Shattering Shopper Myths: Identifying the Dietary Supplement Buyer in a Fragmenting Era

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 19 No. 7
Volume 19
Issue 7

With fealty to mass markets crumbling in this era of fragmentation, the consumer-as-moving-target may be the norm going forward.

Photo © Edited by Quinn Williams.

This is 2016. Categorizing consumers into types based on their preferences, motivations, or purchasing behaviors is just so…Y2K. At least that’s what Julian Mellentin, director, New Nutrition Business (London), seems to think. As he puts it, “The person who listens to Bach’s Goldberg Variations while working at home also listens to Aerosmith or Black Sabbath while driving to work-and sometimes jazz.” 

For a company with a product to market, this fluidity makes it all the more difficult to pin potential purchasers down. Indeed, as market researcher Innova Market Insights points out in its report “Fragmentation-Where and How?,” “It is a truism that markets and consumer tastes are ‘fragmenting,’ which for most consumer marketers means that big brands are no longer reaching broad audiences as easily as they did.”

With fealty to mass markets crumbling in this era of fragmentation, the consumer-as-moving-target may be the norm going forward. Indeed, says Mellentin, “The idea that you do not have to be loyal to one musical genre or style of eating”-that you can inhabit many identities at once-“infuses our culture and drives people’s beliefs and choices in every area of their lives.”

This includes their approach to healthcare, which consumers “seem to regard as an extensive menu of options from which to select what makes the most sense in the context of their individual beliefs, health needs, and lifestyles,” says Mellentin. That’s a far cry from the days when dietary supplement manufacturers could put out a multivitamin and maybe a few specialty formulas for the “average” shopper and call it a day.

There is a silver lining, though. While diversity in the supplement marketplace complicates how the industry serves its audience, it also expands the audience the industry can serve.


Taking Health into Their Hands

Mellentin and his colleagues first noted this personalization of healthcare around the turn of the century. More than ten years on, “The fragmented, individualized view of health that was emerging back in 2003 has, in 2016, become the defining force,” he says. And what undergirds its definition is the extent to which consumers are taking health into their own hands.

In a sense, you can’t blame them. “As a result of the economic downturn over the past decade, consumers have turned to self-diagnosis as a way of cutting costs,” says Kimberly Kawa, senior nutrition researcher, SPINS LLC, a leading information provider for the natural and specialty products industry. For better or worse, consumers have also begun seeing the Internet and social media as first responders, enabling them “to compile and analyze their symptoms with the click of a mouse,” Kawa adds.

Moreover, a barrage of pharmaceutical advertising has convinced consumers that they might know better than their doctors how best to optimize their health. While the supplement industry isn’t “at the forefront of this marketing,” Kawa says, it’s nonetheless helped foster “a culture of acceptance” toward self-diagnosis that supplement consumers are embracing “as they explore more alternatives to conventional, over-the-counter medicine,” she says. “Over the next few years, expect to see more supplements introduced as alternatives to conventional products to attract this emboldened consumer.”


Who’s Influencing Whom?

Judy Blatman, senior vice president, communications, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington DC), says CRN’s annual extensive shopper survey shows “that physicians are still the number-one trusted source for information on supplements.” Still, she notes, consumers’ “world of influencers is changing” all the while. Bloggers, celebrity endorsements, and old-fashioned hunches play a role, “particularly with younger generations,” she notes. These are consumers who are “questioning authority. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be part of that decision-making process, and I think that probably started with boomers,” Blatman says.

Jeff Hilton, partner and cofounder, BrandHive (Salt Lake City), observes that we’ve replaced the well-educated, health-aware female aged 45-plus who was the supplement shopper of yore with a consumer who’s “more diverse both ethnically and gender-wise.” Case in point: more men are discovering supplements and functional foods-traditionally the province of female shoppers-while more women are buying traditionally “manly” sports or active-nutrition products.

Add younger consumers to the mix and you get “a complex puzzle, primarily because millennials are rewriting all the rules,” Hilton says. He thinks millennials stand apart from their boomer counterparts in that they’re “looking to live life to the fullest and want products that facilitate their chosen lifestyles and activities.” Boomers, he wagers, “just want to live forever and enjoy continued good health.”



Millennial Hope or Hype?

But while some have exalted the millennial generation as a digitally driven shot in the arm to goose supplement sales, others are less sanguine. Take Barbara Katz, president, HealthFocus International (St. Petersburg, FL). “Here’s the rub,” she says: “While the millennial shopper shows a lot of enthusiasm and is very open to the connection between nutrition and health, it’s still the boomer who’s far more likely to tell us that they’re actually using vitamin and mineral supplements. So this may be a case of an enthusiastic younger market that isn’t actually taking action versus a somewhat more skeptical older one that is.”

Sure enough, when Katz’s company surveyed consumer attitudes toward supplements, 44% of millennials expressed an inclination to give “reputable” companies the benefit of the doubt on label claims, while only 33% of boomers said they did the same. The lesson, Katz says, may be that though still a bedrock of the supplement market, boomers are “more likely to come into the discussion saying, ‘We’re open to trying things, but we’ve been around longer and seen claims that don’t hold true, so you’re going to have to work harder to prove this.’”


