Industry stakeholders discuss obstacles and opportunities.
Crises are often accompanied by a shared moment in time, an event that changes us collectively forever. For those old enough to remember, most can share with certainty exactly where they were, what they were doing, when they learned in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. For younger generations, there was the 1991 press conference that drew a collective breath as popular athlete Magic Johnson announced his sudden retirement from basketball after testing HIV-positive, one of the first celebrities of his generation to bring the specter of AIDS into our consciousness. Eight years later, what’s now known simply as “Columbine,” a mass shooting of teenagers that created a blueprint of tragic repetition for future generations, was another example of a shared-in-time crisis.
And then of course there was 9/11, an attack that Americans watched together in real-time horror, one day that changed this country’s life forever.
But the COVID crisis is different. With hundreds of thousands of American lives lost among the more than one million globally, there was no one moment in time when we all understood that the freedoms we’d come to savor might be curtailed and the businesses we’d built and the jobs we’d counted on would be eviscerated along with grandparents, spouses, friends, and co-workers.
Tracy Landau is president and partner of MarketPlace, a strategic branding firm that specializes in the food & beverage and health & wellness industries. “Certainly, MarketPlace understood the gravity of everything that was happening and how it directly impacted the world and the industries we serve, and our customers, our people, all of that.” But, she acknowledges, there wasn’t any one particular moment when she suddenly realized things would be different.
As the pandemic rolled into America like an earthquake, shaking our foundational way of life, rather, Landau says that as strategic thinkers, “it was clear to us that we weren’t going to be having the same conversations with our customers and that we, ourselves, were going to have to evolve quite a bit in some of the services we offered to help our customers.”
The beginning of the pandemic signaled the need for a lot of Landau’s clients to focus on operations. She explains that those companies needed to make sure they were getting the right ingredients, that they could manage their production, keep up with demand. They had to take their focus off of new innovation.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer, “when the world started to get a groove for ‘Okay, now we feel like we’re managing supply and demand. Let’s look forward,’” that Landau’s conversations with her clients took a turn in that direction.
In the meantime, as Landau’s clients were focused on “really important and challenging business issues,” her agency was focused on how, when the time was right, it could help move forward its customers’ innovation pipelines by fueling them with intelligent insight. One such result from MarketPlace was a consumer survey1 on the impact of the coronavirus on supplement users’ purchasing habits, with an eye toward counseling supplement and food companies on pivoting to meet evolving consumer needs.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) also places high value on market research, and in addition to its annual Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements2, this year the association conducted another survey focused specifically on supplement usage and attitudes related to the COVID-19 pandemic3.
Brian Wommack, senior vice president, communications, CRN, explains that “Many consumers continue to experience economic challenges throughout the pandemic.” He cites a recent Axios-Ipsos poll4 that “found that Americans’ ability to afford household goods has gotten worse; many continue to practice social-distancing measures, experience job loss or furloughs, and see a risk when returning to normal pre-COVID life.”
Wommack continues: “All of these challenges can affect the purchasing habits of dietary supplement users, especially when also considering the number of consumers who are working from home, avoiding the gym, and experiencing limited shopping options. As a result, CRN’s 2020 data3,4 suggests that consumers are shifting their focus to more traditional supplement ingredients to support their health throughout the pandemic.”
Immunity, Immunity, Immunity
If there’s one word that sums up consumer interest in supplements during the pandemic, it’s immunity—with good reason. Market research looking at sales data, purchasing habits, and consumer mindset all support the fact that consumers have increased interest in strengthening their immune system, and many believe supplements can help.
This past October, market researcher Euromonitor International published its “Dietary Supplements in the U.S.” report covering numerous topics related to COVID-19 and supplements, including the impact of supply chain disruption, new product launches, and a surge in popularity of immunity-oriented supplements.5
In the Executive Summary, the report states, “As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, dietary supplements, particularly those oriented towards immunity, have been enjoying significant demand among consumers.”
