Brands in the wellness sector are preventive and additive by nature—they enhance one’s health and stave off future afflictions, without necessarily manifesting any visible effects. Many product ingredients have legitimate benefits (ginger, for example, is an anti-inflammatory, and collagen improves joint health), but it’s the repackaging of these ingredients that wellness brands sell. In contrast to a brand like Coca Cola, which owns its (secret) syrup formula, rooted in its brand identity and marketing, wellness brands can piggyback on as many ingredient benefits as they want, but no single company will ever have full ownership over ginger or turmeric.

That said, each wellness brand wants to stand out. With purported effects both individualized to each customer and near impossible to prove, self-legitimation becomes the nucleus of wellness brands’ marketing campaigns, which draw from a variety of resources to substantiate their health claims, including: scientists, medical professionals, nutritionists, celebrity endorsements, customer reviews (some of which have proved to be fabricated), and even FOMO. An advertising strategy that cultivates a coherent message, aligning with the brand’s audience and purpose, will help wellness-oriented companies lay the foundation for longevity.

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The Durable Marketing Framework

Identify what differentiates your brand

  • What do you highlight in your marketing—ingredients, production, mission, supply chain, health benefits, customer reviews, institutional or celebrity endorsements, etc.? As many health-conscious brands utilize similar ingredients and pledge similar benefits, how can you ensure that your advertising speaks to what makes your brand unique?
  • What is your brand’s mission? How can you market this mission without focusing heavily on cause and effect, which is difficult to prove without standardized scientific testing and because customers are likely to see individualized results?

Include non-corporate voices

  • How can you strengthen the credibility of your brand by including specialist opinions in your advertising?
  • Consumers already discuss products both within and external to the wellness industry on social sites and forums such as Facebook and Reddit. How can you capitalize on a shopper-to-shopper dialogue about your products in order to self-promote? Where do your shoppers discuss your brand and like-minded brands? How can you establish regular surveys on these platforms to help inform your advertising strategy?
  • How can you replicate your transparency efforts about product and manufacturing in your marketing? How can you be more forthcoming with consumers about who is endorsing your products and what your relationship to this person or these people is?

Capitalize on curiosity while building for longevity

  • How can you use marketing as a call to action, inciting consumers to purchase and try your products?
  • How can you capitalize on FOMO to sell your products?
  • Products in the wellness space are often framed as trends. How can you strategize a marketing strategy that allows your brand to surpass viral status and become an established, durable company?

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In the absence of centralized knowledge, customer peer reviews speak for brands in the wellness sector, which companies often utilize in their own advertising.

Because the effects of many of these ingestible products are both imperceptible and highly individualized, consumers end up doing a lot of the marketing themselves, whether or not brands take advantage of it. Blogs, think pieces, Slack channels, subreddits, and other, typically digital conversation spaces serve as public educational forums, establishing shopper-to-shopper trust where corporations cannot. From the self-care column on the now defunct women’s site, The Hairpin, and Into the Gloss’ series, “What the Hell Do I Do With This?” to the 700,000-unique-visitor-strong subreddit, r/SkincareAddiction, consumers autonomously crowdsource and compile research and reviews on products—a potentially powerful force of persuasion (or dissuasion) on retail dynamics.

Brands can tap into these shopper dialogues in their own marketing. For example, the men’s shaving brand Bevel, built largely on word-of-mouth advertising, once hosted a blog called Bevel Etiquette to share information about grooming and style for men of color.

Another brand tapping into word-of-mouth marketing is the beverage brand Dirty Lemon, whose advertising strategy employs the language of its customers—and skeptics. Instead of using quotations that sing compliments, the brand takes a meta-approach, cultivating a mystique that grows interest in its beverages. Dirty Lemon’s website is entirely devoid of marketing language whatsoever; instead, the brand relies on word-of-mouth marketing or word-of-mouth-imitation on social media. The company paradoxically features what appear to be customer testimonials in the majority of its 79 Facebook and Instagram ads, according to the Loose Threads Megaphone Report Q1 2019. These ads contain text such as, “This is not a cleanse,” “A few weeks ago, I tried my first detox. I am not the type of person to do a cleanse,” “Do these drinks really work?” “This detox doesn’t require you to give up anything,” and, “I tried the trendiest new cleanse in town”—some are quotes linked to lifestyle blogs, while in others, the brand asks rhetorical questions that play on those very quotes. Though the founder says Dirty Lemon was never intended to be a cleanse or detox brand, 24% of active social media ads mention “detox” or “cleanse”—about 18% include the words “glowing” or “glow,” in reference to skin, while just over 1% mention ingredients found in the beverages themselves, perhaps to differentiate from other brands with a similar product label. Heavily recycling one-liners about detoxes also gives the brand a playful self-awareness, acknowledging and even promoting itself through consumer skepticism as if daring shoppers to try out its drinks.

