashioned hunches play a role, “particularly with younger generations,” she notes. These are consumers who are “questioning authority. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be part of that decision-making process, and I think that probably started with boomers,” Blatman says.

Jeff Hilton, partner and cofounder, BrandHive (Salt Lake City), observes that we’ve replaced the well-educated, health-aware female aged 45-plus who was the supplement shopper of yore with a consumer who’s “more diverse both ethnically and gender-wise.” Case in point: more men are discovering supplements and functional foods—traditionally the province of female shoppers—while more women are buying traditionally “manly” sports or active-nutrition products.

Add younger consumers to the mix and you get “a complex puzzle, primarily because millennials are rewriting all the rules,” Hilton says. He thinks millennials stand apart from their boomer counterparts in that they’re “looking to live life to the fullest and want products that facilitate their chosen lifestyles and activities.” Boomers, he wagers, “just want to live forever and enjoy continued good health.”