Dietary supplement marketing today requires transparency. After years of mainstream media raising all kinds of questions about the safety and efficacy of products this industry produces, people are skeptical, even as the number of users continues to grow. The supply chain for commodities remains problematic, but branded ingredients engender trust, which is worth examining in some detail. How have branded ingredient suppliers stepped up their game, and how can that be conveyed to customers?
Pulling the Curtain Back
Consumers have access to more information—at any time or location—than ever before. Consequently, more supplement brands are pulling back the curtain to reveal their testing practices, manufacturing facilities, company policies, and especially what their ingredients are and how they choose them. Suppliers with heavy investment in branded ingredients are making it easier for their customers to provide that information to consumers, and some of their stories will resonate deeply with supplement users. I predict in the near future we’ll see an increasing number of brands putting the stories their suppliers have to tell front and center in more of their marketing efforts. Some branded ingredient companies are even reaching out directly to educate retailers in the health food channel about their products.
Ingredients are complicated. Which ingredients are selected for product formulations influence, and are influenced by, all aspects of a company. Managing supply chain challenges, short-term profits vs. the long-term view, healthcare professional acceptance, regulatory compliance, and consumer expectations all coalesce in this one decision.
What do branded ingredients bring to the table? Generally, but not always, branded ingredients are backed by intellectual property in the form of research and patents. The ingredients and the company often have other virtues that help establish trust and credibility as well. Let’s look at examples of those and some of the most effective ways to convey the advantages to brands, consumers, and the medical community, all of which are crucial to an ingredient’s success.
Research & IP
Ingredient suppliers have stepped up their research game exponentially in the nearly 30 years I’ve been in the industry. Years ago, there were a few suppliers involved in solid research on their own branded ingredients, but it was more common for ingredient marketing to be built around science “borrowed” from competitors. It was an unsustainable practice, subject to much criticism within the industry, and a source of both amusement and frustration to trade media. Slowly that changed as more branded ingredients were researched to establish safety data for New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) and Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status applications. Patent applications required data as well. R&D departments developed novel extracts, which had to be studied for regulatory purposes. The benefits were also researched, sometimes discovering health supporting mechanisms not previously known.
Early on, most of the research was in vitro, with some in vivo mostly in animal models. Sometimes it was published, sometimes not. Over time, human clinical trials became more common, and were increasingly published in peer-reviewed journals. Today, the quality of research is far more respectable, and paying off, as evidenced by the medical community’s endorsement of ingredients such as curcumin and choline, which has been a significant factor in sales growth for those ingredients.
Leading suppliers are also being more proactive about self-policing when they see problems, particularly with adulteration. Advocating for fit-for-purpose testing has moved beyond labs and forward-thinking trade associations, with some ingredient suppliers notifying colleagues and competitors about adulterants they have uncovered and how to test to find them. We’ve even seen one supplier in particular develop extensive cultivation programs, giving it adequate supply of raw material and more control over quality, while at the same time materially improving quality of life for small farming communities. The company recently pioneered a first of its kind reforestation program.
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