Are immune health supplements still a priority for consumers?

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 3

How can supplement brands motivate shoppers to keep taking immune health supplements—and to take them on the regular?

If only there were a surefire way to guarantee that consumers will keep taking their immune health supplements once the pandemic is over. Alas, in the past year, we saw immune category sales, while still extremely impressive, begin to normalize.1

Rachel Jones, vice president and chief nutrition officer at GNC, shares how GNC is seeing the landscape shift. “Like others in the supplements and wellness categories, we are seeing immune health supplement sales stabilize,” says Jones.

Consumers are making health a priority post-pandemic; they just might be expanding their view of “healthy” beyond immunity alone. Jones says that “the most significant shift has been in the consumer mindset. The emphasis is now on overall wellness rather than immunity as a standalone focus.”

She elaborates: “We see consumers prioritizing prevention and living a healthier lifestyle—eating well, staying active, and augmenting those behaviors with immunity and vitamin products that enable long-term success. It’s about creating a holistic health experience that can help to deliver on those goals.”

Show Them the Science

While all would agree it’s great to see consumers embracing healthier lifestyles, immune-supplement makers would still like to see consumers keep their products in the mix. Moving forward, what can immune health marketers do to motivate shoppers to keep taking immune health supplements—and to take them on the regular? Simple: by demonstrating that these products work.

Show them the science. After all, it’s science that brought many first-time supplement users to the category in the first place.

A white paper, “Immune Support Supplement Category Market Insights,” encapsulating the results of a recent survey conducted by consulting agency SPRIM on more than 1000 consumers in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil, supports this advice.2 When asked whether recent studies showing that people deficient in vitamin D might be at increased risk of COVID-19 infection would encourage survey respondents to take vitamin D supplements, more than half said yes. (Smartly, 37% said they’d first want to determine if they are vitamin D deficient.)

Scientific support is vital for all supplements these days—immune supplements included. “Absolutely, this message came through loudly and clearly in our study,” says Susan Dallabrida, PhD, CEO of SPRIM Consultancy. “Consumers have become savvy and cautious,” she says, noting that they want “good science either directly provided on the label that demonstrates actual efficacy, and recommendations from their doctors and/or nutritionists.” She adds: “I think it is reasonable to assume that consumers trust that if a doctor recommends a product, it is because they believe and trust in the science.”

In the SPRIM immune support survey, respondents stated that scientific and clinical trial evidence proving a product’s efficacy is the number-one influencer of their choice of a dietary supplement for immune support. Unsubstantiated claims won’t cut it anymore; consumers are looking for evidence of efficacy on product labels before they put a product in their cart and in their body.

“What we learned from regular users of immune supplements is that scientific evidence or a clinical trial that proved product effectiveness was the top reason to keep them coming back, followed by brand trust and reputation, followed by on-package claims that were specific to immune health (such as ‘clinically demonstrated to support immune health’), and price,” Dallabrida reports. “The least important reasons are things like gluten-free, vegan, and tastes good.”

The same evidence is needed to convince new and seasonal users why they should take immune supplements regularly.

Says Dallabrida: “In our original immune support survey, we asked consumers who did not regularly purchase dietary supplements for immune support what factors would cause them to more regularly use supplements. The number-one reason that respondents cited that would change their behavior to more regular use was if their doctor recommended that they do so, followed by better scientific evidence that showed that their use would reduce their chance of getting sick, followed by if they were cheaper—and, fourthly, if their nutritionist instructed them to do so. There were no other significant factors for this population.” As for new users, the SPRIM survey found 73% of respondents who had not purchased a dietary supplement in the past year stating that they would be “encouraged” to purchase an immune health supplement “if there was a scientific claim associated with it.”

In short, supplement makers need to keep the science coming. Luckily, this might not be as prohibitive as it once was, according to Dallabrida. “Years ago, it may have been difficult or costly for companies to conduct efficacy studies with their products, but with advances in technology, entire clinical trials can be done in consumer healthcare–related products without participants ever leaving their homes, and entering data into an app on their smartphone and being shipped product or buying the product. Times have changed in that there are affordable and credible ways to conduct these studies, and consumers are demanding exactly this: scientific evidence of efficacy.”

Marketing Still Powerful

Still, one can’t discount the influence of marketing. “Suffice it to say, ingredients with the best marketing will win—which makes me sad,” says David Foreman, RPh, president of Herbal Pharmacist Media LLC, known as “The Herbal Pharmacist.” “Who should win, though, are ingredients that can show they either work directly to support or stimulate a response with the immune system.”

