Dietary Supplements Packaging: Packaging from the Inside Out

January 28, 2011

If you market supplements, you know what sells. But do you know why?

If you market supplements, you know what sells. But do you know why?

Before your product hits the shelf, you’ve made dozens of decisions about packaging, design, product names, advertising, placement, and trade programs. Yet are you clear on why a shopper is in the supplement aisle to begin with? What are they really seeking, and how committed are they to their decisions?

Sure, supplement consumers have a functional need, whether it’s teething tablets for a crying infant, adrenal support to combat fatigue, or Echinacea to help the body’s immune response. The category is historically attribute-focused: features, functions, ingredients, and so on. However, as with most purchases, decisions within the supplement category are primarily driven by emotion rather than pure reason. Using the car industry as an example, one might think purchases are based on a reasonable weighing of the features and benefits, when really our emotional drivers draw us to a specific car model.

Conditional Love
Based on a survey of more than 2100 regular supplement users, Pure Branding developed the Supplement Emotional Motivation Quadrant (SEM-Q), which organizes functional needs into four groups, each characterized by distinct emotional drivers. The SEM-Q can help reframe how you look at your product line, revamp your packaging, and train retail staff; it can serve as a springboard for product development and realignment. To determine the quadrant for your product, ask the following:

1.    Does the consumer have a health condition? (Yes/No)

2.    Would the supplement be used occasionally or continually?

By addressing these two questions, the SEM-Q boils down hundreds of supplement functions into these four distinct groups and identifies the emotional drivers for each:


1) Chronic: An ongoing condition, such as osteoarthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, or irritable bowel syndrome.
For consumers with a Chronic condition, that condition has defined the terms by which they live. They self-identify with the ailment, with its limits on what they can and cannot do, and with the ailment’s specific effects on their bodies. The extent to which other people recognize their situation plays a role. Where there is no validation or support from a professional or a family member, they will self-affirm their condition through a purchase. They are highly vested in the significance of their condition and should be met with empathy. They will be much better informed and familiar with specific ingredients and bodily functions. Engaging in conversation about their condition will feel rewarding, and they will seek more information. For these consumers, supplements are about quality of life. They are daily users and, therefore, spend more, buy more frequently, and are the least price-sensitive.

2) Acute: The temporal need for relief from an Acute condition like stress, colds, or sleeplessness.
The consumer with an Acute condition is often an occasional user, someone who may have trouble sleeping from time to time, or a mother shopping for a natural remedy for her children’s cough. This consumer is looking for supplements as a temporal solution for a specific need.

These consumers should be met with comfort and assurance that a product is safe (meaning not too aggressive or toxic), but be aware that they have less confidence in product efficacy. Supplements should reflect these consumers’ impulse for nurturing through a natural alternative first before turning to over-the-counter medications. The consumer tends to be less informed and seeks more guidance in their purchasing decision, so intuitive names are crucial.

Often, purchases for Acute conditions are made by the elusive perimeter shopper who otherwise does not enter the supplement aisle. The Acute product represents an opportunity to entice and cross-sell this shopper.

3) Performance: The need to occasionally enhance functions, like energy, mental focus, and sexual performance.
The need to perform is goal-driven. The value of that goal informs what these consumers are willing to pay, whether to ace an exam or presentation, win a race, or achieve reliable sexual performance. The goal is typically short-term, focused on a single use. These consumers are less well informed about the nature of the ingredients and biological functions, so the product should be positioned to validate the significance of their goal.

4) Wellness: The prevention of chronic conditions or the promotion of balanced health, like a healthy heart, liver, brain, or joint function.
With the lion’s share of the market, Wellness encompasses bestsellers, including multivitamins, minerals, single vitamins, and fish oils. The proactive use of supplements on a daily basis should be met by celebrating a desire to live in balance. Yet there is a deeper motivation. Often, an underlying fear compels these consumers to take an active role in their health. This may be a family history of heart disease, or perhaps they choose an herbal supplement to stave off the feared onset of Alzheimer’s. The Wellness need state is defined by long-term commitment and being moderately informed and price-sensitive, regarding purchases as a sort of insurance policy. That fear should be met with assurance.

Now that we have defined the four functional groups, how do you apply the SEM-Q to inform your business decisions?

Better Selling Conditions
When Pure Branding analyzed the top 1000 sellers in herbal supplements for 2009 in the four SEM-Q groups, this is how the proportion of SKUs broke down:

Chronic    15%
Acute    18%
Performance    15%
Wellness    52%

Now let’s look at the spread in your product portfolio. Most herbs address multiple functional needs. Could your ginkgo for a Performance product be reformulated, renamed, and repositioned for the Wellness or Chronic consumer, or vice versa? What opportunities remain untapped?

I Am My Condition
Once you apply the SEM-Q and understand the emotional drivers in each need state, you can make strategic decisions about the positioning. For example, a product that you wish to market to the Chronic need state should validate and empathize with the condition with which the consumer self-identifies, such as Thyroid Health or Adrenal Relief. Consumers who buy herbs for chronic conditions are among the most loyal users of herbal supplements, and this represents a valuable market. Case in point, Pure Branding helped launch a new joint-health product in Walgreens. The joint-health category communicates about the symptoms, yet not to any group in particular. Pure Branding uncovered that menopausal women experience debilitating joint pain that is not validated by their physicians, and positioned the product to acknowledge and empower this group.

Empowering the Expert in the Aisle
Pure Branding’s research revealed that store staff perform a critical role in influencing sales, with nearly 70% of trial supplement purchases determined by staff referral. Intuitive product names and product lines make it easy for store staff to reach for your product first. If the shopper experiences congestion, for example, the staff member first assesses the consumer’s need state, and then recommends a product. For instance, in the already complex immune-support category, Pure Branding helped Gaia Herbs communicate the difference between Echinacea products. Until the SEM-Q was applied, it was unclear why consumers would take one over another. Now, different products containing Echinacea are available in distinct product lines to guide the retailer and shopper: Rapid Relief for Acute customers and Daily Wellness for Wellness customers.

What’s in a Name?
Most herbs are named for their chief ingredient, which assumes a savvy coterie of shoppers who know what to do with that ingredient. But supplements are also appealing to new shoppers who want to be clear what that supplement is for and which need it fulfills. Of course, the naming must be compliant with rules governing supplement labeling (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994). However, this still leaves room for your communications to be more intuitive.

Let’s say you’ve got a great source for ginkgo. Armed with the SEM-Q, you can market that ingredient in four ways: as a Wellness product to prevent the onset of senility; as a Chronic product to slow memory loss in old age; as a Performance supporter to take before the SATs as a study aid; or as an Acute product for mental acuity in the office after a sleepless night.

Format to Fit
The convenience of the delivery system can vary as well. The ginkgo taken for Performance on a single occasion might come in a small blister pack of six. For the Wellness version of the product, a month’s supply, taken once a day, better meets the needs of this user.

The need state will help direct product placement as well. Performance and Acute products are often found outside the supplement aisle. Consumers with an Acute condition may be more price-sensitive-they are not daily users-so a product that relieves flu symptoms might be best placed on an end cap, in a smaller trial size during the height of flu season.

The Unmet Need
Looking at sales figures tells you only what sells, not why. Be proactive with these consumer insights. Take a good look at your product line and ask yourself these questions: What is the unmet need? How can I build on existing trust and loyalty to expand and enhance our company’s offerings? How can we present our products so that consumers understand not just what’s in the supplement, but how it meets their emotional needs? It’s your opportunity to revolutionize your approach to packaging, from the inside out.