According to Euromonitor, immune system–supporting supplements sales in the U.S. increased by 32.4%, totaling sales of USD $2.7 billion in 2020, up from $2 billion in 2019. Globally, Euromonitor reported immune system–supporting supplements reached sales of USD $7.9 billion in 2020 versus USD $6.8 billion in 2019, a 14.9% increase.6
According to Lu Ann Williams, global insights director for market researcher Innova Market Insights, 30% of U.S. consumers said their concerns about immune health increased, compared to 2019, with 35% stating that supplements are most important to achieve immune health. Further, she advises that 35% of U.S. consumers agreed/strongly agreed with this statement: “Due to COVID-19, I have spent time educating myself on ingredients and procedures that can boost my immune health.” Innova’s research also shows that products with “immune health” label claims represented the highest percentage of new supplement launches in 2020 (January through August), both in the U.S. (31%) and globally (28%).7
The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) shared some interesting statistics from its 2020 U.S. Supplement/OTC/Rx Database (SORD) study released in October. For example, the study reports that 18% of Gen Pop (general population, ages 18+) plan to continue purchasing more immune-support supplements and overall-wellness supplements in the future. Specifically Gen X (ages 44-55) and Millennials (ages 23-43) are significantly more likely to do so than other generations, at 25% and 22%, respectively.8
Nine percent of Gen Pop have been purchasing more immune-support supplements and overall-wellness supplements in addition to the supplements they regularly take, according to NMI. The market research company notes this is particularly true of Millennials (14%).8 When it comes to their dietary/nutritional supplement routine relative to the current coronavirus, NMI found that only a small percentage (7%) of consumers are only purchasing more immune-support supplements and overall-wellness supplements so that they can maintain a constant supply during these uncertain times. This is highest among younger age groups, specifically Millennials (9%), iGen (ages 18-22, at 8%), and Gen X (at 8%). Five percent of Gen Pop are increasing purchases of immune-support supplements and overall-wellness supplements, and they also plan to increase their daily dose of these supplements, with Millennials (8%) driving this behavior.8
Companies are reporting the same kind of information.
According to Sharon Leite, CEO of The Vitamin Shoppe, during the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, direct-to-consumer business on vitaminshoppe.com performed at historic levels, particularly in immunity-support categories as consumer purchasing shifted to e-commerce.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, product manager, Gaia Herbs, says, “Gaia Herbs’ supplements supporting immune health have experienced significant sales growth in 2020, and this increase is also being experienced by the entire natural products industry. With the global health crisis due to COVID-19, people are actively looking for products to support their immune health and are being more proactive about their overall well-being in order to try and stay healthy.”
CRN’s Wommack advises that “CRN’s 2020 survey data show that more consumers report taking dietary supplements for overall health and wellness benefits and for overall immune support.” Specifically, he adds, “Supplement usage for immune support has increased by five percentage points this year—32% versus 27% in 2019—and is the number-one reason to take supplements for users aged 18-34.”
What Supplements Are Consumers Taking During the Pandemic?
CRN’s consumer research points toward supplement users sticking with familiar supplement products during the pandemic. Says Wommack, “As for specific ingredients, 2020 data show a stronger focus toward vitamins and minerals, with 98% of supplement users reporting use of products in this category over the last year. Data suggests that users are signaling higher priority towards the multivitamin and single-letter vitamins like C, D, and E. While usage remains steady among vitamins and minerals, results of the survey do reveal slight decreases for more niche specialty ingredients and categories like specialty supplements, herbals and botanicals, and sports nutrition products.”
But when it comes to interest in supplements specifically for immune support, not only are consumers trusting the letter vitamins, but there’s a lot of buzz and buying around elderberry and some of the other herbals.
The Vitamin Shoppe reports that searches on vitaminshoppe.com through September, versus the same period last year, are up for vitamin D (by 160%), vitamin C (by 590%), elderberry (by 650%), and zinc (by 1,100%), indicating interest in wellness and immunity boosters. There’s also been increased interest in blackseed oil, according to Leite.
And Gaia’s Fitzpatrick reveals that his company has seen significantly higher sales on gaiaherbs.com, its direct-to-consumer website, for most of its immune-supporting herbs and especially for products containing black elderberry and echinacea. As examples, Fitzpatrick shares that its Black Elderberry Syrup sales increased 3852% year-over-year (YOY) for the months of March-October, while Echinacea Supreme experienced sales growth of 531% YOY over the same time period.
With so many people stuck at home during the pandemic, Fitzpatrick suggests “people are spending more time online searching for health and wellness products, discovering new tips and ideas to support their health, and placing product orders in higher numbers than they were prior to the COVID-19 situation.”
Even more encouraging for Gaia and for the herbal products industry is this fact: “A significant percentage of our immune-health product sales through our website this year has been to new customers,” says Fitzpatrick. “We have also heard from our retailers as well that they are also seeing lots of new customers for supplements, especially for immune and respiratory health products.”
From Gaia’s perspective, not only has the company seen increased interest in herbs for immunity from adults, but those adults are demonstrating interest in immune-supportive herbs for their children. Fitzpatrick says, “Similar to our adult immune supplements, we have seen the most significant growth for our GaiaKids products containing the botanicals black elderberry and echinacea, in our direct-to-consumer channel. For instance, GaiaKids Black Elderberry Syrup sales have increased 431% YOY, and GaiaKids Echinacea Supreme sales are up 171%, March through October.”
