As a result of extensive communications campaigns by pharma companies, consumer awareness about health issues is on the rise, contributing to the growth of the supplements market. However, the promotional efforts in this area revolve around particular ingredients rather than brands, which leads to a general lack of brand awareness. To resolve this issue, companies should establish themselves as thought leaders by using comprehensive media analytics and evaluation. Analysing the media coverage, we drilled down through the main topics of conversation and the firms in the centre of the debate.

Despite the fact that they are not as profitable as prescription drugs, dietary supplements constitute a lucrative market which is set to grow. According to a report by Grand View Research, the global dietary supplements market size was valued at $133.1 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $278.02 billion by 2024, accelerating at a compound annual growth rate of 9.6%. The spending on products containing vitamins, minerals, botanicals, enzymes, fatty acids and proteins is expected to be prompted by rising obesity levels in developed countries as a consequence of fluctuating dieting patterns and hectic work schedules.

Another contributing factor is the high adoption rate of fast food over the past few years in emerging economies such as China and India, which has caused an increase in cardiovascular disorders, diabetes and obesity. The researchers expect consumers within the high socio-economic and upper-middle-class income segments to perceive dietary supplements as the alternatives to prescribed drugs.

The rising awareness about weight issues comes as a result of extensive brand campaigns by nutritional product manufacturers and companies such as Pfizer and Amway. A new research report by Zion Market Research points out that the key vendors of supplements, which include Bio-Botanica, Bayer, BASF SE, Ricola, Herbalife and Integrated BioPharma, are expected to enter into partnerships and mergers and acquisitions as part of their business development strategies.

Rising consumer awareness about preventive healthcare and the rapidly rising geriatric populace is likely to contribute substantially towards the dietary supplements market revenue over the coming years,” the study asserts. “Apart from this, massive impact of mass media communications and advertisement witnessed in the pharmaceutical and retail sectors will generate lucrative demand for the industry. Furthermore, the introduction of new dietary supplement product is predicted to open new growth dimensions for dietary supplements market in the near future.”

The report also notes that there has been negative publicity and false claims about the consumption of supplements, which has adversely impacted the credibility and reputation of the manufacturers and the popularity of their products. Grand View Research adds that the shift of interest among millennials and adults in North America is expected to bring market growth over the forecast period. “High adoption rates for herbal medicines among individuals located in the U.S. and Canada on account of rising concerns over hazardous effect associated with conventional pharma drugs are expected to expand the market size over the forecast period,” the researchers add.


In a need for value propositions

The market is very fragmented, and there are many small and large-scale players, especially in the US, Japan and China. According to Mordor Intelligence, a 36.96% share is held by the leading players including Pfizer, Sanofi, Herbalife, Glanbia Nutritionals, Abbott, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt Benckiser and Merck. Herbalife and Bayer top the chart, accounting for around 15% of the market.

A McKinsey study has found that this fragmentation is the result of a general lack of brand awareness and the absence of consumer loyalty within the category. According to the consulting company, the key players include Amway, Abbott Laboratories, Glanbia, Archer Daniels Midland, GlaxoSmithKline and DuPont, whose market presence would depend on strategies like joint ventures and acquisitions.

Competitiveness in this field depends on factors such as product quality, innovation, service, reputation, promotion and strategic initiatives, while R&D activities and product innovation are also important aspects. McKinsey concludes that vendors are required to distinguish their product and service offerings through clear and unique value propositions.

Increasingly, Big Pharma and Big Herba are indistinguishable,” claims Lynn Parramore, a senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. “The very same mega-companies with gigantic chemical labs that make drugs are cooking up vitamin and herbal supplements labelled with sunny terms like ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome.’ Pfizer, Unilever, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and other big pharmaceutical firms make or sell supplements.”


Consumer awareness

If we take a look at news articles, magazine stands and TV lineups, we will find that many Americans are eager to know more about preventative healthcare – according to McKinsey, the abundance of information has been a key driver of consumer purchasing. Diet and lifestyle advice, as well as details about new products, are regularly offered by celebrity doctors like Dr Oz and Dr Sanjay Gupta, online forums like and, and magazines like Shape, Fit, and Men’s Health.

Consumer awareness has also been rising thanks to the increased marketing efforts of manufacturers, which have targeted customers directly. Their strategies concentrate on innovation, effectiveness and safety, and they have reached a wide range of shoppers while adding credibility to the role corporations can play in preventative healthcare.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 80% of Internet users in the US, or about 93 million Americans, have searched for a health-related topic online, up from 62% of Internet users who searched for health topics in 2001. McKinzey notes that consumers use alternative channels to make decisions throughout all parts of their health journey, including pre-diagnosis, diagnosis and treatment, and the majority consult the Internet both before and after their doctor appointments. The firm attributes this to the fact that insurers are incentivising their customers to take preventative care measures.

