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Survey indicates Gen Z is stressed out and sleepless—and using supplements to help

New Hope Network's consumer research shows Gen Z respondents were more likely than older groups to report stress and sleep as primary reasons for seeking supplements.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

August 6, 2021

10 Min Read
gen z stress
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Brandon Oberfeld and Charles Gore aren’t afraid to talk about the challenges facing their generation. At 19, they are all too familiar with the stress and anxiety Gen Z experiences, a problem they attribute to a “comparison culture” driven by social media that has millions of their peers trapped in a constantly reinforced message they are falling behind in likes, looks and life.

They’re not afraid to talk about it. But they also want to do something about it.

So, they launched a functional beverage, branded as Confidence, with a formulation that includes adaptogens, GABA, B vitamins and magnesium—a concoction they say short circuits the anxiety and empowers “the most authentic self.”

“There’s a beverage for relaxation. There’s a beverage for energy. There is a beverage for focus. There’s really nothing for confidence,” says Oberfeld.

The pair’s awareness of anxiety, and their answer to it, stand as a set of marching orders for the supplement industry eyeing Gen Z as an emerging market with a set of concerns largely unknown, or at least unfamiliar, to supplement industry executives. In New Hope Network’s NEXT Data and Insights consumer research, those marching orders become clear.

Along with millennials, Gen Z respondents reported stress and sleep as primary drivers by large margins over Gen X and baby boomers. Asked what concern or condition explained why they took supplements, 18.1% of both Gen Z and millennial respondents indicated stress. Just 7.4% of baby boomers chose stress. For Gen X, the number was 14.4%.

Sleep was also a primary concern for younger consumers in the survey, with 19% of Gen Z respondents and 20.3% of millennial respondents choosing sleep as the reason they take supplements. Gen X-ers and baby boomers were also closely matched, though at a much lower level, 11.3% and 11.7%.

The two younger generations present with a distinct set of needs states for two very closely related supplement categories. Stress and sleep share a more inherent overlap than perhaps than any other two conditions.

And Oberfeld and Gore think the supplement industry gets one of them wrong for their generation.

Mood and mental health, they say, are addressed in marketing—and often in formulation—as syndromes and defects and not the fact of life they are for many in their generation. Stress and anxiety don’t have to be debilitating to be a problem.

“I think the idea of mental health is way less stigmatized, and it’s becoming something that’s just way more casual to talk about, which I think is completely okay and great,” Gore says.

They developed their Confidence product as something to take the edge off when the pressures and distractions detract from focus and intention. They market Confidence not as standalone antidote to stress and anxiety but instead as a way of tamping stress and anxiety down so that they can experience life more fully.

“This is a brand about empowering people,” Oberfeld says. “This is a brand about being your most authentic self.

Messaging stress

As a psychologist, Jaclyn Bauer knows, from her patients, how younger consumers experience stress and anxiety. And she knows they don’t experience it the way pharmaceutical companies and supplement brands portray it in their marketing. It’s not a woman clenching her jaw in a corner in grainy black and white photo. It’s not the foreboding soundtrack that clouds out hope. It is, instead, the undertone of life for too many young people.

“People who don’t have the education behind it will go to this stereotypical vision, where they don’t realize it could be someone that you’re sitting next to in your workplace,” Bauer says. “Somebody can be very high functioning, and they may be struggling with depression and anxiety, but they’re able to hide it and mask it and push it down until they’re in a safe place.”

Younger people, Bauer says, know that nuance. They don’t know stress and anxiety as a weakness in the way both have been stigmatized for older generations. “The younger generation is more open with their mental health struggles. So they’re more open to say, ‘I’m really anxious. This is what my anxiety looks like, this is what I’m struggling with,’” Bauer says. “From what I see with older populations, there’s still just not as much acceptance of mental health struggles.”

Bauer thought about those contrasts when she was launching her new Virtue supplement for stress and anxiety. She acknowledges on the site, very clearly, that she is not anti-pharma for mental health, but she also attempts to present her product as part of a solution and not the entire solution, in the way a more pharma-centric campaign might. Her brand’s site has content, for instance, on the importance of breathing and a nuanced definition of anxiety.

Bauer says younger people might understand that nuance because they’ve seen it talked about so openly by influencers who touch on mental health. When tennis pro Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open in June, citing stress as making it impossible to compete, that probably felt more familiar to younger consumers who have been given a front-row seat to others’ struggles via social media. “They’re open with their own struggles,” she says of influencers, “and they’re saying what they’re struggling with and what their triggers are, and if they’re having a bad day, or even if they’re having a good day. They’re very open with how they’re doing, which creates a safe community for other people to express themselves freely as well.”

The influencer effect

Oberfield and Gore have drawn influencers into their marketing carefully. “We don’t want to go the promotion route that puts anybody with a ton of followers behind the brand,” Oberfeld says. “We’re really being very, very exclusive with the people that we work with.”

But they also know the right connection works. “We’ve actually sat down with our friend group and had open conversations about mental health and stress and really venting to each other,” Gore says, “and I think we’ve made huge strides about the idea of mental health and being happy.”