This decentralized approach mimics beauty brand Glossier’s marketing strategy, which is grounded in the idea that customers should tell the story of the brand, not the other way around. In the wellness space, however, this tactic raises questions about credibility. Beverage companies like Dirty Lemon can rely on consumers to vocalize the brand, but this tactic becomes increasingly problematic when it comes to other product categories such as dietary supplements. In these spaces, the trustworthiness of customer reviews pales in comparison to the opinions of nutritionists and other professionals with a medical background.

Ritual attempts to market trust, but talking to customers as peers and misleading advertising undermines the company’s rigorous clinical research.

Vitamin brands are one of the most elusive participants in the wellness economy because they are supplements by definition. Medical professionals have long debated their necessity, and many recommend that consumers first test for deficiencies and only then choose dietary supplements to replenish deficits, rather than taking vitamins just because. The FDA does not define dietary supplements as drugs, and therefore does not wield authority over their production in any legal sense, though it encourages consumers to consult with medical professionals before adding them to their wellness routines.

Noting the ever-increasing importance of corporate transparency, the dietary supplement brand Ritual (est. 2016) gives customers various ways to engage with the science behind its ingredients and process: explanations about its ingredient sourcing, definitions of the company’s nine essential ingredients pepper its website, and guides customers can use to talk about Ritual’s vitamins with their doctors. Seven out of the 12 marketing emails sent by Ritual in Q4 2018 included educational content or production and design process, according to the Loose Threads Megaphone Report Holiday 2018. Of the brand’s 50 active Facebook and Instagram ads in Q1 2019, 50% discussed product research.

At the same time, however, the brand strives to talk to customers as friends—the founder says that she and her team are “skeptics building a brand for other skeptics,” and that she is seeking to develop Ritual alongside her customers. On the one hand, this establishes trust between the brand and shoppers and empowers them to investigate and question what they see on labels. But on the other, a brand that prides itself in scientific rigor shouldn’t be talking to customers as peers—it should focus on letting doctors and nutritionists advise them on supplement purchases that will meet their individual needs. This is all the more important for a nascent, digitally-native company entering a market home to long-established brands like One A Day, a traditional multivitamin brand founded in 1940. At the end of the day, Ritual’s nine essential ingredients aren’t much different than One A Day’s 15 supplements based on gender and age—both market as a one-pill-fits-all and both provide research corroborating this claim, leaving it up to consumers to decide what’s best for them.    

In 2017, the global dietary supplements market was a $96 billion industry that Ritual is keen to capitalize on as the vitamin category continues to grow. But despite its desire to hone scientific transparency, Ritual has forgotten about other ethical standards in the past. A New York Times investigation in September 2018 found that the company had distorted news coverage of its brand to give the impression in advertisements that sites including the Times and CNN endorse its SKUs. The company has also paid for articles on popular wellness sites including PureWow and Well & Good, featuring laudatory quotes from these pieces in its ads, which undercut Ritual’s efforts at creating a frank, open discussion about supplements and diet.

For a brand that prides itself on robust scientific research, Ritual also has the responsibility to provide dependable information about vitamins in general—especially when it comes to their limitations. The company has used some of its ads to repudiate any association between its products and “magic pills,” but it also repeatedly upholds its “nine essential ingredients” argument, which overlooks the personalized needs of each vitamin customer. (Though digitally-native vitamin competitor Care/of individualizes each pill order, it nevertheless asks shoppers to self-report their needs and goals, which isn’t necessarily more medically-sound.) Only by positioning itself as a serious, science-backed brand—and acknowledging its vitamins’ limitations—can Ritual have a chance at becoming the One A Day of the 21st century.