While at the helm of Nutrition Business Journal, I had direct access to the leadership of the supplement industry to ask these kinds of questions and develop lines of thinking that — I always hoped — would move the industry forward. That hasn’t changed. As an industry consultant, I still talk with some of the brightest minds in and around the supplement space, and I still end up in conversations that revolve around the words “stuck” or “that kind of innovation just isn’t in our DNA”.
Maybe it’s me. Nah.
As attorneys general rage rightly and wrongly against an industry dogged by quality concerns and — let’s be kind — “trust issues”, I find myself thinking more about transparency. Remember those transparency campaigns to unpack a given supply chain and trace back raw materials to their very germ of inception? I’m thinking of Meet Your Herbs at Gaia, or Pure Check at Ascenta, or all of the work by Aker to address sustainability concerns head-on with transparency data for the entire krill category.
Did those work? Do they matter? Did they ramify across the industry?
I would argue, no, not enough, at least not yet. In a category of consumer products so dogged by bad press and quality concerns, it’s a prickly question to ask why transparency has not won the day in supplements, but it’s also a question that matters.
A transparency troika
So, a few thoughts:
1. Some consumers intuitively understand the true purpose of dietary supplements — incremental zaps of food-like health to round out a smart diet and exercise — despite some in the industry pushing hard for the allure of drugs with more targeted therapies, shorter durations of efficacy, and more “active” active ingredients. (Here’s looking at you, sports nutrition.) These consumers find some brands they trust, probably at some individually determined balance of cost and quality, and stick with them.
2. Other consumers don’t care and never will about sourcing and supply chains. These are bargain hunters, and they are legion. If and when these consumers respond to transparency messaging, they will only do so following in the wake of widespread adoption from other consumer segments.
3. The rest of consumers live on the fence, wondering — nay, praying — for some clarity. They wait for that unpredictable moment when some uncontrollable message steers them toward a QR code or company video that, in turn, converts them into an educated buyer. These are the consumers most of you reading this article want, because they represent growth and the future. You want these people above all others as the great march toward food and healthcare reform accelerates, and I believe that transparency is still the way to get them. If not now, soon enough.
Perhaps Gaia was just premature in driving toward transparency, but good for them and their prematurity. As the months pass, they are certainly not alone and, I would argue, their transparency platform now carries a level of band equity that’s tough to measure. In fact, I see more brands — MegaFood springs to mind — themselves seeing the light on the horizon and pushing aggressively for fresh, forward-looking messaging with transparency as the bedrock of their brand identity.
Transparency from ground up
In this light, it’s less about the QR code and brand video, more about building your business as a transparent enterprise from the ground up. The best of natural foods has approached business this way for decades, and look where it’s gotten them. With the ultimate goal of health and wellness — a civic-minded goal if there ver was one — I would wager that the winners in supplements will feel less and less like “companies” out to reap profits and market share, and more like “partners” in search of open conversation with their customers.
Partners share. The best ones don’t keep secrets.
If transparency fever has yet to catch hold in dietary supplements in any meaningful way, I still have no quarters to bet against that day coming soon enough. Always remember this: Despite years of competitive advantage from DSHEA, the paradigm shift away from pharmaceuticals, and a pervasive aversion to the corruptions of “big business,” supplements are consumer products and always will be. Who would argue that the future of consumer products does not lie in increased transparency?
As a final thought, I think the historical trajectory of the industry proves informative as well. To my mind, the supplements category remains in the early stages of a differentiation process that will play out over many years to come and, rather than complicate things, make them cleaner and simpler. Much of what we know today as dietary supplements will find new wind at its back from the personalization shift in medicine and the efficacy advances driven by tech upstarts pouring through the big data of our trackable lives. Where there once was Lovaza, there will soon live countless prescription vitamins and botanicals stripped of their structure-function shackles and ready to mitigate, treat, and prevent disease. Carve this group off for regulation as drugs, and you’re left with the traditionalist camp of supplements — and the bulk of its sales through multis, I might add — who will rub up even harder against the food trends du jour. There, transparency is now just a cost of doing business. It’s de minimis QA/QC.
In that world of convergence, every consumer brand that matters will have transparency as a core tenet.