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Or will brands find ways of portraying immune health as a relevant concern long-term?
World-renowned scientist Sir Isaac Newton is credited with discovering the laws of gravity and later coined the related idiom “what goes up must come down.”
Today, the expression takes on a broader outlook: waiting for the eventual—sometimes spectacular—downfall following a sustained or meteoric rise, whether it’s the case of a politician, an actor, or a business executive. Or, in the realm of nutritional ingredients, perhaps a specific sales category.
Such is the consideration when it comes to immune health, a category that saw an impressive burst of energy (and sales!) as a result of COVID-19 concerns as consumers’ fears of not being able to stay healthy in the face of the deadly virus led them to stockpiling vitamins and discovering herbals like elderberry—practices that had, prior to the pandemic, been the purview of only the most committed supplement customers.
Since at least 2019, immune health has been positioned among the top-five reasons that supplement users take supplements, according to statistics from the annual Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC).1 For some perspective, in CRN’s 2018 consumer survey, immune health was cited among the top-five reasons that people aged 35-54 years and 18-34 cited for taking supplements, at 31% and 25%, respectively.2 The immune health category didn’t, however, make the “top-five” cut for supplement users aged 55+.
But in CRN’s 2020 consumer survey, immune health moved from its 2019 number-three priority position to number two, replacing energy as a reason for taking supplements. Looking at the past four years’ worth of CRN consumer survey data, the steady climb of immune health as a reason to take supplements shows the category rose steadily as a reason among consumers, from 27% of consumers in 2019, to 32% (2020), to 36% (2021), to 40% (2022).
Sales look good, too. According to data reported by market researcher SPINS (Chicago), U.S. sales of immune health supplements reached $654.1 million in the 52-week period ending January 1, 2023, up an impressive 9.5% compared to the prior 52-week period ending January 2, 2022. (Even so, the most recent sales reported were still not as high as the $716 million for the year ending January 3, 2021.)
Will Immune Health Supplements Skydive or Skyrocket in 2023?
Moving forward, it therefore makes sense that the industry might wonder: as the pandemic potentially takes a back seat to other consumer worries, including economic woes and threats of a third world war, will consumers feel psychologically immune to immune health concerns? And, in turn, will the immune health category fall back down to earth?
Not so fast, according to supplement thought-leaders with a stake in the category. These stakeholders have confidence that COVID lessons will stick with savvy consumers when it comes to taking care of their health and when it comes to the importance of immune health supplements.
For example, Aileen Stocks, president, wellness brands, at Nestlé Health Science, says that consumers have become much more educated and engaged in their health and wellness over the past three years. “Prior to the pandemic, immune health felt like a seasonal business, but today it is an area of focus year-round, and how to optimize the body’s immune system is top of mind for consumers.”
Susan Mitmesser, PhD, vice president of science and technology at Pharmavite LLC, owner of the Nature Made brand, has a similar viewpoint about immune health. Mitmesser points out that “one of the most common misconceptions we see around immune health is that the immune system is seasonal. This is 100% false [as] the immune system never takes a vacation and is always working in the background.”
Stocks notes that while the intensity of purchasing immune health products has softened somewhat recently, she also points out that the importance of supplements as a critical tool for a healthy lifestyle is maintained by consumers at much higher levels than pre-pandemic in general.
And for Nestlé’s part, Stocks says, “From a marketing perspective, immune health will continue to be top of mind for consumers, and we will continue to help educate them by sharing the latest science and innovating new products.”
With regard to immune health supplements, Haleigh Resetar, corporate communications specialist at SPINS, explains that “there was an obvious rise during the pandemic and then a subsequent decline as consumers began to alter their focus onto other health categories such as mood support and cognitive health.” She adds that “part of this decline is also due to the influx in growth that was unsustainable as life returned to a new normal.”
However, there’s good news looking forward. Resetar advises that in 2022, and moving into 2023, “we are starting see a similar rise in interest in immune health products and can expect it to linger in the new year as consumers continue to prioritize their overall health and wellness.”
Rachel Kreider, MPH, RD, senior director, technical product and content design, at GNC, also anticipates immunity-related products will continue to “trend positively as part of a holistic wellness approach…” Kreider explains that “in the past 36 months, we’ve seen a seismic shift in consumer behavior.”
She adds that “immune health continues to be a top priority, with more consumers seeking and building a routine with proactive wellness at the center.”
