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What the natural product industry can do to combat health disparities in BIPOC communities

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The natural products industry can do more to help diverse populations face inequities that put them at risk for disease. Here's how several companies are tackling the issue head-on.

Following a year in which Black Lives Matter raised consciousness of racism and COVID-19 raised awareness of the health disparities so calamitously tied to race, the question of whether the industry has an obligation to do more to serve people of color shouldn’t need to be asked.

The question of how it can do a better job in that mission, however, is perhaps the most pressing challenge the industry faces in 2021.

Tracey Brown knows she doesn’t have the answer, or at least not enough of the answers, but she wants to keep asking the questions, and she wants to hear what the supplement industry has to say. Brown is CEO at the American Diabetes Association and says that conversation needs to be about “disruption” if health and nutrition disparities are going to be addressed. Every option and every idea should be on the table. “If this were an easy problem to solve, this problem would be solved,” she says.

“You can’t talk about improving the wellbeing of Americans without talking about diabetes,” she explains. “You can’t really have that conversation without talking about nutrition.”

And diabetes is just one of a number of chronic diseases impacting BIPOC communities at higher rates than whites.

So far, Brown says, brands have not joined the conversation the way she’d like to see. She wants brands to come to the table with ideas and be ready to brainstorm new projects and new products and collaborate on new educational and messaging campaigns. She doesn’t know what those projects, products and campaigns are yet, but she knows a better synergy with the nutrition industry is essential for change to happen. The ADA has expertise to share, she says, but that expertise does not include putting products on shelves. Collaboration is an urgent mission. “We have the resources that we have, but we’re not brands.” 

Brown is not alone in asking the supplement industry to do more. The challenge facing the country is enormous, but the challenge for the supplement industry could be for brands to rethink how they distribute, how they market, how they hire and how they innovate.

Naturade CEO Claude Tellis is a Black entrepreneur, and he has been looking at each of those tasks, for his own company and others, and deploying new ideas and new alliances to get to new customers.

It’s an all-of-the-above moment, Tellis says.

“The first step is awareness. The second step is action.” 

Issues and obstacles facing the BIPOC community

Healthcare disparities and lack of access to healthy food are nothing new in America, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted those issues in stark ways. According to the CDC, Blacks and Latinos are 4 and 4.1 times more likely than whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 2.8 times more likely to die from it.

Diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, which have emerged as high-prevalence comorbidites to COVID, afflict Blacks and Latinos at substantially higher rates in the United States than is observed among whites. Black people die at twice the rate as whites from diabetes and are 50% more likely to suffer from high blood pressure. Latinos are twice as likely to suffer from hypertension.

Lifestyle is a major component of these conditions, and the pandemic seemingly presents an opportunity for the supplement industry to play a bigger role in addressing lifestyle, but an array of factors have long hampered market penetration. Among those factors are income and access. Supplements are widely seen as luxury goods, and in poorer communities of color, where grocery stores are rare and health food stores rarer still, can be rare, supplements may not be available at all.

Brown sees that scenario as key to the challenge of healthy eating. “When you start to look at the numbers, you will start to see that the poorer you are in this country, the more likely you are to have diabetes, the less likely you are to even have a grocery store within walking distance.”

Poverty is only part of the story. Health disparities can be “income agnostic,” where lifestyle challenges and disparities persist across income brackets. Other barriers to healthy lifestyles can include food cultures that encourage unhealthy diets, and marketing to people of color remains an afterthought for many supplement brands. But Brown says education is not the issue some believe it is. “Often it’s not an educational issue,” she says. “It’s an affordability issue and an access issue.”

Without a better understanding of the needs and challenges of communities of color, nutrition brands are unlikely to create the kinds of products and marketing that will appeal to BIPOC consumers. Unmet needs become lost opportunities.