Pharma companies have tried to capitalise on this trend by boosting their education and marketing campaigns. This has had a positive effect on sales, as supplements are usually bought after consumers conducted research by themselves, rather than after visiting a doctor. The more educated consumers also prefer personalised solutions and are increasingly using online tools designed by retailers and manufacturers.

Marketing in this area has revolved around particular ingredients: companies have concentrated on promoting how the ingredients in their products tackle health issues. The problem here is that products become commoditised and consumers have difficulty differentiating between brands. Communication professionals started dealing with the situation by adding a holistic approach to their consumer messaging prompting demands for broader product ranges. This approach has also been utilised to target specific consumer segments such as expectant mothers or 60+ men. Many firms have also re-branded their product lines as “lifestyle brands” in a bid to stand out and inspire customer loyalty.

Others have started influencer-based campaigns, capitalising on the impact celebrities and influencers have on shoppers, especially when it comes to supplements designed for improving looks. Joanne Richard of the Toronto Sun notes: “A scrolling session on Instagram can quickly suck you into the vortex of celebrity-hyped beauty and health products, a veritable glossy revolving door of goo, pills and promises… There’s lots of glow and flawlessness promised from the inside out too with a litany of thumb-stopping vitamins and supplements to boost hair, skin and nails, hyped by the stars and consumed by rabid fans.”


A healthy debate

At a time of rising consumer awareness and market fragmentation, it’s vital for communication professionals to know how the media covers the sector, not least because, as we pointed out, the consumption of supplements is driven by self-education on the subject.

Analysing the supplements coverage, we found that the conversation can be divided into several categories in terms of topics:

The most widely discussed issue is whether supplements are actually contributing to our health. There are many articles suggesting that we don’t really need them or even that they can harm us. There are features such as “The arguments against dietary supplements”, “Are dietary supplements working against you?” and “Consumer Reports Joins Pharma Campaign Against Dietary Supplements”. There are also articles conveying the opposite message, for instance, “Seven Arguments for Taking Nutritional Supplements”, “Why Supplements Are Necessary” and “10 Reasons Why You Should Take Supplements Daily”.

However, not many pieces are carrying a particular sentiment – the bulk of the articles try to be balanced and to determine the pros and cons of enriching your diet with supplements. There are many titles such as “The Case for (and Against) Vitamin Supplements”, “Benefits and Risks of Taking Dietary Supplements” and “Are Vitamin Supplements Helpful or Harmful?” The overall message in most of these articles is that supplements are not vital if you have a healthy diet, and people often think they need more vitamins than a regular diet can provide them with. The idea is summed up by Carol Haggans, a dietitian and consultant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “It’s possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods, so you don’t have to take one. But supplements can be useful for filling in gaps in your diet.”

Another key message in such articles is that although the majority of people should simply have a balanced diet, there are some legitimate reasons to take supplements. For instance, people with dietary restrictions such as vegans might feel the need to enrich their menu with vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, iodine, zinc, calcium and omega-3s. Often cited reasons for taking supplements are: water, soil and food quality have declined, our bodies absorb fewer nutrients as we age, pharmaceutical drug use depletes nutrients.

Vitamin supplements could be essential for people with genetic disorders or with conditions such as Crohn’s disease, chronic diarrhoea, or celiac disease, which hinder their ability to absorb vitamins. Vitamin D could be beneficial for people at risk of developing osteoporosis and to those who are not getting enough sunlight. In addition, folic acid supplements can be good for women wanting to get pregnant. When pointing out these benefits, commentators often mention that it’s uncommon for people without specific needs or a pre-existing medical condition to suffer from vitamin deficiency.


Reputation challenges

Journalists also tend to note that some supplements might have an undeserved reputation. There are preliminary studies causing a hype around certain products, which consumers continue to buy even after subsequent more thorough studies conclude that their benefits are insignificant. Many popular articles in national outlets report on newly found limitations of supplements – for instance, the New York Times published titles such as “Studies Show Little Benefit in Supplements” and “Older Americans Are ‘Hooked’ on Vitamins”.

The lack of accurate information on the subject is often blamed on the media, and this is part of an ongoing problem regarding the reliability of health news. A few years ago, the project studied more than 1,800 healthcare stories and established that about two out of every three didn’t discuss costs, harms and benefits accurately.

Peer-reviewed healthcare journal Health Affairs, which supports investigative journalism in the healthcare industry, participated in a FRONTLINE documentary on the supplements sector, titled “Supplements and Safety”. The film uses research and interviews with current and former policy officials to shed light on problems relating to some vitamins and supplements and to address the lack of federal oversight. The story follows the publication of a 2013 New York Times article on labelling fraud in the supplement industry, which prompted an investigation by the New York State attorney general’s office.

