Gut back to grassroots: Why you need to make shoppers microbiome savvy

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | DIPA
Getty | DIPA

Related tags Gut health Probiotics microbiome

Better gut health education will empower consumers to buy into pro and prebiotics but industry players may be very surprised by how much work there is still to do, according to twins on a fast-expanding gut health education mission.

Identical twins Lisa and Alana MacFarlane are two radio DJs who have created a company called The Gut Stuff​, involving a website full of educational materials, an e-commerce site, a roadshow, a corporate education programme and much more, after becoming fascinated by the world of microbiome modulation after taking part in the Predict twin study at Kings College. 

They attended NutraIngredient's Probiota conference in Dublin this week and gave experts some grassroots insights into how to make microbiome modulators a mainstream trend. 

"We've reached a mass audience with our brand and people go from our information pages to our e-commerce page,"​ Lisa explained. "We have reached a 10.6% conversion rate, which is massive. It's because people come onto the site, build their knowledge, then feel empowered to spend their money on the gut health boosting products because they are confident that they know what is likely to benefit them.

"If we can empower shoppers with knowledge, from whatever point in their education journey they are at, sales will naturally grow."

But the twins point out that the industry has a long way to go before the mass market feels empowered to buy into the category.

"We felt like the knowledge around gut health was really strong but then when we took our work outside London we had a huge dose of reality. We realised the awareness is nowhere near mainstream.

"We talk to people right at grassroots level and we can tell you there are many people who don't even know what you mean by 'the gut'. We will tell people they need to check out PubMed and they will think it's a directory for pubs.

"Supplementation is seen as a luxury to many and we can sit here in our ivory towers saying gut health is a big trend and consumers understand what it means, not realising some people really don't have access to many of the products you are creating - often things like fruit and veg are not even accessible to some of the people we are talking to."

Discussing the fact that gut health isn't necessarily the sexiest subject, or the easiest to present through images, Lisa and Alana pointed out that their Instagram account now has a healthy 70,000 followers.

Lisa explained how they are working to try and create a community of gut health interested consumers. 

"In the past we used to be very community orientated and we would get a lot of our knowledge from our local network - our friends, family and  neighbours.

"Now we've gone totally the other way and we rely on a social media network of strangers for information. We are trying to create that community feel again."​ 

They note that their most popular social media post to date has been their gut-brain-axis infographic, despite the fact it involves a lot of complex detail.

Alana explained: "If you do a carousel of images on Instagram it helps you give lots of little bits of information in bite size chunks rather than in one big scary chunk."

But Alana adds that just because simplicity is key, that doesn't mean that patronising words are acceptable.

"Whatever you do, don't use childish words like 'tummy'. Just be straight with people. It's time we all started talking about poo!"

Speaking in a panel discussion with the twins, Kristina Campbell, science and medical writer for KC Microbiome Communications Group, said she thought the Mac Twins were doing a great job of tapping into the emotional connection consumers have with their health.

"You're tapping into people's feelings and creating a nice, friendly environment to discuss these topics is key," ​said Campbell.

Competition adding to confusion?

Discussing whether competition between brands was adding to the confusion in the market, Alana said she thought it definitely could be distracting brands from providing the information in the right way for their consumers.

"People usually don't care how many strains of bacteria your product has. Most don't even understand that different strains have different benefits. I think companies can forget about what's important to the consumer when they are busy trying to show how much better they are than other products."

Jen Thompson, healthcare regulatory manager for Walgreens Boots Alliance, agreed, adding that the competition can lead to contradictory messages.

She pointed out the reality is that each consumer will respond differently to the same product anyway and they may need to try several different brands to find the one that works for them.

She added: "The key to effective communication is understanding where consumers are in their knowledge journey so perhaps more consumer insight is important here."

Hitting this point home further, Lisa said that the consumer's level of knowledge could be anywhere from needing  to learn the importance of fruit and veg for fibre intake, to discussing specific bacterial strains for their specific health concerns.

However she did admit there is an undeniable growing popularity for talking about gut health in day-to-day life.

"It's coming up much more in people's day-to-day conversations now and when I tell people I work for a gut health company they are genuinely really interested."

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