Understand the market to create effective messaging

Many industry observers agree that the messaging for supplement brands needs to be rethought and revamped if it’s going to reach people of color and underserved communities, but Marissa Nance says that, for most brands, the most important step comes before re-designing the marketing materials. The marketing expert and founder of Native Tongue Communications says a company needs to look at its identity, its “DNA,” before it can integrate authenticity into the marketing and advertising. “Be yourself first,” Nance says. “Because if you are true to your own brand, DNA and personality, then your outreach and your conversation is authentic and empathetic with these audiences. You’re going to connect on your own.”

Nance says a brand can “borrow equity” from an organization, a personality or even another brand to appeal to a people of color, but that match isn’t going to work if the fundamental identity does not ring true. “You can get to the audience you need to get to, but again, do it in a way that the audience says, ‘I trust you. I believe in you,’” Nance says. “If you have your own sense of who you are and what your voice is, and another entity has the same, then together you’re unstoppable.”

For health-oriented messages like the ones supplement companies want to deliver, a different challenge emerges, Nance says. While she cautions that nobody should see Black Americans, Latinos or any ethnic group as “monolithic,” they also have to accept that food traditions can’t be discounted or disparaged, or the message has little chance of being heard. “The message has to be, ‘We understand what you’re doing and why you do it. We’re asking you to make some subtle shifts. And think of this as something to add. We’re not telling you what you’re doing is wrong. We’re telling you about it to help increase your health, to help place you on a better path.’”

Brown says the ADA is ready to help brands tailor their messages around diabetes, but that some of the same principles they have learned could apply to other health issues and messages. The Association has researched how audiences respond to initiatives—what sticks and what can change behavior. Like Nance, she says that much of it has to do with trust. “We know how to reach into these communities and when to reach into these communities, and if you actually want to get behavior change, that behavior change starts with trust.”

Marketing agencies with a diverse executive staff, like Nance’s Native Tongue, can help brands create more race-conscious messaging. Indeed, marketing stands out as a profession where diversity is prized. That expertise and talent is readily available to nutrition brands that may lack diverstiry in their own ranks.

When Tellis thinks about how the supplement industry can learn to reach people of color, he points to industries that already have. He talks about hip-hop labels that deploy “street teams.” “People who would go out to all the parties and hand out the music and make it the hot thing to do.” He talks about Nike making sure young amateur athletes were wearing Nike shoes. “They are trying to catch a kid at eight or 11 to wear their stuff, the next Lebron James.”

Naturade has NBA stars Magic Johnson and Grant Hill as investors and spokesmen. Naturade is also in partnerships with two Black-focused radio networks and working with influencers to make digital outreach a primary goal. That digital realm, he says, is a place where he hopes Naturade and other BIPOC-owned brands can partner with larger brands in the supplement space on cooperative marketing. “We’ll share our email addresses if you share your email addresses.”

Beyond the digital, Naturade makes sure they are represented at Black cultural events, like the Essence Festival, and thinks the supplement industry needs to a better job of meeting people of color where they are. “Let’s go and get into these communities, and let’s touch the churches, let’s touch the sporting events, let’s touch the places where the people are.”

Some of that marketing needs to happen in cooperation with retailers too, Tellis says. More investors and more support for BIPOC-owned business will be essential, but some of the money for marketing needs to come from retailers before the brands can scale up. “Retailers need to onboard BIPOC-owned companies differently,” he says. “Everybody expects you to have all the marketing money.”

Companies that need help tuning their messages to resonate with BIPOC consumers can find people who are eager to help.

When Pitch Publicity President Amy Summers was building out a campaign to help the Organic and Natural Health Association reach out to people of color about vitamin D deficiency, she knew she couldn’t do it on her own. Drawing on the expertise and experience of a diverse staff and client list became essential in creating the “Get On My Level” campaign that’s been well received. "Get On My Level" references a rap song, a connection Summers confesses she would not have made.

All it took was as simple request for help, something she thinks more nutrition brands should do.

“We tend to create things that we’re comfortable with or that look like us. I was like, ‘I’m a white woman. I need your help. We’re trying to do something here.’”