Nicole Smith doesn’t share Oberfield and Gore’s Gen Z experience, but she thinks she understands why influencer marketing can be so powerful with their generational cohort. They don’t trust traditional marketing because they’ve seen too much of it, says Smith, CEO at Functional Chocolates. “They’ve seen probably more marketing in their 20-some years than we have in our lifetimes.”

The key to influencer marketing, Smith notes, is relationships. Gen Z and millennials want a relationship with a brand in a way that might not matter as much for older consumers. “They don’t like to be marketed to, they want to select products that they relate to. So, influencer marketing is key for that, because they relate to people,” Smith says.

Functional Chocolates adapts their marketing by generation, and influencer marketing is the format of choice for both millennials and Gen Z, with Instagram as a primary avenue. Facebook is a non-starter for that age group, though Smith calls it “the perfect platform for advertising our menopause products.”

The relationships brands seek to discover through influencer marketing can start with empathy, says Danna Pratte, founder and CEO at NB Pure, which sells Stress Away, for anxiety, and Power Down, for sleep. In influencer marketing, brands can connect with consumers in a we’re-all-in-this-together way. “We’re trying to use a social platform to let them know its ok. That there are solutions. It’s not the end of the world,” says Pratte, whose children fall into the Gen Z age bracket.

At the same time, Pratte says, NB Pure can talk about what the product is not. Many Gen Z consumers grew up taking pharmaceuticals for anxiety or have friends who did. Through influencers, brands can let young consumers know that their products are not habit forming and don’t come with the side effects associated with anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals. “They are looking for options that might be a little less harmful,” she says. “They want non-prescription, non-habit forming natural products that are going to help them feel better.”

Label lingo

The qualities Pratte talks about have always been problematic for brands to communicate on a label, but companies selling into the Gen Z and millennial markets say the challenge is more complicated for these younger consumers.

At CV Sciences, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs Duffy MacKay says they have learned that simple and short trumps everything else in labeling mood and sleep products for Gen Z. The anxiety product is called CALM and the sleep product is called SLEEP, both names in bold colors against a solid backdrop. “In the industry, we’re used to people who love to read everything about every ingredient and where it comes from, and a lot of this younger generation is just, ‘What will it do for me? How will it help me?’”

They might click through to more information at some point, but to introduce the product, the message has to be short and sweet—but mainly short. “We spent a lot of time trying to nuance how CBD affects the endocannabinoid system, which would benefit your calmness and your state of disposition, and you go into this long and exhaustive structure-function compliant definition of why CBD can help these young people,” MacKay says, “and guess where it goes? Right in one ear and out the other.”

Rachel Marshall is a technical engagement manager for Fonterra USA helping brands introduce the company’s new calming milk phospholipids ingredient. They have studies to document a calming effect, but she’s not telling brands to spend any label real estate citing those studies. She points to Olly, like CV Sciences, calling its sleep product SLEEP. “They’ll call out that there’s melatonin in it, but it’s not what they’re leading with,” Marshal says.

The fact that milk phospholipids have a long track record in cognitive development (and Fonterra can point to robust science to support this) is not what consumers are looking for, Marshall explains.

This is especially important for Gen-Z and millennial consumers, whose brains have been trained by a barrage of media and message. “There’s been quite a shift in supplements,” Marshall says.  That shift, she explains, moves “from what this ingredient is to actually what is the ingredient going to do for me?”

At Functional Chocolates, the only ingredient mentioned on the front of the label for the stress/anxiety product is “chocolate.” The GABA and other ingredients in the “proprietary calming blend” are on the supplement facts panel. There’s no time for a science lesson on the front of the label, Smith points out.

“With the Gen Z audience, you’re really talking about less than a second-and-a-half of attention for your brand to capture something,” Smith says. “You’re really looking for three to seven words that are going to get on with that group and try to draw them in.”

Authentic essentials

For Oberfeld and Gore, three to seven words is not nearly enough to describe what their generation is experiencing, but probably more words than what it might be hoping to see.

They settled on just one: Confidence.

It took them thinking and talking about the challenges to get to that word, but they are, well, confident it was the right one. What their generation needs, they say, is to feel comfortable where they are and in what they are doing. That’s confidence.

Being confident in a brand is a different thing, they explain. That difference is essential to their marketing plan. Oberfeld and Gore say they are not only being careful with their influencer marketing but also leapfrogging influencer marketing to get straight to the customer. “We’ve set out a bunch of minifridges in hair salons, in gyms, in doctors’ offices just to give people that real experience in all these wellness spaces,” Gore says.

When they do engage with influencers, those influencers have to truly understand the product and fully believe in it. Oberfeld, Gore and their entire generation grew up online with an awareness of anxiety that is deep and a tolerance for marketing artifice that is low.

“I think people are so accustomed to seeing ads and seeing paid promotion that they’re able to smell through it so much quicker,” Oberfeld says. “People want to see that authentic side of people, and they don’t want to see a fake persona; they want to get as close to the reality of things as possible.”

The reality of anxiety is very familiar to their generation, both men say, and the brands that can speak about anxiety in a language that resonates with younger consumers will have an advantage.

“We’ve gotten tons of emails, tons of people saying, ‘this is precisely what I needed,’” Gore says.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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