Successful products have science behind their marketing; good marketers make sure to avoid common pitfalls.
Science drives supplement sales. When the body of science confirming benefits reaches a certain point, sales take off. Most recently curcumin has enjoyed “overnight” success. A decade ago, it was omega-3s. Consumers want to know that there are established benefits to the products they spend money on and put in their bodies, and that requires investing in science. Since this investment can be significant, make sure that it’s science you can actually use in your marketing. And in today’s changing l.andscape, your testing program falls under the umbrella of marketing your science.
There’s a conversation that takes place between industry consultants on a far too-regular basis, usually at a trade show, that goes like this: “I just met with a prospective client. Interesting products, smart people—I liked them a lot and would love to work with them.” “Really? Great! Do they have science?” “Um, yeah, but we can’t use it.” “Oh, too bad. I hate that.” “I know. Me, too. They wasted a lot of money.”
So please, save me from having this conversation at every trade show for the rest of my life and bring your science and marketing departments together before you fund any more studies. The goal is to develop a body of science that demonstrates safety and efficacy of your product within the regulatory limitations of our industry. Clinical studies can prove new concepts, substantiate existing claims, support regulatory compliance, and differentiate products. And it’s imperative to do your own studies on your own products.
I’ve enlisted a few of my smartest industry pals to help me give you some pointers. I asked my colleagues to weigh in on two questions:
1) What is the one thing you most want companies to think about when marketing science?
2) What is the most common mistake you see?
Our collective goal is to help companies develop science to market dietary supplements without making drug or disease claims. I’d be happy to never again sit down with a company that proudly shows me their portfolio of studies on the cancer fighting properties of their material. I’m so sorry to disappoint you, but I won’t get excited about something we can’t use to help market your products.
We encourage you to fund studies on your own products. There was for too long a tendency among some industry supply members to “borrow science,” which is actually IP theft. Yes, clinical studies are indeed intellectual property. It’s an unethical and unsustainable practice. Marketing on someone else’s science is misleading to consumers, since rarely are branded ingredients in the dietary supplements industry identical, and these days a consumer can track down any kind of information they want to right there in the store on their smartphones. IP theft discourages companies from investing in the studies if they view it as essentially financing competitor’s marketing. Science begets innovation, which helps drive industry growth. Undermining that process is short-sighted.
Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, and one of the few people said to have been involved in writing DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) who actually was, has been cautioning against “borrowing” science for 20 years. When a company is sitting down to talk about marketing science, the first thing Loren wants them to ask is, “Did we pay for this science?”
“Science is expensive, and good research is very valuable,” he said. “Using science on another product to support your own claims in not only improper, it is not condoned by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). The borrowing of research is a disservice to all concerned.”
The most common mistake Loren sees? “The same issue—using science unrelated to your specific product, which includes citing such studies as the basis for substantiation when, in fact, it is not your research,” he said.
Sabinsa Corporation may well be the poster child for having their science “borrowed,” or, as I like to call it, “stolen.” Because they have so much intellectual property between their nearly 100 patents and a gazillion studies on their ingredients over the years, it makes sense to hear from Shaheen Majeed, Sabinsa’s marketing director.
Shaheen said the first thing he recommends companies think about when bringing science to their marketing is consistency. “Too often I see companies that market their science in a sporadic form, taking tidbits here and there, some science that may not even be theirs,” he noted. “The good companies know what bullet points to take away from their recent studies and which of those bullet points will drive consumer (or even B2B) awareness and understanding. Don’t let it be lip service. Marketing science is an art. From advertisements, to brochures and of course websites, the science a company is marketing must be consistent and in line with what evidence can substantiate their product.”
The most common mistake Shaheen said he sees in marketing science is making unsubstantiated claims. “We as consumers are going to believe what is written. If you caught our attention and then we search on the web and find out you’ve misled or cannot support the claims you made, well that just undermines all marketing,” he stressed. “But this is a common mistake, as is “borrowing” science for your marketing purposes. Companies like Sabinsa, that fund clinicals, get involved with universities, host and promote education seminars around the world to disseminate information on their ingredients—to be then hacked by competitors copying the same marketing materials—is a real shame.”
Steven Shapiro, Esq., of noted industry regulatory attorneys Ullman Shapiro & Ullman, has quite a few constructive points to make: “The science used to market a product must conform to the actual product being marketed,” he noted. “For example, a study with results on a 50 mg serving size may not support claims for a product that has 25 mg of the ingredient. If the study was based on three servings per day, then the product should recommend three servings per day. Moreover, any discussion of the science must not only be truthful, it must also be ‘non misleading’ and ‘balanced.’ It is not enough just to provide the ‘good results;’ if there is anything negative or potentially confounding in the study, that must be disclosed as well. Finally, there must be enough information provided to ensure that a person reviewing the information will be able to comprehend the results. For example, a chart taken from a study may be insufficient without adequate information in order to understand its complete meaning,” he said.
“In designing a study it is extremely important to ensure that an adequate protocol has been designed, in terms of the methodology and adequacy of the number of subjects,” he added. “When designing a study, you should ensure that the results will be able to withstand scientific scrutiny. One potential issue in designing a study for use on a dietary supplement is that the subjects must generally be “healthy” and the study may not have disease endpoints. If a study on a food or dietary supplement is intended to demonstrate an intent to use the substance in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, then FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) will require that an Investigational New Drug Application (NDI) be filed—www.fda.gov/downloads/drugs/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidances/ucm229175.pdf—and using such a study to support a structure/function claim may cause FDA to take the position that the company actually intends to market the product for its “drug” benefits. This is also a potential concern for studies performed in countries where U.S. FDA NDI would not be an issue.”
Finally, one must also be concerned with the FTC’s review of dietary supplement advertising. Among other things, FTC would be concerned if appropriate disclaimers were not used, when necessary. If the company was involved in running or funding the study that must be clearly indicated, as FTC views such information as material to consumers considering the results of the study.
In the past when we’ve talked about “science” in the context of dietary supplements it has referred to either safety data or health benefits. But thanks to the New York attorney general (NYAG) and his new best friend, New York Times reporter Anahad O’Connor, the science of product testing is now front and center, so it’s important to be transparent about that science too. Smart marketers have already included information on their testing programs in their marketing. This helps protect against regulatory action, class action lawsuits and reinforces customer trust.
Elan Sudberg, CEO of Alkemist Labs, has come out very strongly in favor of taking quality out of the closet. “It’s always been important to clearly and simply inform a customer as to why they need your product. Now it’s smart to reassure them, through full transparency, of the high level of quality behind the product. Today that is just as important as the science behind the product’s benefits. Market them equally and I believe confidence will rise.”
The most common mistake made in product testing that Alkemist Labs sees will sound familiar: employing the wrong test methods. “It wasn’t started by the NYAG, but new on the scene is improperly utilized DNA barcoding and FTIR analysis. The first can’t determine plant part, quantity or quality and the second is a disservice unless utilized with a robust and verified library.”
There has long been the practice of companies saying they test their ingredients or finished products, but they do not provide details. Given the volume of media coverage asserting that many dietary supplements are adulterated, your marketing must encompass how you test, who does it, and why the chosen methods are the right ones. A handful of companies are now revealing test results on their products, and I believe we will see more of that.
The past few months have set the industry up for some profound changes, and the smart companies are going to be proactive and get their science and marketing ducks in order. Be one of them. 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.