Motivating Factors

HealthFocus International’s study also found that millennials and boomers use supplements for very different reasons, with younger consumers “far more likely” to address need states like improved sleep and energy, stress reduction, skin health, and immunity, while older ones focus, not surprisingly, on improved memory, bone and joint health, cholesterol reduction, and heart health. “This is not to say that there’s no overlap,” Katz insists, but “that their key foci are different, as one would expect.”

Understanding and predicting those foci is getting harder as the audience for supplements diversifies. But despite all the churn, Blatman is quick to remind marketers that, according to CRN’s annual survey, “the number-one reason consumers take supplements is overall health and wellness.” The need to fill nutrient gaps continues to rank highly as a motivator, too, as does the pursuit of energy.

Delving more deeply into what motivates consumers, Blatman notes that some “are very committed to the category and interested in adding new supplements for new reasons at new times in their lives,” while others are seasonal users “who might take Echinacea if they feel a cold coming on.” And don’t forget what she calls the “core users,” who turn to multivitamins-or maybe even to a specific nutrient, like vitamin D or omega-3s-when their doctors advise them to.

Eleanor Dwyer, research associate, Euromonitor International (Chicago), points out that “extreme health enthusiasts have also historically made up a core group” of vitamin and dietary supplement consumers. Yet she believes it’s the growing influence of more “casual purchasers” that’s “the most salient trend” in the category today.


Embracing Integration

In any event, Blatman’s seen an upswell in interest in integrative health, pointing to the recent renaming of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Health to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The seemingly minor change, she notes, “reflects a recognition that products previously thought to be alternative”-supplements as well as massage and acupuncture-“are really mainstream,” she says. “And that’s a big shift.”

Part of integrative care’s appeal stems from growing concerns about the cost of healthcare. Notes Dwyer, “Health insurance providers have responded to an increased burden by diligently promoting preventative care. These shifts have encouraged Americans to adopt healthier lifestyles, and many have turned to vitamin and dietary supplements as an easy first step in taking control of their future health.”

James S. Tonkin, founder and president, Healthy Brand Builders (Scottsdale, AZ), agrees-with caveats. Personal responsibility for health is “starting to take shape,” he says, but he’s yet to see evidence that most consumers are truly following through. “We still have a long way to go in educating people as to preventative care and lifestyle changes,” he believes. Even so, he sees a change coming, and bets that when it does, it may “eventually lower the total cost of healthcare in the U.S.”



Loyalty Oath

The take-home for marketers, Blatman says, is that “they really need to understand consumer segmentations in order to fine-tune the kinds of products they’re selling. And as with all other industries, you have some consumers who are very brand loyal, and some who are price sensitive.”

The trend, though, appears to be toward the latter. In fact, some industry watchers think brand loyalty’s days are numbered. Take Hilton: “Brand loyalty is on the decline,” he says. Though boomers might still maintain some brand allegiance, “Millennials are less loyal, preferring niche brands that they can ‘own’ and champion.”

Though Tonkin himself professes to being “a brand guy,” as he looks ahead he believes “we’ll always have the private-label, alternative anti-brand shopper,” he says. “Trader Joe’s thrives on these people, as do dollar and ninety-nine-cent stores. It’s more about economics than anything, in my view.”


Get the Word Out

It’s also about trust. Consumers’ continued commitment to the category imposes a commitment upon marketers, Blatman believes. “We’re producing products that people put into their bodies,” she says. “From that standpoint, we need to be sure that we’re building trust and doing everything we can to deliver them high-quality, safe, beneficial products.” That’s why, in her mind, “Safety is the entry point.”

Companies also need to invest in science to substantiate their supplements’ benefits-and those that do, Blatman says, “will do better in the long run.” But once they have the science, how do they get the message out to a market that’s both diverse and widely dispersed?

“Good question!” says Laura A. Mahecha, industry manager, healthcare and I&I, Kline & Company (Parsippany, NJ). For starters, she encourages marketers to make use of good-old word of mouth. Today’s consumers “place a lot of emphasis on what their friends and relatives tell them and on their own research,” she notes. “Even more, perhaps, than on advertising or social media.”

That said, social media and online channels are where today’s consumers live. Which is why Mellentin sees “a growing importance for a brand to build an online and/or social-media presence.” Marketing digitally helps companies not only find their customers, but understand the finer points of who they are and what they want. “And because social media is interactive,” he adds, “it can also be used as a tool to generate feedback and analyze current trends.”

And lest marketers think that only digital natives are attached to their devices, Mellentin notes that the Pew Research Center’s “Older Adults and Internet Use” report found 67% of adults aged 65 and older using the Internet on a daily basis. “So we might be underestimating the size of the target group online.”

Marketers are taking these kinds of lessons to heart and learning to adapt their expectations. Because the one thing we can be sure of is that there is no longer-and perhaps never again will be­-a singular supplement shopper.


Also read:

Millennial Marketing Strategies: SupplySide West Report

Who Is the Dietary Supplement Shopper Today?

Are Health Food Stores Losing Relevance?


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