However, Fitzpatrick adds that “while the company’s GaiaKids immune-health products have experienced significant growth this year, we have not seen these same sales increases on our other children’s herbal products. While we do not have consumer behavior research to verify this, we are inclined to believe that people are choosing to spend their discretionary funds on areas they feel are most critical during these challenging times, and for many people maintaining their immune health is now their top priority.”
More Immunity Positivity, Concerns about Adulteration
Daniel Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO, Natural Products Association (NPA), is also seeing growth for supplements, starting with “the basics—the alphabet vitamins” and pulling in those products where there’s science behind immune support, including elderberry, echinacea, and SAM-e.
In the case of people who didn’t previously think about needing a product for immunity—those who, as Fabricant says, “…don’t take the flu vaccine or anything else; their lifestyle is ‘I don’t worry about that’”—may have developed a different attitude as the pandemic hit. According to Fabricant, “I think with the pandemic, folks started to take a little bit of a deeper dive…on letter vitamins and anything else [where] there was science behind the support for the immune system.”
As to how the economy has played a role in supplement purchases, Fabricant says “there’s some reallocation to self-care. People may not be going to movie theaters, they’re not spending on entertainment, but they’re very serious about their health right now, and I think that’s really where they’re going to shift.”
When the pandemic hit, Fabricant saw a run on products for immunity, like the ones he just mentioned. “Some of it cooled a bit, but as the weather cools” he expects sales for those products to go back up again. “This time of year,” he says, “people buy more vitamin C, they’ll buy more echinacea, they’ll buy more elderberry, and I think we’ll see even more of that coming into this winter season.”
Fabricant’s enthusiasm comes with a warning for the industry and for consumers. With the increased pandemic-related interest in immunity-supportive herbals running into the realities of agriculture, there were ingredient shortages. This heightened Fabricant’s concern about “fake” or adulterated ingredients.
As an example, he points to an explosion of different brands of elderberry products on different internet sites and advises consumers to use some caution. “If the price from the tried-and-true brand is, let’s just say theoretically, $25 a bottle, and there’s some johnny-come-lately brand that says it has the same amount of elderberry, or echinacea, for $5 a bottle, you kind of have to go with ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’”
Fitzpatrick, too, saw examples of ingredient shortages. He advises, “In the natural channel, as reported by SPINS, the entire herbal category exploded in March, growing 93% versus the prior year. That growth was driven almost exclusively by immune products9,10. But as many brands ran into out-of-stock situations and consumers adjusted their behavior, that situation has leveled off and even begun to decline in the most recent months.”
Science Matters During a Pandemic
“Consumers should also be aware that it has been reported that there is an increased risk of adulteration in the herbal supplement market due to shortages of herbal ingredients caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Fitzpatrick.
One thing that isn’t different during the pandemic is the importance of science and the need for supplement companies that take science seriously.
Fitzpatrick is proud of how Gaia Herbs addresses adulteration concerns “by consistently using the same trusted growers and suppliers that we have worked with for years” and whose ingredients the company trusts. He adds, “The company’s trusted partners are asked to follow organic and sustainable cultivation methods, which are validated through site visits and analytical testing of the raw materials themselves. Gaia Herbs also has a rigorous testing process for its ingredients to ensure quality and authenticity.”
Gaia wants its consumers to be savvy supplement users. That’s one reason why the company offers a user-friendly traceability program that focuses on transparency—MeetYourHerbs11. Product purchasers—or shoppers wanting to know more about the product—simply enter the product ID number located on the back panel of any Gaia Herbs package to find out how the herbs for the product were grown, harvested, and extracted and to learn about the tests taken to validate the product’s purity, integrity, and potency.
Fabricant points to another company, Nature’s Way, as an example of one he says has done “so much in science in terms of elderberry, you see how invested they are in the science behind elderberry. I think that’s critical, because a company that’s in the science like that, that [commitment] goes all the way through the supply chain. And I think those are the sorts of companies, if you’re going to purchase an immunity product, that’s really where you want to look right now, is folks who have invested in that infrastructure.”
Product Launches During the Pandemic
Joelle Legree, associate marketing director for the new Celltrient Cellular Nutrition line by Nestlé Health Science, faced not only the challenges of the pandemic this year, but she took on the additional challenge of launching a new brand in 2020.
“Similar to many other companies,” she says, “the pandemic caused us to change our ways of working to assure the safety of our employees and the patients, customers, consumers, and healthcare professionals we serve.”
