What Will It Take to Expand Probiotics’ Customer Base?

September 25, 2017

The story of probiotics has thus far been one of continual evolution: evolution in the research; evolution in consumer demand; evolution in the bacteria themselves. But one constant through all the flux has been that the story of these “good gut bugs” is largely a good news story, as well.

Why? Aside from the fact that there’s a lot to like about probiotics, “the reasons are varied,” says Missy Lowery, MS, senior manager, marketing, Capsugel (Morristown, NJ). “Consumers and healthcare providers are becoming more aware of probiotics’ numerous benefits beyond digestive health. Various delivery forms that are more convenient and effective are arriving on the scene. Scientific evidence to support claims and the development of specialty strains to improve targeted action also add to their popularity.”

But all this good news will remain an inside story unless we get the word out. Which is why marketing is “the key component in the retail growth of probiotic supplements,” Lowery says. And by “marketing,” we’re not just talking product promotion. “Understanding what consumers want and who influences their purchases will be critical for probiotic manufacturers, brands, and retailers,” she says. Armed with that information, we’ll have the tools to give this story a happy ending.


Almost Mainstream?

It’s hard to imagine a time when probiotics weren’t on the tips of everyone’s tongues—figuratively, if not literally. The press attention they’ve enjoyed alone would be enough make coenzyme Q10 or vitamin K2 swoon. Notes Amy Sunderman, director of science & innovation, Swanson Health Products (Fargo, ND), mainstream media outlets including The New Yorker, Huffington Post, USA Today, “The Today Show,” and even “Saturday Night Live” now regularly pick up and riff on stories that originated in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

But just because SNL spoofs you in a mock commercial doesn’t mean you’re a household supplement quite yet. Asked if she thinks probiotics have gone mainstream, Megan DeStefano, global probiotics marketing leader, DuPont Nutrition & Health (Madison, WI), says, “Well, that depends on what you consider mainstream.” Given that probiotic penetration in U.S. households is less than one quarter the roughly 68% rate we see for traditional multivitamins, she says, we have a ways to go.

“However,” she concedes, “we are seeing a large upswing in consumer awareness and use.” A recent Gallup study says that consumers’ levels of aided awareness and “effort to consume” are closing in on those for omega-3s and green tea, DeStefano notes. In fact, Matthew Oster, head of consumer health research for Euromonitor International, pointed out at the International Probiotics Association conference in San Francisco this past June that probiotics now lead dietary supplement growth, having surpassed ginseng, glucosamine, protein, fish oil, and omega-3s, and even calcium.


Growing Communities

Quantifying the growing awareness, a 2017 Survey Sampling International (SSI) questionnaire found fully 76% of healthy respondents have probiotics on their radars. As more consumers tune in, “This increased awareness will be a big factor in the overall probiotic market’s growth,” says David Keller, vice president of scientific operations, Ganeden (Mayfield Heights, OH).

He notes recent reporting from Global Market Insights predicting that the global probiotic industry will be worth $64.6 billion by 2023, while probiotic ingredient sales were already at $36.6 billion in 2015. And in North America alone, adds Euromonitor’s Oster, the retail value of probiotic supplements should hit $3.3 billion by 2021, with growth from 2016 to 2021 forecast at 55%.

But if you’re looking to profile the typical consumer responsible for these impressive numbers, one profile simply won’t do. “There isn’t one main probiotics consumer,” Keller says. “We’ve seen interest across all demographics,” including all age ranges, genders, and backgrounds.

Lowery cites results of the National Marketing Institute’s Supplement OTC Rx Database (SORD) 2015 study showing that Gen Xers, aged 39 to 50, and Boomers, aged 51 to 69, are most interested in integrating probiotics into their diets. But Millennials, aged 17 to 38, comprise “one group that would be ripe for an introduction to probiotics’ benefits,” she says. After all, they’re already right behind Boomers in their use of vitamins, minerals, and supplements, at 34% and 43%, respectively, per the SORD study.

But it’s only by understanding what these consumers want that brands can best position themselves to grow their ranks. As Sunderman says, “Supplement consumers in general are looking for products that meet their health needs and are ‘personalized’ to them in some way.” The same is true for probiotic consumers in particular. “Messaging that speaks to specific groups and lets them know that a product was formulated to support the health benefit they’re seeking with their needs in mind resonates most strongly.”


Broaden the Benefits

DeStefano agrees. “The key to continued probiotic growth is to expand the user base—have it go more mainstream,” she says. “To do this, we need to attract new consumers through new and different benefits beyond immune and digestive health.”

Digestion and immunity long dominated the reasons consumers explore probiotics. Lowery sites a 2016 Innova Market Insights study showing that 78.5% of new probiotic supplement launches in 2015 made digestive-health claims, with immune health right behind at 36.9%. But as research elucidates a role for probiotics beyond these two fields, brands have begun pitching products as addressing other health positions—including, as the Innova study found, energy and stamina (noted in 10.3% of 2015’s launches), children’s wellbeing (6.9%), general health and wellness (6.6%), weight management (5.7%), bone health (5.1%), heart health (4.8%), women’s health (4.8%), and brain/mood health (4.3%).

“Now that consumers are becoming more aware of the category, they’re seeking probiotic supplementation in a number of new areas,” says Kathy Paffendorf, sales account executive, Pharmachem Laboratories Inc. (Kearny, NJ). And brands are responding. “For example,” Paffendorf says, “Probiotica S.p.A. of Novara, Italy, has clinically studied a probiotic strain found specifically in centenarians. And several other companies in the industry now offer probiotics that target weight loss and control.” Keller adds that athletes are intrigued by probiotics like his company’s Ganeden BC30, which research has recently shown enhances protein utilization.

Getting deeper into the weeds, Christopher Elkins, director of the division of molecular biology at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), is undertaking a metagenomics analysis of the gut microbiome, as well as a genomic-scale analysis of probiotics and enteric foodborne pathogens, Paffendorf says. “There’s so much science yet to be revealed, and I believe that over the next decade, we’ll make extensive strides in applying the findings to the development of effective new products.”