Immune health marketers also need to do a better job explaining why ingredients and supplementation support the immune system, he adds. For instance, he says, they need to explain whether their products stimulate or support the immune system. “Communicate which category they fit into: stimulate or support.”

Currently, he says, “I believe that due to poor messaging on the part of immune-supplement sellers, consumers don’t realize that there are things they can take daily to support their immune system and hopefully avoid getting sick or as sick. Regretfully, I feel like we as an industry will fall back to our normal habits of convincing people to buy versus educating them on why they need certain products and how they work to support overall health.”

Jones says GNC is dedicated to helping consumers “understand the overarching and long-term benefits” of supplementation—for instance, why they shouldn’t just seasonally supplement with vitamin C or probiotics but rather daily to maximize efficacy.

She continues: “At GNC, we have scientific, regulatory, and nutrition teams made up of PhD- and Master’s-level scientists that evaluate every GNC product from ideation to formulation to ensure consumers are confident when purchasing our products. Consumers should have a clear understanding and insight into the products, ingredients, and intended outputs to ensure it aligns with their goals. Building trust through honest and transparent product development and distribution will help to foster consumer adoption.”

Category Longevity

To make sure this category survives post-pandemic, the smartest companies will keep aiming to put the best, science-supported products on the market—explaining to their customers why they need to take them regularly. For instance, the SPRIM report notes that GlaxoSmithKline has begun marketing its Emergen-C supplement year-round for daily immune support.

The fact is, consumers are still interested in immune support. SPRIM is now working on conducting another survey on over 700 respondents to determine what consumer motivations for purchasing immune supplements look like two years into a pandemic. So far, Dallabrida says, the new survey found that while the number-one reason consumers take a multivitamin is for general health, the number-two reason is for immune support. “So, while it would be reasonable to assume that consumer trends may pivot somewhat as we are amidst a waning pandemic, the data is telling us that immune support remains a top contender,” she says.

Supplement companies can take consumers’ newfound interest in holistic health by the horns and include immune health within that. Multipurpose products, such as those touting general wellness benefits plus immune support, address consumer preferences widely.

Jones says that GNC sees 2022 as “the year of the multivitamin,” given consumers’ current focus on overall health. “Consumers’ desire to support general health will continue to play a key role in overall wellness,” she says. “While immunity is and will remain an important part of that equation, how consumers imbed products into their daily habits may evolve.”

Immune supplements are now part of the strategy for staying well, and not the whole strategy itself. Says Jones: “Consumers are intentional about how preventative wellness can stave off health issues and are investing in immunity supplements to kickstart the process.”

Stress management and sleep health are also complementary areas. “This opens up certain sleep and stress ingredients to be considered,” Foreman notes, “as poor sleep and chronic stress can wreak havoc on immune health. Even a combination of ingredients that support both immune and stress, or immune and sleep, would be great.” He dubs this “sort of the NyQuil approach to a daytime and nighttime formula for immune health.” (“This is my idea, and I would love the rights to it,” he laughs.)

Also, to continue attracting repeat customers, companies must heighten the product experience. “We’re seeing three overarching trends in 2022: personalization, convenience, and flavor,” says Jones. “And at GNC, we are capitalizing upon these consumer expectations in our immunity supplements, among other product categories. Tapping into consumer needs—for example, providing on-the-go products in great flavors—is improving loyalty while also creating a cross-sell opportunity to help them achieve their goals.”

And arm customers with data. Jones says GNC continues to invest in science such as a multivitamin clinical study it sponsored to demonstrate to its customers whether antioxidant and immune-supporting nutrients were better absorbed when taken regularly.

The SPRIM report sums it up nicely: “The data reveals considerable opportunity for dietary supplement brands within the immune health category if they weed out the fiction and stick to the facts. Evidence of efficacy can convince doctors to recommend, supplement-takers to switch brands, and can also incite supplement-skeptics to enter the market.”

It concludes: “Strong interest in the category is accompanied by increasing expectations for immune support supplement evidence. The dietary supplement industry is in a prime position to capitalize on these shifts in consumer demand if it can keep up with these expectations.”

References

  1. Krawiec S. “The Immune Health Category Comes Back Down to Earth: 2022 Ingredient Trends for Food, Drinks, and Dietary Supplements.” Nutritional Outlook. Published February 7, 2022.
  2. Krawiec S. “Consumers Actively Seeking Clinically Validated Immune Health Supplements, Says SPRIM.” Nutritional Outlook. Published December 17, 2021.