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November 27, 2023
Almost three quarters of American adults use supplements on a regular basis. But what barriers are limiting those who don’t?
That was the big question tackled by two experts at “Inside the Bottle,” an annual discussion at SupplySide West 2023 that presents exclusive research focusing on combating misinformation and creating positive narratives around the natural products industry.
This year’s installment dove deep into the mindset of the non-supplement user: Why aren’t they using products that could potentially improve their health, and what messages speak to them? Here’s what to know about this untapped and underserved community.
Amanda Hart, a former data analyst at New Hope Network, presented a survey of over 1,500 “non-regular supplement users.” These are either consumers who take supplements just 1-2 times per week, or not at all. Rather than focusing strictly on demographics, the survey delved into what Hart calls “the attitudes and perceptions that are barriers to engaging in supplements.”
With that in mind, the non-regular users were further broken down into three sub-categories: “occasional users,” “lapsed users,” and “non-users.”
Occasional users were by far the biggest of the three groups, and their characteristics include:
They’re somewhat satisfied with their health.
They feel comfortable at natural product stores.
They feel “neutral” (not negative) about their knowledge of supplements.
“They are satisfied about their health, but they're also indicating to us that they're more motivated than lapsed users or non-users to actually keep that satisfaction up—to engage, learn a little bit more about their health,” Hart explained. “But they’re lukewarm in their knowledge of what a supplement is and how it can benefit their life. These occasional users present the biggest opportunity.”
These promising candidates, the survey found, also tend to make their supplement choices in person: from mass-market retailers or grocery store chains, far more than online or at a drugstore or pharmacy.
“They're not making an extra trip to get their supplements. They're really buying it where they get their groceries,” Hart said. “This means that there's an opportunity to educate at retail.”
So what determines if a consumer at that crucial point of sale will pull the trigger? That was the subject of research presented by Pelin Thorogood, the co-founder of Radicle Science, which according to its website has developed an "AI-driven, virtual, D2C clinical trial approach" to research and substantiate the health benefits of supplements.
The survey, conducted in partnership with the University of California San Diego, asked over 1,200 people how seeing the words “clinically proven” on a product changed their behavior. “To our knowledge this is the first time such a large-scale science study has been done around understanding consumer psyche and intent to purchase,” Thorogood said.
And what they found was that those two words are loaded.
For example, a product labeled “clinically proven to reduce stress” had double the chance of being purchased than one that simply said, “reduces stress.” Similarly, when asked to rank the top factors influencing their intent to purchase, 76% of subjects chose “proven effective in clinical trials”—far more than user reviews, a product’s taste or smell, and over double of whether a product had been recommended by someone they trust.
The clinically proven label also carries the potential of a higher price tag. “Consumers are indeed more likely to buy and pay a decent amount—more than 20% more—for products that are clinically proven.” Thorogood explained. “It’s very similar to ‘Certified Organic.’ People are willing to pay more for something they trust.”
The word “trust” is the sticking point, of course. Both researchers presented findings indicating that consumers feel overwhelmed and unprepared to navigate misinformation in the natural products market.
“Consumers are now much more interested in science and science information,” Thorogood said. “But it’s very hard for them to differentiate between fact and fiction.”
The answer, she said, is to back claims like “clinically proven” with more and better research.
“We need double-blind placebo trials. We need to show that your product is beating placebo with statistical significance,” she added.
But this difficult work could lead “occasional users” and “lapsed users” of supplements to become “regular users.”
“It's by improving consumer literacy on the value of supplements, the use cases of supplements, how to read labels, and how to assess the veracity of those labels, that we can actually increase trust,” Thorogood said. “This is how we build additional customers, reduce churn, and build the industry overall.”
Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor.
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