How COVID-19 is changing nutrition marketing

January 4, 2021
Kimberly J. Decker

Focusing on the digital space and more has offered companies new platforms for communication.

For many in the nutrition industry, the full weight of the mysterious coronavirus that was devastating Wuhan, China, early in 2020 hit home not with the first stateside casualties, nor even with the disruptions that the illness wrought on companies’ supply chains.

Rather, the wakeup call that signaled, “Wait, this is serious,” arrived with the cancellation of March’s Natural Products Expo West. Because far from being just another fun-filled schmooze-fest for colleagues and customers, Expo West has become one of the red-letter events on the industry’s marketing calendar.

And yet like so many other marketing opportunities that require up-close-and-personal engagement, tradeshows, along with onsite meetings, instore product demos, and more, have themselves fallen victim to COVID-19.

Hopes remain that their demise will last only as long as the pandemic does. But in the interim, some sort of marketing “show” must go on, even if in virtual form. After all, if there’s ever been a time to get the word out about nutritional products, that time is now.

Staying Connected

Getting used to the new marketing normal has been an adjustment for everyone, and it’s hard to find an industry pro who isn’t at least a little disoriented—and disappointed—by the turn of events. But it’s a testament to the community’s capacity for adaptation that we’re largely finding workarounds to keep connected, even from afar.

“The biggest impact we’ve seen from COVID-19,” observes Mariko Hill, product development executive, Gencor (Irvine, CA), “has been the reduced number of face-to-face events. Gencor typically has a presence at various industry-leading events, so not being able to attend has limited us in presenting our latest ingredients and research.”

That said, focusing on the digital space has offered the company new platforms for communication. Gencor is staying on top of website updates and ramping up production of digital marketing collateral, Hill says, including white papers, infographics, and videos that support its ingredients. “We’re also leveraging online opportunities for engagement and are getting involved in various online summits.”

Eric Meppem, commercial director and cofounder, Pharmako Biotechnologies (Frenchs Forest NSW, Australia), points out that because of the company’s base in Australia, its export business has been a strong suit. That being the case, “Tradeshows, trade media representation, and industry awards have been paramount to building our success and reputation,” he says.

But now, with tradeshows out of the picture, “We’re all spending more time in the early mornings or late evenings speaking online via different platforms,” Meppem continues. And if anything, he wagers the virtual communication may even happen more regularly—and perhaps with more impact—than the odd meeting struck up on the road.

Beyond that, Meppem says, the company is “experimenting” with new ways of reaching customers, including updating and leveraging online properties like its website and corporate LinkedIn profile. But conceding that these new activities are “still unproven,” Meppem concludes that, “as always, follow-ups from a sales perspective are still the most important aspects of customer engagement.”

Rob Brewster, president, Ingredients by Nature (Montclair, CA), agrees, noting that “meeting in-person and handshake relationships are always the preferred form of business.” Yet while he and his colleagues have missed the show circuit, “we’ve put additional emphasis on social media marketing, publishing high-quality content that speaks to our strengths, and sharing that across our company and employee networks,” he says.

And as far as Julia Díaz, head of marketing, Pharmactive Biotech Products S.L./Gencor (Madrid), is concerned, “Remaining relevant to our customers in many cases is more a question of communicating at the right time to the right audience, but in an innovative way. Sometimes, that innovation comes from the little things and not from reinventing the wheel.”

For example, when the company transitioned customer events to the online space, “We didn’t change the content but added key elements to offer ‘real’ and interactive experiences, which were more personal,” she says. “Being able to offer a more personal experience for our customers even during this time has been invaluable.”

I Saw It on the Webinar

Also invaluable have been the partnerships between nutrition brands and organizations with well-oiled digital-communications infrastructures already in place. And Lisa C. Buono, principal, client insights, IRI Worldwide (Chicago), has witnessed these partnerships bear fruit in the proliferation of webinars during the pandemic.

“These webinars are advertised as ways to learn about, say, the microbiome or immunity-boosting strategies,” she explains, “with the moderator making clear that the webinar is sponsored by a supplier that sells an ingredient pertaining to that health topic.”

So, as examples, she points to webinar collaborations that IRI, Kantar Research, and similar market-research firms have struck with publications like Drug Store News and associations such as the Council for Responsible Nutrition. “The hope is that potential clients notice that kind of participation and contact the webinar producers to find out more,” she says.

