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The Omega 3 Coalition: Putting rivalries aside for the greater good

The Omega 3 Coalition: Putting rivalries aside for the greater good
Efforts on Behalf of the Industry

"Got Milk?”

“Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner!”

“Pork: The Other White meat.”

Could the next marketing slogan to nestle its way deep into the collective consumer consciousness be…drumroll please…“Omega 3s: Always a Good Idea”?

Members of the newly-formed Omega 3 Coalition say they’re confident that both the slogan and the $6.5-million marketing campaign set to roll out around it in February will go a long way toward reversing a double-digit revenue slide for a sector used to double-digit gains.

“The Omega 3 industry has benefitted from years of generally positive media coverage, and that is starting to dry up,” says Adam Ismail, executive director of the trade group, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED), which is coordinating the Coalition’s efforts. “It has to be replaced with something.”

The unlikely coalition bedfellows behind the effort—including roughly 30 rival ingredient suppliers and manufacturers in the highly competitive krill and fish oil markets—joined forces in February 2014, at a time when the Omega 3 landscape was looking particularly bleak. Since its peak in mid-2013, the market had lost $149 million in U.S. retail sales, according to the Nielsen Corporation. Things were getting worse, with each month’s sales down 10-12 percent from the previous year. Some markets, including refined fish oils and Omega 3 concentrates, were down 25 to 30 percent. Even krill oil, which had been a hot seller—due largely to Schiff’s aggressive media campaign promising better absorption and “no fishy smell or aftertaste”—had nosedived 37 percent from its peak.

By some estimates, 11 million people had left the Omega 3 category.

“All this came at a time when there had been some notable acquisitions in the industry and a lot of consolidation,” Ismail says. “It was a shock. People were not moving into this space to have the growth disappear.”

Enter Gertjan de Koning, VP for nutritional lipids for leading ingredient supplier DSM, who decided it was time to stop the bleeding. He reached out to GOED to serve as a neutral coordinating party, invited leading industry players to the table to hammer out a plan, and agreed to have DSM match their financial contributions dollar-for-dollar. By September, the Coalition had raised roughly $4.9 million and was launching a four-week pilot campaign in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the worst performing cities in the nation in Omega 3 supplement sales. By the end of the four weeks, Charlotte was among the best. Now the Coalition is poised to roll out a similar campaign nationwide, modeled after the brand-transcending marketing blitzes that pulled milk, pork, beef, raisins, and other categories out of slumps.

“It was not a given at all that something like this would go smoothly,” says de Koning, acknowledging the challenge of crafting a streamlined marketing campaign for an entire product category that makes all the distinct players happy. “We came to the realization that instead of fighting like cats and dogs, which competitors tend to do, we can work together. It has gone surprisingly well.”

Too much bad press, too little good

Exactly why the bottom fell out of the market remains a matter of debate. Some blame a spike in crude fish-oil prices, due to a few unusually poor fishing seasons, which translated to higher supplement prices. Many blame the media, which had a field day with a July 2013 study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The researchers concluded that men with high blood concentrations of Omega 3 fatty acids had increased risk of prostate cancer and a higher incidence of a particularly aggressive form of the disease. To make matters worse, it came on the heels of three other studies published in top-tier journals, including “the Journal of the American Medical Association” and “BMJ,” which questioned the cardiovascular benefits of fish oil supplements.

Soon cancer experts were on TV asserting that Omega 3s were dangerous and didn’t work. GOED quickly countered that the prostate study was poorly designed and pointed out that countries with the highest Omega-3 intake levels actually tend to have lower rates of prostate cancer. But the damage was done.

Still, to blame the slump on a few negative headlines would be to vastly oversimplify the problem, says Ismael, who points to surveys showing that only about 9 percent of consumers remember the prostate cancer study at all and that only about 3 percent of those who left the category did so due to safety concerns. The greater problem, he says, is that the media, tired of the “old news” story that Omega 3s are good for you, has stopped writing about them altogether. (One GOED survey found that only about a million American consumers were exposed to positive media messages about the fats in 2013, versus 11 million in 2008).

“The biggest reason people are leaving the category is that they do not know what Omega 3s do,” Ismail says. “People have forgotten about the category.”

To remedy that, the coalition hired Baltimore-based GKV Communications, the firm credited with turning around the Recreational Vehicle industry in the early 2000s via the “Go RVing” campaign.

GKV’s initial focus groups revealed that, despite dozens of health benefits attributed to Omega 3s, consumers associated them primarily with heart health. Since aligning with what consumers already knew would be the easiest starting point, the firm launched a campaign around the slogan “Omega 3s: Always a Good Idea for your heart,” focusing on emotional trigger moments when people realize they need to take better care of their ticker—things like milestone birthdays and moments when people find themselves out of breath.

One magazine ad reads “Another birthday: Another reason to think about omega-3s” and refers patients to a new website,, for research and a wealth of other information. A TV ad shows an overweight middle-aged guy struggling to climb a flight of stairs as man coalition logo—a lightbulb crafted out of an O and a 3—appears and a voiceover proclaims, “When a flight of stairs gets your heart racing, you should start thinking about Omega 3s.”

Such spots flooded the Charlotte airwaves in September, while billboard ads lined major roadways and in-store shelf-talkers decorated the aisles of mass merchandisers. The campaign also sponsored a booth at an American Heart Association 5k, handing out product samples from a variety of Omega 3 companies and reaching people who wouldn’t ordinarily step foot in a natural products store.

After the four-week campaign, sales of Omega 3 supplements were up 5.8 percent in Charlotte, exceeding the campaign’s goal of a 3-percent spike. As many as 61,000 new users came into the category.

But as the coalition prepares to roll out its national campaign, it faces a host of unique challenges that other “primary demand” campaigns—those that publicize a category rather than a brand—did not have to overcome.

Unlike the famous “Got Milk” campaign, which launched with a $23 million-per-year budget derived from a mandatory assessment from California’s largest milk producers, the Omega 3 Coalition derives its funds from voluntary donations. (The more money a company chips in, the more say it has in the coalition’s operations.) And the group is still $1 million short of its $6.5 million minimum goal.

“We are at a critical point right now,” says GOED spokeswoman Ellen Schutt. “We need additional funds, and if we don’t get them we will have to revamp our plan or push it out a few weeks or months.”

Meanwhile, some marketing experts say that it could be far more complicated to turn the tide on Omega 3s than it was to, say, get more people excited about eating beef or drinking milk.

“The majority of consumers knew what milk was and knew why you would drink it,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of marketing with the Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado. “It was just a matter of getting them to keep it top of mind. What I would wonder, not as an expert on Omega 3s but as a communications expert, is whether what [the coalition] needs to communicate is more complicated than can be effectively done via a primary demand campaign.”

DSM’s de Koning says the coalition is aware of those challenges and is a work in progress, willing to change its ways where necessary. “We are building this plane while flying it and taking on passengers while we’re in the air,” he jokes.

But others in the industry are already watching intently. Talks are underway about the potential for a similar “Got Organic” campaign, and competitors in other areas of the supplement industry are also considering marketing collaborations.

“The reality is that many of us have never had to advertise much to sell our products, and that is starting to change,” says Ismail. “Now we have to operate by the same rules that every other consumer products company operates by.

“I hope this can be a case study for the entire industry.”

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