While the pandemic creates some potential roadblocks for launching the Celltrient portfolio, Legree believes the pandemic also serves up some new opportunities for marketers.
Quarantining meant consumers are spending more time at home, says Legree, engaging with their digital devices and shopping more online, providing brands with increased opportunity to be “found.” Legree saw the chance to “create a real connection with them based on what topics are top of mind.”
The pandemic also creates a more empowered and proactive approach to self-care and wellness. “Consumers can no longer do basic things like visiting a supplement store to browse the aisle and get advice from knowledgeable employees. Instead, our consumers…are proactively using online resources to explore, educate, and purchase products and share reviews. They are trying to exercise control where they can, despite the pandemic, and maintaining a wellness routine is important to them,” states Legree.
From a marketer’s perspective, with its roller coaster ups and downs, 2020 “changed the way we conducted research and ramped up for a big launch—from no travel, to remote restricted photo shoots, long-distance agency engagement, and more,” says Legree.
Legree says Nestlé Health Science knew “we wanted to get into the market to learn and optimize about consumer needs and wants prior to the key New Year period where people recommit themselves to their wellness goals.” Because of that, she says, “We did not move up our launch due to the pandemic and always planned to launch direct-to-consumer.”
It helped that Nestlé was launching what it considers to be a breakthrough brand, one that takes a different approach to an age-old problem: aging. Explains Legree, “Cellular nutrition is an emerging space, and we are committed to being on the cutting edge and helping to approach aging through a different lens. It is no longer about getting old and focusing on just the signs of aging that you can see, superficially. It is also about the part of the aging process that you cannot see at the cellular level and how that makes you feel, from the inside out. This invisible aging process is happening because cells are also getting old.”
So the company moved forward, plowing through the pandemic on a marketing level by shifting their go-to-market strategy in a couple of ways and launching its three-product Celltrient line in October.12
“To assist busy healthcare professionals (HCP) looking for information on how to best support their patients,” says Legree, “we provided information in more easily accessible digital formats versus printed hard copies. For example, we increased spend on HCP digital tools like Doximity,” which Legree explains is akin to LinkedIn for doctors.
In addition, “Instead of a large-scale in-person PR launch event, we instead executed our launch event via Zoom with our celebrity spokesperson, Jennifer Grey. Despite being virtual, the event was attended by 40 editors representing over 65 top-tier outlets,” she says.
According to Legree, Celltrient is “the first brand to provide a range of targeted cellular nutrients—including nicotinamide riboside (NR), urolithin A (UA), and N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)—designed to specifically address three key natural processes that decline with age.”
Another company that met the challenges of doing business head-on during the pandemic is The Vitamin Shoppe. By implementing new services like curbside pick-up and same-day delivery with Instacart, the retailer was able to allow customers to show how and where they feel most comfortable, meeting customers where they are, according to Leite.
This summer, The Vitamin Shoppe launched CBD HQ13, an in-store and online concept, which Leite calls an industry-leading destination for CBD hemp extract wellness solutions.
In a press release14, she stated, “The Vitamin Shoppe and Super Supplements stores are proud to be the premiere destinations for trusted CBD hemp extract products. We were the first national retailer to offer a broad selection of ingestible CBD products, and our new CBD HQ concept is the next evolution of our commitment to this thriving, innovative wellness category. Driven by strong word-of-mouth, personal testimonials, and self-directed consumer research, we are seeing robust interest in CBD from our customers. To meet that demand, The Vitamin Shoppe and Super Supplements continue to expand our industry-leading assortment of CBD products in trusted formulations that meet our exacting standards of quality.”
In November, The Vitamin Shoppe launched its first proprietary CBD hemp extract products under its Vthrive The Vitamin Shoppe and plnt brands. Both brands are available exclusively at The Vitamin Shoppe and Super Supplements stores, as well as vitaminshoppe.com. And The Vitamin Shoppe also launched a number of key new products and brands, including Ghost energy drinks, the Alani Nu Women’s supplement brand, and the EHP Labs sports nutrition line.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the new product development pipeline for many companies, including Gaia Herbs. You can see this with new product launches happening this fall and winter, as most of the new products hitting the market are focused on immune and respiratory health,” says Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick continues, “While we already had a line of respiratory products in development in our new product pipeline for quite some time, the events happening in 2020 made these products a higher priority. Gaia Herbs’ goal was to get our new line of safe, high-quality, plant-based efficacious respiratory health–supportive products in the market and in the hands of people as soon as possible, as this is a time when they are critically needed.”