And indeed, that’s certainly been Gencor’s hope. “We’re partnering with various leading digital trade media groups by organizing and adhering to a content calendar supported by webinars, editorial opportunities, and digital advertisements,” Hill says. “This helps increase brand awareness and our visibility as a supportive participant in the industry—which is critical, particularly when people are working from home and can only engage through online platforms. In addition, webinars are a great way to educate brands and consumers. It’s been a very useful platform for presenting information about ingredients.”

Digital Natives

Of course, leveraging the digital realm has been table stakes for Persona Nutrition, a Nestlé Health Science (NHSc) company (Snoqualmie Ridge, WA) since the start. Jason Brown, founder and CEO, points out that as a direct-to-consumer brand from the start, “We’ve always relied on a robust digital marketing program. And now that consumers are more connected to their devices while working and educating at home, we’ve seen the opportunity to expand upon it.”

To wit, the company noticed external and internal research indicating that consumers turn to multivitamins to address COVID concerns like immunity, Brown says, giving Persona its cue to engage—and educate—them. Why? “The biggest knowledge gap involves consumers thinking that a multivitamin is designed to address specific health needs like immunity, even though advances in technology and nutrition science have evolved to personalize daily nutrition for each person,” he explains.

Thus, the company’s “We’re More than a Multivitamin” campaign aims to close the knowledge gap by informing consumers about the targeted nutrients they need not only for immunity, but for energy, sleep, stress, and other concerns, he says. “And we’re continuing to develop marketing programs like this that raise awareness of the benefits of a personalized approach to nutrition.”

Another way Persona stays close to consumers is by going the extra mile to help. “A lot of our marketing efforts involve taking care of our current customers now that we’re in a pandemic,” he says.

Exhibit A: When masks were in short supply early during lockdowns, the company wanted to send one with every personalized vitamin package their customers ordered—“and we did,” Brown says. With help from NHSc, which acquired Persona not long before the pandemic, they secured 100,000 disposable masks to send to customers “to help them stay safe and protected during this unprecedented time.”

Say It with Science

Another way Persona helps from afar: “We’ve built an outbound calling program supported by our nutritionists to help anyone with questions about their nutrition or vitamins,” Brown says. Given the skyrocketing interest among consumers in the relationship between nutrition and their baseline health, those questions are likely rife.

As Sevanti Mehta, president, Unibar Corp. (Houston), says, “Consumers are currently very conscious of their health—and it’s not just about immune support. Many who were casual about health before are now actively looking for solutions to their challenges, and so now is the best time to educate and make both consumers and customers aware of how ingredients with clinical research can truly make a difference.”

And put the emphasis on the research, Gencor’s Hill adds. “Particularly during a time of increased concern in the global pandemic, consumer demand makes it all the more important for brands to disseminate science-based information that supports ingredient clams to stay ahead of the curve,” she says.

That’s nothing new for Pharmako, Meppem says, as “a pillar of our marketing has been ongoing investment in pharmacokinetic and clinical studies.” In fact, the company’s now repurposing money it would have spent on international travel and tradeshows toward new marketing tactics and more clinical trials.

And while restrictions like social distancing have made it harder to recruit subjects and access analytical instrumentation—thus delaying some research—Meppem continues, “We’re very fortunate to be able to run studies in Australia, where strategies around community lockdown, government restrictions, and social responsibility have provided for a little more flexibility. While it’s not business as usual, per se, we’ve been able to move forward with our planned programs.”

Innovate and Thrive

Looking down the road, Meppem foresees “the new normal being a mix of the old and the new, with better communication as the key focus,” he says. And that’s fine by him. “Businesses should view crises as opportunities and respond accordingly. When market conditions change, it can force businesses to consider changing what they do, how they do it and where. All of this leads to innovation.”

That innovation will color both R&D efforts and marketing ones. And the optimists among us are confident that the industry and its consumers alike will benefit. “Now’s a crucial time to show consumers that natural products do have a lot of power to influence health for the better,” Brewster emphasizes. “Then habits will form and, after the pandemic scare is over, those same consumers will continue to value supplementation as a viable way to enhance other efforts toward better health.”

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