Has anyone else noticed that the natural-foods and supplements aisles are a lot more fun than they used to be? Not that I hang out there for a good time, but it is interesting to observe the recent explosion of dosage and delivery forms that is populating the retail environment these days. What used to be an endless sea of HDPE bottles, has turned into a montage of tubes, gels, pouches, gummies, chews, sprays and fizzy tablets. One might observe that ordinary capsules and tablets pale by comparison.
What's behind this phenomenon, and what does it say about the state of our industry? Consider this: the natural-products industry has long been fuelled by entrepreneurial innovation and creativity. New products are our lifeblood, but in the past five years new product launches have slowed considerably. Why? Manufacturers are less risk tolerant. Funds are tight. Media scrutiny has increased. Competitive noise is intensifying. All true, but there's one more reason: truly breakthrough technologies and ingredients are much less common than they were even five years ago. There just aren't that many new and legitimately researched ideas out there, and when one does come along, only certain manufacturers are equipped to come on board. Everyone else plays 'wait and see' and then the bandwagon effect begins. Can you say melatonin? Or coral calcium? Or mangosteen?
In their never-ending search for consumer attention and loyalty, manufacturers use innovative dosage and delivery concepts, allowing them to bring news and excitement to the marketplace more quickly with less risk and expense. I don't say this as a condemnation of industry, but rather as an acknowledgement and observation of what generally has consistently happened in the maturity stage of the product lifecycle. Breathing new life into existing products and categories through 'borrowed interest' is a time-honoured tradition for marketing in maturing industries. OTC drugs. Electronics. Health and beauty. Why not the ingredients sector?
Innovations in dosage and delivery serve an important role in the marketplace. They:
- Provide added convenience to time-challenged consumers (single-serving tear pouches)
- Make products more appealing and palatable to their intended audience (omega-3s chews for kids)
- Give new life to mature product concepts (tea sticks)
- Help showcase innovative ingredients or technology (heart-healthy tortilla chips)
- Provide variety and enjoyment (gummy vitamins for adults)
- Underscore key product benefits (fast-melt tablets for quicker absorption)
But are these clever developments a short-term strategy, or can an enduring brand be built upon such a foundation? Time will tell, but if you consider the preliminary track record of products such as Special K Protein Water, Xango, Corazonas and Zicam, it appears to be entirely possible.
Particularly in the natural-products sector, where loyal consumers and growing retailers are always on the lookout for the next 'new thing,' this step in the evolution of product development seems right on track. But may I suggest that before you consider marketing glucosamine in a syringe, ask yourself some important questions:
- Will this dosage or delivery vehicle add value to my product concept?
- Is my customer willing to pay for this added value?
- Does the dosage or delivery form complement or conflict with the features and benefits of my product?
- What will the retailer's reaction be to this new format?
- Is this innovation environmentally responsible and sustainable?
- How will my competitors react and can this be readily copied?
I have talked with several speciality and mass retailers over the past few months. Most agree that these dosage and delivery innovations have helped sustain a sagging retail market. Their concern has more to do with the industry's future commitment to new-product development and technology creation, and the nagging fear that this is all there is. The answer to that question lies in our collective hands.
The flow of creativity and product innovation in the natural space has always originated in the narrow speciality channels and then moved to the broader market. But the sleeping giant is awake, and these channels are poised to finish raising the child this industry has birthed, if you will allow that analogy. We must 1) collectively take our rightful place as a proud parent, and 2) partner across the aisle to jointly shape the future of this expanding marketplace.
So for now, bring on the gels, tubes and patches.
Jeff Hilton is cofounder and partner at Integrated Marketing Group.