Everybody knows that the media, the Internet and seemingly everything else in our lives is becoming sensational and inflammatory in an attempt to get a little bit of attention from the consumer. This is a trend the nutrition industry can only ignore at its own peril, and I would argue that if companies ignore it then it is also at the consumer’s peril.
We have to accept as an industry that neutral studies, any regulatory action against a rogue company, or any number of other factors will be twisted to show the entire industry is a threat to the future of humanity and civilization as we know it. This is an exaggeration, but the problem is that the more inflammatory the information environment becomes, then the more inflammatory headlines need to be to get attention...and the more misleading the consumer media will be (after all, they are an unregulated industry).
Inflammation as metaphor
Inflammation in the body is a nice metaphor to use in thinking about this issue. Inflammation is created when an insult to the body is introduced. I think we all know deep down that there is very little we can do to prevent the insults that affect our industry. There will always be neutral studies published that are not designed to find a benefit, for example. Like inflammation in the body, the two most effective strategies are to try to prevent the resulting inflammation or to resolve it at its peak. The problem is that this is going to take action and investment.
Preventing the inflammation is the clearest strategy, because if we want to limit the impact of negative media headlines and blog posts, then all we have to do is improve the environment in which these insults are introduced. However, resolving the inflammation requires the same response. To battle the impact of an insult, the environment must be right for your message to be heard. If consumers trust our products implicitly, then these negative insults have little or no impact. You can see small facets of this in the comment sections of news articles focused on omega-3s, multivitamins, and vitamin D. There are always a vocal group of consumers that trust these products and are skeptical about the headlines. So how do we convert more consumers into these advocates who are immune to inflammatory headlines?
To me, the answer is straightforward. It takes coordinated public relations and advertising. If we want consumers to have positive information as a counter-narrative to what they read, then we have to get that information out there. Nobody else will do it, because nobody else has an interest in doing so. Yes, there are governments, media outlets, and non-profits that should have strategic interests in spreading the positive message about nutrition and supplementation, but with the way they act one has to ask themselves do they really? While our industry can have a significant, beneficial impact on public health, the reality is that few governments around the world are trying to get their citizens to supplement their already-poor diets. We also already know that the media’s strategic interest is to drive readership, and it is clear that they have found sensational headlines are the way to do so. It is unlikely that they will talk about our industry in a positive way unless it is a sensationally positive story. Lastly, the most influential non-profits that should care about the public health crises we target have not been educated or courted by our industry. So again, if none of these groups are going to speak positively about nutritional products, then who will?
Advertising can make a difference
We know it can have an impact. This publication and many others have covered the recent success in a test market the omega-3 industry had in reversing a sales decline that resulted from losing consumers’ share of mind. So far we have run this ad campaign in only a single market, but we managed to reverse that decline by investing in PR and advertising for the category. This strategy was developed after studying other industries that successfully turned their markets around, but when we have spoken with other consumer product categories and explained what we are doing, their reaction is that this is an obvious strategy. It is no secret to consumer packaged goods marketers that you must advertise to sell product and that when you don’t advertise the odds are your sales will decline due to other forces. Unfortunately our industry as a whole does not invest in proactively communicating with consumers as we should.
I know since I run a trade association, this probably sounds like I am opining from my ivory tower. However, consider this: CPG companies traditionally spend about 25% of their revenues on marketing their products, but a quick scan of the financial reports from the public nutrition companies shows that we typically spend just 3-6% of our sales on marketing. We sell consumer products, and no longer have the benefit of being media darlings, so we need to start behaving more like traditional consumer product businesses and promote ourselves.
We all love this industry because we know we benefit consumers. This is our industry to protect, and in doing so we will protect consumers as well.