In fact, in November, Gaia Herbs launched a new line of high-quality, plant-based dietary supplements to help support respiratory wellness. The three products—Mighty Lungs, Sinus Comfort, and Black Seed Oil—first launched on gaiaherbs.com, followed by a rollout across natural and health food stores nationally.
“With poor air quality due to wildfires across the West and other environmental pollutions, as well as COVID-19 cases continuing to climb, we have seen a heightened focus on respiratory health this year. For all of these reasons and more, people are increasingly seeking plant-based, natural wellness solutions to help support their lung health,” said Angela McElwee, president and CEO, Gaia Herbs, in a press release.15
Innovation Moving Forward
Not all products and categories fared as well as immunity products during the pandemic.
For example, sports nutrition products took a hit as gyms closed down, but as consumers are finding other ways to get their exercise in, some sports nutrition products (e.g., protein) seem to be back on their feet.16
Jan Nash, senior director of research, NMI, has a positive outlook on the future for supplements, at least for the immediate future. “NMI has maintained its finger on the pulse of U.S. consumers since the COVID-19 pandemic began early this year,” she says. “First-time use of supplements has increased throughout the outbreak, and with the current rise in COVID-19 cases, we see nothing to suggest the increase in supplement use will change soon.”
MarketPlace noted two areas that were trending in the fall of 2019, according to the firm’s consumer research17, slipping out of the limelight when the pandemic hit. First, Megan Hook, growth strategy director, MarketPlace, advises personalized nutrition appeared to be a huge opportunity, but that changed once the pandemic hit. In the company’s 2020 survey, “we saw that [interest] tank,” says Hook.1
Hook’s MarketPlace colleague, Landau, adds that CBD “was another thing going into the pandemic that was hot, and we saw the focus come off of CBD as well.”1,17
But neither Landau nor Hook are concerned about the future of those trends. Says Landau, “It’s not that it went away. [CBD] sort of took a backseat, just like personalized nutrition, to this focus on overall health and strengthening immunity.”
And then there’s the increasing reach of the microbiome, with octopus-like tentacles scientifically wrapping themselves around additional health outcomes regularly. In a press release announcing results from the MarketPlace 2020 consumer study, Landau shares her firm’s finding that “Consumers are beginning to view gut health as a pathway to immunity and general health, which widens the door for probiotics in all kinds of nutrition applications.”18
There’s also the blending, blurry line between food and supplements as consumers hint at pill fatigue and companies can’t resist adding healthful ingredients and nutrients to a growing flurry of foods. “We predicted for a long time that the food industry and supplement industry would collide, and they have, of course—and they continue to do that even more,” says Landau. As an example, she points to the increasing popularity of gummies.
MarketPlace’s Hook cites her company’s consumer research that found “the use and consumption of pills, tablets, and capsules decreased by 18%, and the use of gummies increased by 14%.”
“When new business customers are talking to me about introducing supplements to the markets, they are not talking about capsules; they are talking about gummies or they are talking about functional foods or beverages,” shares Landau.
Other experts, too, are encouraged, even looking beyond the pandemic.
NPA’s Fabricant says, “A big part of what we’re doing, we’re really trying to work with our members and go to where the puck is going to be.” That includes two things the industry has talked about before. First, Fabricant points to vitamin D, as an example, referencing all the positive studies, in this case related to COVID. “I mean every co-morbidity you see in [scientific journals] say people who get [COVID] symptoms, their vitamin D status is glaringly deficient, so I think given that, why aren’t we able to say something in that regard? Companies in the industry are looking toward, ‘So, okay, how do we communicate better with regard to what we can and can’t say?’”
Second, Fabricant advises, “Combinations of products are going to become more and more important coming out of this. It’s not just dietary supplements; you see folks using dietary supplements with over-the-counter medicines. Do we come out of this as an industry and say maybe we really should look at possible combinations here and there and how do we move ahead in that regard, because that’s clearly what the consumers want if you look at buying patterns.”
Beyond the Pandemic
“One of the few positives of the COVID-19 situation is that it has made people more conscious about their health, and people are now taking proactive measures to help maintain their well-being,” says Fitzpatrick.
The hope throughout the industry is that as solutions are found to resolve the pandemic, that the attention to health won’t also disappear.
Landau says that during the pandemic, “as our customers were worried about business issues, we were still having conversations about hope for the future. We were still partners, we cared about each other’s businesses, and despite all that was going on, we wanted to make sure we helped our customers live out our shared missions to offer nutrition and lifestyle brands that make the lives of people better.”
That sounds like a mission shared by almost all in the supplement and functional food industries—one that should thrive beyond the pandemic.