Editorial: A Great Divide

By Len Monheit

While the industry wrestles with its credibility, and experts on the inside comment on the lack of truly innovative and useful research, what emerges is a classic example of the divide that exists between the scientific professional community and the marketing engine which drives product sales.

The scientific community is frequently criticized for focusing its research and resources on projects with limited applicability. Recent controversial studies in the US with inconclusive results relating to natural products have done nothing to enhance the feeling that there is a serious gap between the community conducting the research and the marketplace / consumer reality.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of academic and medical institutions are conducting research and clinical trials, many with potential implications for our industry. Millions of dollars are spent in these efforts, only to have the results fail to deliver value, or to languish in the pit of missed commercialization opportunities. Arguably, the increase in knowledge, science and understanding has an intrinsic value and the debate rages in institutions the world over about the merit of ‘pure’ research.

I see two gaps, largely relating to communication, which prevent ultimate delivery of science and research supported products to consumers. The first hole is in the connection between industry and the research community itself, with the second gap separating science and marketing.

Nutracon, Nutritionals and a few other events across North America attempt to build a bridge between research and industry to deal with the first issue. Many companies within our vertical deal closely with academic or medical institutions and have prominent scientists on advisory boards. The American Nutraceutical Association ( http://www.americanutra.com) develops and provides educational materials for health care professionals and consumers on nutraceutical technology and science yet they are not in communication with industry. No industry trade event has a poster session. Small and mid-size companies, in many cases started by entrepreneurs, may not have an appreciation or a sense of how to optimize a relationship with the scientific community, or if from the scientific sector themselves, will frequently lack market knowledge.

This leads to the second communication gap. In an article entitled, ‘ It’s an uphill task for branded ingredients with health benefits’ (New Nutrition Business, http://www.new-nutrition.com/news.asp) authors Julian Mellentin & Michael Heasman reflect on approaches to ingredient brand development, concluding, “Ingredient branding strategies are about selling science. They are about science push, not consumer pull – and as we say month after month, people buy food, not science.”

The question therefore becomes, can you sell science, and if so, how? Trends towards consumer empowerment, especially for health management would seem to suggest that there is an opportunity. From a regulatory standpoint, manufacturers must be careful how they frame their entire marketing programs and interpret scientific results, if indeed they have them. And, of course, beware the drug claim.

Within the supplements sector, more and more companies, (finished product manufacturers as well as ingredient suppliers) are positioning their products directed towards specific health conditions and groups. For a branded ingredient supplier, this an opportunity to refer to the science, but making a consumer impact based on the science is a serious challenge. Differentiating your product based on the science is near impossible. And so the marketing machine takes over and frequently, the science is lost entirely.

In the pharmaceutical industry the practitioner channel is a powerful stream and effectively used by companies educating medical professionals and through them, reaching consumers. Some companies within this industry are following similar strategies, either within the medical profession or the complementary practitioner channel.

There still exists that chasm between science and marketing, which ultimately leads to products which fail to deliver on expectations or suffer from poor adaptation of a good idea—or in this case good science.

And as always, where there’s a gap there’s an opportunity:

  • For those who know how to market science,
  • For those who can effectively educate consumers, retail and other channels
  • For companies that integrate science into their marketing programs effectively,
  • For institutions committed to working with industry
  • For experts who can build a network to enhance the flow of information
  • For companies that effectively link application analysis and market savvy and feedback loops throughout their entire product development cycles
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