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Science sells, until it doesn’tScience sells, until it doesn’t

Product differentiation via robust research is difficult to communicate, and may not be worth it

Todd Runestad

June 10, 2016

7 Min Read
Science sells, until it doesn’t

Scientific research is the backbone of the supplements industry. Sales are won or lost, whole business enterprises soar or crash, based on the depth of research validating an ingredient or a finished-product formulation. The trick is merely to properly communicate the science advantage of your product on the limited real estate of a product label.

Except when it isn’t. And when you can’t.

Borrowed science. Blackboard science. The PubMed punch-up. Companies saying their product is based on science, only the ingredient used is a different format than the one used in a trial. Or pixie-dust quantities of an ingredient are used that differ from the amount used in trials.


No matter to the savvy marketer. Print a bar chart on a label, picture a man in a white lab coat on your website and call him a doctor, heck just have an anecdote from a person who swears she lost 20 pounds in a week. Sprinkle in a little aspirational copy and watch the sales roll in.

So the sales driver becomes not science but a good story to tell—which may or may not be predicated on a blockbuster double-blind placebo-controlled human clinical trial.

“Science is a non-essential brand nutrient,” says Anthony Almada, president and CEO of Vitargo Global Sciences, which produces its namesake sports nutrition product, Vitargo, backed by four human clinicals demonstrating its superiority as a sports recovery aid. “We know science is not required. It’s relatively unimportant. And it is perhaps trivial. I can think of several probiotics that sell a lot that have no studies but have great marketing.”

A cynical take on supplements, perhaps. After all, vitamin D took off in 2009 after a 2008 where hardly a week went by without a publicized scientific report extolling the benefit on some area of human physiology. And fish oil became a blockbuster only after years of positive studies showing health benefit on everything from cardiovascular health to brain health. And probiotics—everyone knows about the research showing that a specific bacterial strain has had hundreds of research studies on it showing efficacy for gut health, immune function, cognitive health and pretty much every other human health condition. Right?

Almada is not alone in his real-world attitude on the intersection of sales and science. Bill Sardi started Longevinex, a pioneering supplement company based on resveratrol. Sardi started the company soon after Harvard researcher David Sinclair made resveratrol a potential blockbuster nutrient with tantalizing life-extension properties in a range of life forms from the petri dish to a number of animal models. Sardi has had studies conducted on Longevinex, which contains resveratrol but also a number of other small molecules. Those studies show Longevinex activated nine times the calorie-restriction (and hence life extension) genes than plain resveratrol.

The Longevinex website has those study results front and center—and remember, the FDA and FTC consider websites to be one and the same as product labels. Did communicating the study results help sales?

“When Longevinex was referred to as ‘resveratrol +,’ 31 other brands of resveratrol changed the name of their product to “resveratrol +” to make it falsely appear their brand was the one mentioned by the researcher,” says Sardi. “That scientific announcement did not boost the sales of resveratrol pills. Science doesn’t sell.”

Sardi noted that both resveratrol and curcumin have more than 8,000 published papers, but curcumin is the fourth-best-selling herbal product while resveratrol is not even in the top 100.

Of course, that is no reason to abandon scientific method. Science is a foundational aspect for nutrition, and also for natural products in all their forms. Natural bioactives do not lend themselves quite so elegantly to ironclad science as a single synthetic chemical constituent in a pharmaceutical drug. Nutrients are slower-acting, more subtle in their effects. Even so, health benefits can sometimes be measured. Supplement companies can at least rely on watered-down structure/function claims, bolstered by wink-wink product names that suggest what the real health attribute might be.

From lab to label

Occasionally, but certainly not often, an ingredient emerges that has bona fide health effects, but star status can be fickle. In the case of selenium, a 1996 study published in the esteemed mainstream Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found patients who took 200mcg/day high-selenium yeast had 63 percent fewer cases of prostate cancer, 58 percent fewer cases of colon or rectal cancers, 46 percent fewer lung cancers, and a 50 percent reduction in all cancers.

