Securing sales in the fluid world of functional foods

The complexity of the international nutraceuticals sector presents some singular marketing challenges for ingredients suppliers. Henry Dixon outlines the hurdles they face by means of a fictional conversation between three weary travellers at the airport

At the end of a long week at the Natural Health Ingredients show, Rich (marketing director) and Marco (technical VP) of Health E Systems Corp get chatting to George (a fellow traveller) at the airport bar:

Rich: It wasn?t that bad. As shows go, Natural Health Ingredients is OK. The bosses were happy, they even said ?well done!? But it took forever to get everyone?s approval to launch the new product. I thought we?d never make it.

Marco: Amazing! We must have started three years ago. I?ve never known an industry like it. It takes years to identify a healthy ingredient and agree what it does, then suddenly you?re off! Look what happened to soy.

Rich: You?ve got to catch the wave or you?ll be left behind and someone else benefits from all your work.

George: I don?t know much about your business—but isn?t business-to-business marketing the same, whatever the product?

Rich: Yes, and no. Life?s pretty straightforward for people selling bricks, buttons or badges—they research the market, decide what they want to sell and sell it. Life in the nutrition industry is a tad more complex.

George: Aren?t customers still customers?

Rich: Actually, that?s the biggest problem. Our customers are manufacturers who want to use healthy ingredients in functional foods or supplements. The problem is defining what their customers—the consumers—want.

George: But isn?t that the same for all business-to-business marketers?

Marco: As far as it goes, yes. But in our case, the health and nutrition industry presents huge technical, legislative and marketing challenges to everyone concerned. Most industries can point to broadly agreed, objective research that guides the market in one direction. In our industry, there?s just so much going on—and by the nature of the beast, much of it can?t be precise.

George: Lies, damned lies and health studies you mean?

Marco: No, not at all! But when you?ve got some good results, then the fun begins! How do you prove a causal link? Why doesn?t someone else?s research agree? What does the research mean? And as soon as we manage to answer one set of questions, more pop up. Have we got clinical data? What can we claim? How does it work? How can our customers use it?

George: Sounds fun! Want another beer?

Marco: Thanks. But all these questions underline the importance of having a really good technical understanding of your products. Look at DSM?s work with probiotics—its research into survivability of the bacteria in the gut is a great example of a science-based approach.

Rich: But even then a lot of the industry still struggles to explain exactly how particular ingredients work and what benefits they offer. Even if they do, you can?t be sure that what works for one person will also work for their friends.

George: So how can you possibly know what?s going on?

Marco: Well we make sure that there is somebody in the organisation whose main job is to keep an eye on the technical and legislative market environments for our products—not just at home, but worldwide.

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