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The rise of vitamin, supplement, and wellness brands is a lesson on how creating communities and flashy packaging may outweigh science | Dan Phan

Vitamins and supplements used to be among the least interesting products in someone’s shopping bag, unless you count my excitement as a child of the 1990s with Flintstone vitamins. How have newcomer wellness brands like The Nue Co, Ritual, and Olly succeeded to make them cool?

Recently, a long line of people stood in the cold and snaked around a block in New York’s SoHo neighborhood just for a new anti-stress spray developed by wellness and dietary supplements brand, The Nue Co. The fact that millennials in New York City were lining up for another product launch isn’t new at all, but that the product was a spray that claims to relieve stress is unheard of. The Nue Co. debuted a “functional fragrance” that works as a traditional perfume and claims users can spray it onto their wrists and neck and inhale and exhale for several seconds to reduce stress.

Do their pills, powders, sprays, and drinks really make us fitter, smarter and more beautiful? The success of these brands comes out of the rebranding alternative of medicine as ‘wellness’, which turned the pursuit of physical and mental health into something cool. 

This change couldn’t have happened at any time though – the entire retail landscape and consumer behavior have shifted around the Instagram world of looking and feeling better, posting your daily routines when no on in the world has asked, and bragging about being busy or stressed. There is a new wave of puritanism, and brands are taking advantage of this trend. My generation is spending less and less on drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, according to recent surveys, and seeking out healthier alternatives (e.g. CBD, booze-free spirits, organic kombucha, etc). Startups have been quick to cater to this emerging demand and have introduced wellness in all sorts of industries, from fitness to beauty, even mental health and diet. Target had an entire endcap dedicated to a weighted blanket that promises to help you fall asleep and wake up rested.

This month, Unilever announced it would acquire OLLY Nutrition, which was founded just four years ago, and disrupted mainstay brands like Centrum (owned by Pfizer) and Nature Made at mass retailers in the US. Instead of listing out the specific ingredients, OLLY shifted their messaging to what their products actually do for you, from helping you sleep better or staying focused. Are OLLY vitamins better than Centrum and Nature Made? Probably not, but their branding, packaging, and messaging of wellness certainly are.

However, big pharma and doctors have pulled the breaks and started questioning these new entities – do they really have sufficient knowledge and research to back their products and claims? Although these brands have a very different look and feel in comparison to the vitamins and supplements that have preceded them – a feature which has not always favored them – they are in the business of good-looking science. Is flashy branding hiding real proven science?

Founder of Ritual, Katherina Schneider, said “our obsession with science and research is what makes people trust our products”. They have an in-house scientific team led by a Harvard trained physiologist and a VP of research and development with a PhD in Biomedical sciences, as well as an advisory board made up of medical doctors, nutritionists and other scientists from various disciplines. Many people didn’t trust these brands when they first came into the market, but as lack of trust in larger institutions continues to increase, these brands grow stronger.

Anti-aging pill brand, Elysium Health, has even commissioned medical studies. The company was co-founded by MIT professor Leonard Guarente and former Sequoia Capital partner Eric Marcotulli and has received a ‘Seal of Approval’ from a leading authority in product testing, Good Housekeeping. They have also announced they would be sponsoring Good Housekeeping’s new ‘Wellness Lab’ to test fitness programs and other wellness products.

This new wave of puritanism has definitely been a catalyst for these wellness brands to succeed, but branding has lead to their success.

Founder of The Nue Co, Juliana Miller says “The world is governed by brands. It’s not unique to the supplement industry –it has happened to mattresses and every other industry out there that has been ripe for disruption.” Founder of Ritual, Katherine Schneider, too quit her job in venture capital because she saw a market opportunity. Companies like eyewear brand Warby Parker and mattress company Casper have disrupted stagnant industries, and she thought she could do the same with vitamins.

These supplement brands are at the intersection of luxury and wellness and look nothing like anything that has been around before in the industry. Branding is slick, packaging is smart, the e-commerce journey is exciting and the ‘look and feel’ is highly Instagramable – these are the main reasons why these brands are doing so well.

The health industry, or the pharmaceutical segment in this case, has always been extremely inaccessible to the vast majority. You’d have to consult a doctor, get a prescription, order something you can’t pronounce and or understand its composition. As we gain further access to how the industry works and are exposed to more information, we begin to lose trust in these large entities. Customers want to be more aware of what they consume and the impact it has on them, their well being, and globally on an environmental level. These new wellness brands include consumers in their stories, values and manifestos, and invite us to join their tribe, thus making us feel more connected with what we consume. It’s not just about pretty packaging, but trust and feeling like the brand has its heart in the right place. Conversely, we are negatively seeing the effects of the tribe as measles is making a comeback around the world after it had been considered eradicated 20 years ago. The sense of community and inclusion outweighs science and research.

These emerging wellness brands have brought a fresh and very optimistic take on boring products. Rather than carrying the weight of medicine and supplements as a means to heal something that is wrong with our bodies, they inspire us with the possibilities of feeling better, more energized, more connected and, ultimately, more alive. 

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Dan Phan, Retail

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