The FDA responded by granting selenium a qualified health claim as a cancer fighter.

Then, in 2011, the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) was stopped mid-stream because researchers found no benefit and actual potential harm from taking the vitamin/mineral combination.

The problem was that the SELECT study used selenomethionine, not high-selenium yeast. The latter contains selenomethionine, but also close to two dozen other selenium salts. That full-spectrum matrix seems to make all the difference in the world—most positive selenium studies seem to use the high-selenium yeast.

At that level, science is hard to explain, much less sell.

“It’s a continual battle,” says Paul Willis, president of Cypress Systems, a supplier of the SelenoExcell brand of high-selenium yeast. “People eventually ask about SELECT. We have a good science base related to that. Educating consumers is a whole different thing. That’s why we need branding partners that say we will help you build that message out. That’s a critical relationship between suppliers and marketers.”


Such partnerships validate the conceit that while strong science builds the foundation of a product’s success, nothing works quite so well as telling the brand story. That marketing includes, but is not limited to, science.

“Science is key, it’s at the crux of our industry,” says Lauren Clardy, head of NutriMarketing Group, based in California. Still, science doesn’t close the sale, she notes. “You can have wonderful science and R&D, but if you don’t know how to market or communicate in the regulatory environment, you won’t be successful.”

The trick is communicating science on product labels that will inspire a purchase. In this day and age, however, purchases are not always made in the aisles. Instead, savvy supplement consumers research ingredients and products beforehand—if nothing else, on their phones in the store. That means product labels are only the finish line and not the full campaign that sells a product.

“Labels do so much but they can’t do everything,” says Jeff Hilton, chief marketing officer and co-founder of BrandHive, a marketing consultancy based in Utah. “Packaging is one element, but so are other elements that surround the product. Things like infographics that take the science and put it into an easily palatable form and is remembered by consumers.”

BrandHive created an entire marketing package around the NeuroScience brand of physician-channel nutraceutical formulas. This included videos, office posters and brochures for the waiting areas of doctor’s offices.  Hilton says the smart labels, which fold out perhaps four times in order to create more label real estate, is a “nice concept, but in reality very few consumers use it.”

He says QR codes on products can be useful, but counseled that they must go to a specific landing page that details the specific science, or at least product story, for that specific supplement SKU. All too often the QR code directs shoppers to the company home page, leaving consumers to dig around to find the specific product and then the information about it.

“You have to send people to a concise, mobile-friendly site or landing page,” says Hilton. “You need to find ways to make the science more visible from the get-go, not buried on a science page six levels deep.”

Patience, persistence

Almada admits, if begrudgingly, that science matters. Still, that is only one part of the brand story. And only one part of creating a product that sells.

“It’s a slow build,” says Almada. “Think of how long it took glucosamine to get big. It didn’t happen overnight. It was cumulative. People need to experience the joint pain relief. Experience trumps data, but put the two together and that’s blockbuster.”

With a product like energy drinks featuring caffeine as an active ingredient, a raft of scientific studies demonstrated enhanced performance effects. Consumers, by the billions, also know that a cup of coffee demonstrates enhanced performance effects. Data plus experiential effects equals a blockbuster product.

Just ask Red Bull.

About the Author(s)

Todd Runestad

Content Director, NaturalProductsInsider.com, Sr. Supplements Editor, Natural Products Insider

I've been writing on nutrition science news since 1997. I'm The content director for NaturalProductsInsidercom and digital magazines. Other incarnations: supplements editor for newhope.com, Delicious Living and Natural Foods Merchandiser. Former editor-in-chief of Functional Ingredients magazine and still cover raw material innovations and ingredient science.

Connect with me here https://www.linkedin.com/in/toddrunestad/

My daily vitamin regime includes a morning smoothie with a range of powders including protein, collagen and spirulina; a quality multi, B complex, C with bioflavonoids, >2,000IU vitamin D, E, magnesium, high-selenium yeast, PQQ, choline, alpha-lipoic acid with carnitine, coQ10, fish oil concentrate, probiotics and some adaptogenic herbs. 

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