2015 has been an extraordinarily challenging year for the dietary supplements industry, between legal challenges, scores of negative news reports, and substantial questions about industry practices from members of the U.S. Congress—and the year isn’t over. There are a lot of conversations taking place among members of the industry about what changes need to be made to address the concerns. What those changes will look like have yet to be determined, but you can bet the farm that things are going to change and we’ll go through a period of uncertainty when they do. Now more than ever, to have a sustainable business in this industry, you have to be involved, and your marketing has to reflect that involvement.
One of the advantages of being an industry veteran is having learned an essential component of marketing products in our business: committed involvement. What we mean by the word “involvement” encompasses many of its synonyms: immersion, participation, connection, contribution, engagement, envelopment, association and commitment. None of these happen overnight, but all of these aspects of industry involvement are components of successful marketing in our corner of the business world.
A long time ago, when Bill Knudsen was still running the R.W. Knudsen Family company, the company’s extraordinary immersion in the industry at the time remains an example we still think about. Aside from trade association board participation and strong retailer support, the management there knew everything that was happening in the industry, and shared the information internally. The company distributed a regular internal update alerting their people to key personnel moves both at the retail level and with competitors, potential legislative and regulatory activity, rumors of acquisitions and investment, trade association activities, and anything that had the potential to impact the industry and their sales and marketing programs. At the time, R.W. Knudsen was a significant player in the industry, commanding the majority of the shelf space in the beverage section of every health food store. Sure, the company’s products were great, but everything R.W. Knudsen did was informed by its immersion in the industry, which had a huge impact on the company’s success, from product development to marketing programs to employee recruitment. It was no wonder Smucker’s wanted to acquire the company.
One of the best ways to stay well informed is through trade association membership and active involvement. Financial support of the people on the front lines of dealing with the media, Congress and regulatory agencies, even when it seems a loosing battle, should be a priority for anyone whose livelihood is derived from our industry. The trade associations are also an excellent source of information that helps you be prepared for challenges and opportunities. Each trade association has a different focus and areas of strength, so the type of information and guidance they provide will reflect those differences. We’re members of CRN (Council of Responsible Nutrition), UNPA (United Natural Products Alliance), NPA (Natural Products Association) and AHPA (American Herbal Products Association)—each of them is valuable to us for the success of our business, and part of the reason we’re always very well informed. CRN does an incredible job with media relations, knowing in advance when a news outlet is working on a story about the industry, reaching out to them to provide input, letting members know what’s coming, and providing focused, well-informed counterpoint to the headlines to use with concerned customers. AHPA concentrates on all things herbal, particularly with technical aspects and regulatory issues. NPA has been especially effective with GMP (good manufacturing practice) compliance training since the year 2000, and is the only main association that includes retailers. UNPA offers members uniquely informative and insightful detail on events and concerns, along with very focused training and networking.
Another factor in being informed is networking, knowing and talking to a lot of people in leadership positions. Trade association membership, trade shows, conferences and events, and just staying in touch with people helps you know what’s going on beyond what you read in the trade magazines.
Those other synonyms for involvement—immersion, participation, connection, contribution, engagement, envelopment, association and commitment—are often intertwined, and are certainly most effective when they are. Total engagement is probably the best marketing tool a company has. For new brands stepping into the industry, every dollar spent needs to be scrutinized and industry involvement in the way of associations and active participation at conferences, etc. is often tough on a tight budget. But it’s one of the best ways to tap into a network of industry veterans who have built the industry from the ground up. The overwhelming majority of long time industry leaders started with just an idea and a mission to make people healthier. Forging genuine relationships with these folks will pay off in countless ways, from networking, learning the ways of succeeding in the industry long term and helping to keep the industry viable for the future. Get involved and use your membership actively.
There is a huge difference between companies that trumpet their support of natural products retailers in marketing campaigns, or to win back shelf space after an unsuccessful attempt at the mainstream, and companies with a long track record of commitment to the health food channel. A great example is NOW Foods, the reigning icon of the health food channel; the company serves as an example of how all of these aspects of involvement contribute to long term, sustainable success in the industry. NOW’s ubiquitous shelf presence illustrates that “walking your talk” resonates with retailers and consumers.
A campaign or a sponsorship is good, but what really matters long term is consistency. Actively participating, doing things for the good of the industry and becoming involved for bigger reasons than short-term profit will eventually pay off among health conscious, informed consumers who care about a brand’s genuine commitment to its mission. Walking the walk is what consumers expect, and it earns their loyalty.
Marketing comes back to the “show, don’t tell” mantra of storytelling. A brand becomes a valued part of the industry and benefits from that position by demonstrating its involvement over time. This means a brand telling its story of industry involvement on a month-to-month basis through the social posts it shares, the blogs it writes about industry issues, the videos it shoots portraying a real commitment to the values and product quality customers deserve. Dedication to the industry and dedication to the company mission should be complementary. If they are, and the details are portrayed for customers to see at every step along the way, the results will be far more fruitful than any ad that says “we have the best product.”
You can either talk about support for trade associations, or have a long history of actually doing so. You can do the bare minimum in testing, or you can have 128 employees performing 16,000 individual assays per month. You can host an occasional seminar to educate retailers or you can commit resources to a robust education program tailored to the needs to the people selling your products. Becoming, and remaining, an industry leader requires knowing the culture and respecting and supporting it in your business practices. NIE
The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. Suzanne Shelton has provided public relations services to both international and domestic dietary supplement and natural products manufacturers, suppliers and associations.