Making room for BIPOC-owned brands on shelf

The last mile challenge for supplement brands in many communities of color is that the last mile is especially long when there are no grocers or health food stores. Tellis says Naturade doesn’t have a grab-and-go product that might work in a bodega—“Right now we are too small a company to make those minimum runs that the manufacturers require”—and his team is focusing on Amazon and other online outlets to reach communities where brick and mortar is not an option.

Naturade is already in Costco, where they are supported as a BIPOC-owned brand, and in Target, where there is a tie-in to Black History Month. The company will have SKUs in Whole Foods in the spring.

That doesn’t solve the brick-and-mortar problem in poorer communities, but growing the brand could give them more reach in the future. “Costco is higher end, but there’s 100 million people walking through Costco,” Tellis says.

For natural retailers, reaching people of color has long been a challenge. Natural GrocersAlan Lewis says the stores make sure the in-store workforce is diverse—“we go out of our way to have staff and management who look like our neighborhoods”—because the company knows “most minorities, especially the poor, do not feel honored or welcomed or acknowledged by the typical independent grocery store or natural product retail.”

A diverse staff makes a difference, he says, “We have had a lot of people say ‘It’s a place I know I can go into and not get the evil eye or be ignored or not be told what I need.”

But entering poorer neighborhoods isn’t always simple, and the issue of gentrification is often raised. Lewis worked with the community for two years when Natural Grocers moved into Denver’s Globeville district. He says the message that resonated with community activists was that selling cheap food simply passes the exploitation on. “Asking for cheap food is asking us to abuse and epxloit a different poor community somewhere else.”

The importance of building a diverse team

Few observers are confident the supplement industry can reach a diverse marketplace without tackling diversity up and down the organizational chart. According to a survey by the JEDI (Justice Equity Diverity and Inclusion) Collaborative, only 2% of leadership positions in the natural product industry are held by Black Americans. People who don’t know the communities won’t know how to reach them. Tellis wants to see supplement companies not only recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities but also looking for diverse executives in other industries. Sports and music are industries that got it right, and that expertise is urgently needed in the supplement industry. “You’ve got to look outside the industry,” Tellis says.

The ability to bring in diversity does not end at hiring. BIPOC executives and experts are also eager to be recruited to sit on boards of directors and advisory councils.

A diverse staff and board greatly increases the chances that brands will not only create more effective and targeted marketing but also tune product development to meet the needs of BIPOC populations. Opportunities for new product lines that match the markets, and the needs, could easily be missed by companies that lack diversity at a decision-making level.

Now is the moment to start addressing these inequities

Between the pandemic and social unrest that’s triggered a national conversation around race, the past year has brought more attention to the supplement and natural product industry’s failure to reach BIPOC consumers. Although systemic racism has been an underlying issue for many years, the series of tragic injustices against Black Americans this past year brought the Black Lives Matter movement into the global spotlight and created unprecedented awareness around the critical need to address social inequities.

For Nance, the combination of events has made it impossible, or at least unwise, for brands to ignore the challenges. Brands have long taken BIPOC consumers “for granted,” she says, and the last year makes it clear that these consumers’ needs can’t be ignored. “Looking at 2020, and what’s what happened with COVID-19 and the virus, whether you accept it, or whether you care about it, I think you’d be foolish not to say ‘I see it. I acknowledge it’s there.’”

Tellis believes COVID-19 has opened more consumers to issues around nutrition, particularly diabetes. That openness can’t be wasted. “At this point, everybody is ready to have that conversation.”

Across the industry, the combination of events in the last 12 months has called out the urgency not just for impact but for creating new business opportunities. When whole segments of the population are left out of the marketing and product development, whole markets are ignored. 

For Brown, it’s a matter of “the greatest outcomes come from the greatest crises.” The supplement industry has a role to play right now, she says. The ADA and other organizations are ready to work with brands. The brands need to work together, too. That collaboration could be coordinated messaging campaigns, teaming with community organizations and working to increase access to quality healthcare in Black and Brown communities. 

“There is a different type of awareness and a new sense of urgency,” Brown says. “Shame on us if we miss this moment.”

This article was featured in the Nutrition Business Journal Guest Editor Issue. The guest editor was Marc Washington of UR Labs.

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