Expanding the Reach of Immune Health Supplements
When it comes to immune health supplements, are consumers only looking at those products that carry claims that mention “immune health” or “immune support”? Or are supplement companies educating and marketing products that aim to position immune health as a broader umbrella that covers supplements carrying claims such as “mood health” or “sleep support” or other health attributes that are all part of building a healthy immune system?
According to CRN’s Luke Huber, ND, vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, “While claims like ‘immune support’ are common, certain ingredients are [so] well known for immune health that they attract consumers interested in the category.” As examples, he cites popular ingredients in the immune space like elderberry, vitamin D, zinc, and vitamin C.
He adds that “while other categories, such as ‘sleep support,’ may not signal immune health directly, it is clear that proper sleep is important for a healthy immune system.”
Pharmavite’s Kathi Christensen, marketing director, consumer engagement, agrees. “When it comes to supporting immune health,” she says, “certain products and ingredients are top of mind for consumers, including vitamins D and C, elderberry, and zinc. However, increasingly, consumers understand that their health is a connected system. When sleep and stress are compromised, this can impact the immune system as well. Immune health is just one part of integrated health and wellness for consumers.”
Stocks notes that an increase in consumer education and engagement “is evident by a shift we’ve seen from a focus on multivitamins to dietary supplements that support a specific health benefit, like immune health.”
She sees opportunities for other ingredients in the immune health category, advising that “we also understand that consumers are going beyond the traditional immune health ingredients to identify other nutrients with science supporting their immune health benefits.” As an example, she points to Nature’s Bounty Immune 24 Hour+, which features Ester-C, vitamin D, zinc, elderberry, and Echinacea for added immune health benefits.
Based on SPINS data, Resetar, too, sees growth opportunity in the immune health category beyond the traditional immune health vitamins and other supplements. For example, she notes that “there are several VMS [vitamin, mineral, supplement] products that include immune health claims based off of our health-focus immune-health attribute. Prebiotic and probiotic products are one of the faster growing subcategories in both dollar sales and unit sales, at 19.5% and 35.9%, respectively, in the 52 weeks ending January 1, 2023.”
Resetar suggests that “the importance of digestive health in the pursuit [of] overall health and wellness was a large trend in 2022 and will most likely continue in 2023. One key point for many consumers to start their digestive health journeys was because of the benefits it could have on their immune health.”
Kreider finds that “when it comes to product-specific opportunities, we do see consumers looking to brands to offer products that are multipurpose—[for example] immune health and gut health—to be more efficient.”
Resetar says that “many consumers are starting to take a more serious look at their digestive health to strengthen their immune system, and, she adds, “the same is happening on both the sleep supplement and mood-support supplement sides as shoppers learn that a good night’s sleep and reduced stress can affect their ability to fight off seasonal illness. With this approach, shoppers are more likely to shop for products that benefit multiple health focuses at once, in addition to immune health, rather than only sticking to products that promote a healthy immune system.”
Resetar claims that “brands and retailers have been watching these shopping habits, and it can be seen in both brand packaging and retail store layout. Brands with products that contain immune-boosting ingredients are relaying those ingredients and benefits on their packaging, in addition to any other functionalities. Retailers are stocking products that combine multiple health focuses and organizing their aisles in a way that shows shoppers all the personalization and options available.”
There are other growth opportunities, too, according to Resetar. “Children’s supplements are another subcategory growing right now, with immune health–claim products at 65.3% dollar growth and 46.6% unit growth for the latest 52 weeks,” she advises. Here’s why: “Parents are taking a closer look at their health, and those choices and habits trickle down to the products they choose to buy for their children,” she says.
Resetar adds that “multivitamins and children’s supplements are two product areas where we have been seeing lots of innovation in both form and formula. There is more personalization that allows shoppers to pick and choose which health focuses they want to concentrate on, which for many of them includes immune health.”
Huber considers mushrooms another ripe growth opportunity for immune health. In addition, he reminds us that vitamin D, with its growing body of scientific research, is still “a leading ingredient in the immune health space,” noting that vitamin D in the context of COVID-19 is “a particular area of research interest.”
The CRN Foundation manages Vitamin D & Me, a clearinghouse of research, expert interviews, and educational material on vitamin D and COVID-19 research. “With more than 100 study summaries on the site and more research being consistently published, this remains a hot area for immune health research,” say Huber.
Marketing Efforts See Growth Opportunities
Companies are now shifting their educational, consumer engagement, and marketing efforts in response to what they’re seeing and hearing from consumers who changed not only their perspectives on their health but also their purchasing habits. The pandemic changed many things in this regard, and companies in the wellness space are taking notice.
Pharmavite launched a new advertising campaign to coincide with the new year. One of its largest campaigns to date, “The Start of Something Great,” launched with on-air spots across three broadcast networks along with a Good Morning America sponsorship, according to a company press release. The campaign was designed to establish Nature Made vitamins “as the transformative regimen to set good days in motion.”3
While an advertising campaign created to promote a brand is de rigueur, this campaign marks a shift from Nature Made’s typical advertising approach of showcasing health and wellness products in a functional way. Instead, it appeals to the more emotional and positive side of wellness.
The shift in approach was informed by the brand’s propriety research along with NielsenIQ behavioral science insights which showed that consumers do not connect to “scare-based” advertising and instead want to see more positive messaging around health.
“Science and quality remain fundamental to our brand’s DNA,” said Rhonda Hoffman, chief marketing officer for Pharmavite, in the press release, “but our new campaign seeks to reframe the role of Nature Made vitamins and supplements by leaning into the shifting cultural conversation and consumer expectations around health and wellness.”3
Mitmesser advises that “one of our key goals with our new approach to the emotional side of wellness was for consumers to reframe their strategy around immune health.” As such, she explains, “It is imperative to be doing everything in your power to keep your immune system functioning year-round so that it can be at its best when you need it most.”
Her Pharmavite colleague, Christensen, says that “we see consumers taking an active interest in proactively supporting their health. We are positioning our products as one of many ways that consumers can proactively take care of their health every day. This includes vitamins and supplements that support the immune system. They can be used proactively rather than reactively.”
For GNC, coming out of COVID without sacrificing the gains that were seen in the immune health category means several things, starting with engaging with its customers in order to listen, learn, and adapt “our curated product assortment as needed,” says Kreider.
Kreider notes that “our mission is to help people ‘Live Well,’ and a key part of delivering that is ensuring we have the products and services consumers need in the ways in which they want to engage the brand. So, immunity products are definitely part of the conversation, and we continue to find new delivery formats and products that can help consumers tackle their wellness.”
“Educating our consumers on the benefits and ways to better their wellness routines based on their goals is just as important as providing them the right products to achieve their goals,” she adds. According to Kreider, that’s done through their experts (including scientists and dietitians), content, social communities, The GNC Learning Center, and more to help educate and empower consumers on their wellness journey.
Stocks reflects that “there is growing awareness that several lifestyle factors, like eating a healthy diet, being hydrated, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting the recommended number of hours of sleep each night, play a role in supporting the body’s immune system. This awareness will translate into consumers’ supplement purchases, so we are identifying ways to help continue this education through our marketing efforts.”
Consumers Adopting a Holistic Approach to Immune Health, Wellness
“Overall, consumers recognize that overall health is composed of many facets—it’s not just physical; it’s also mental and emotional,” observes Stocks. “They know that a combination of how they live and how they feel impacts their overall health. Their goal is to have a good ‘baseline’ of health.”
GNC’s Kreider confirms that “in addition to immune health remaining vitally important to consumers, we also anticipate holistic wellness growing.”
And here, the growth opportunity for the immune health category exists not only by emphasizing the holistic nature of wellness in general but also from marketing supplements as one relevant piece of that journey.
“Holistic health is one of the most important topics of discussion in our industry right now,” states Kreider. “The idea is that delivering on wellness goals starts with consumers taking care of their entire self—inside and outside—behavioral, environmental, and dietary.”
Christensen, too, believes that consumers see vitamins and supplements as just one element of a holistic approach to wellness and immune health. “They understand that sleep, nutrition, and managing stress all play a part in proactively supporting a healthy immune system,” she says.
For the immune health category, Resetar’s perspective is in line with the other thought-leaders. “Based on what we are seeing in the market and consumer shopping habits, consumers take on their immune health with an approach that includes not only vitamins and supplements but overall life changes and products that align with those choices,” she says.
For companies that heed the warning signs and read the tea leaves, the immune health category may just be able to keep its gravitational pull on a steady upward swing, suggesting that when it comes to immune health supplements, what goes up may be able to stay up, at least for the foreseeable time-being.