The second major category of articles focuses on dietary, health and lifestyle recommendations. Such pieces often feature the recommendations of some specialists and influencers, for instance, Dr Mehmet Oz, also known as Dr Oz, a professor at Columbia University, television talk show host and cardiothoracic surgeon who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Number one on his list are multivitamins: “Ideally, we should get vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables. But if we can’t get them from our diet, Dr Oz advises to get them from multivitamins.” Another popular influencer is Andrew Weil, a celebrity doctor described as the “guru” of the alternative medical brands.

Omega 3 is another ingredient which frequently tops the lists of most effective supplements. Nutritious Life, the website of dietitian and thought-leader Keri Glassman, recommends: “Salmon, walnuts, dark leafy greens and fatty fish are rich natural sources of omega-3s and we all should be incorporating these foods into our diet unless of course, you have an allergy. But, if you want to try a supplement to take your omega-3 intake a step further choose a pharmaceutical grade fish oil with both EPA and DHA. These are two fatty acids that work together to keep us healthy.“

There are also analyses of the recent market trends, which are aimed at professionals in the industry rather than at general consumers. According to the Supplement Factory, a leading industry manufacturer, changes in supplement trends depend on super-foods, research and coverage in the media. Despite some negative coverage, almost all analysts expect the market to grow and assert that there are plenty of opportunities. Recent analyses focus on herbal supplements, which experienced its strongest growth in 15 years in the US, according to a new report from the American Botanical Council’s (ABC) HerbalGram, and sports supplements, which is set to encounter paramount growth, according to the Global Sports Supplements Market 2018 Insights and Trends report.

Although not as many, the articles reporting on research results are very popular and quickly become trending on social media. Recent publications from the VITAL trial cast doubt on the effectiveness of Vitamin D and omega-3 supplements in preventing cardiovascular events or cancer. Even prior to these studies, there had been negative trials for both, and there is a recent meta-analysis from the Cochrane Collaboration, which found no reduced cardiovascular risk with omega-3s.

Therefore, you would think that the current studies would end the debate once and for all. But that is not what happened,” reported the Montreal Gazette, pointing out that there are secondary findings: Vitamin D had no effect on overall cancer, but it did reduce cancer deaths, while omega-3s didn’t reduce cardiovascular events overall, but did show a reduction in heart attacks alone.

The plethora of reports on these studies made Vitamin D and Omega 3 the most widely discussed ingredients in the coverage, as we found out thanks to our analytics tools:

Sometimes articles present conflicting information, and this is because different studies on the same supplements often have different results. Harvard’s School of Public Health recommends that next time we read a news story about a trial, we should keep the following questions in mind: What vitamin dose did study participants take—and for how long did they take it? Who were the study participants—and how healthy were their lifestyles? When did study participants take the supplement? How did researchers measure the supplement’s effectiveness?

When it comes to regulation, journalists often describe the issue as too little, too late. The National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns: “Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods, not as drugs. The label may claim certain health benefits. But unlike medicines, supplements can’t claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease. Because supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, the FDA doesn’t evaluate the quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body.” There are ongoing debates about a mandatory product registry for the dietary supplement industry.


Companies in the mix

We also identified which companies are mentioned most often in the coverage:

Pfizer and Herbalife, two of the top market players in the industry, lead the coverage because they are mentioned in almost any market analysis. In fact, all of the companies are mentioned almost exclusively only in industry reports and market analyses.

Pfizer has secured its positions by acquiring Alacer, the maker and distributor of Emergen-C products, the largest selling branded Vitamin C line in the United States. The company engages in thought leadership through publishing content on general health topics, quoting certain studies, for instance: „According to the Framingham Heart Study, many people aged 67 or older are deficient in several key nutrients. Therefore, seniors should consider supplementing their diet with a daily multivitamin.“ Dipali Davé, a physician and the Assistant Editor and Medical Researcher for Pfizer’s Get Healthy Stay Healthy website, has also published an article on the best vitamins and minerals.

Herbalife, which specialises in supplements, weight management, sports nutrition, and personal-care products, recently hosted a fitness camp and coaching clinic in Jakarta alongside soccer franchise LA Galaxy. Apart from this promotional event, the company has also featured primarily in industry analyses and market trends pieces.

Bayer funded a study which found that fish oil (where Omega 3 resides) and Aspirin probably won’t help prevent heart attacks or strokes in those who are already at cardiovascular risk. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that GSK has entered into exclusive negotiations to sell its nutrition unit to Unilever, including Horlicks, a health-and-wellness beverage.

Bloomberg notes that Horlicks’s current communications campaign highlights that the drink “contains bioavailable nutrients, which gets absorbed in the blood and hence makes kids more tall, more strong, and more sharp,” as Vivek Anand, GSK Consumer’s finance director, told investors. Bloomberg adds: „But Horlicks is facing a challenge, even in India. The drink is losing its star status as the “healthy” morning and after-school drink of choice pushed by Indian parents on their children. In a worst-case scenario, it could wind up with the image it has in the U.K., its home market: a sleep-inducing bedtime drink for the elderly.“

GNC, the largest global speciality retailer of nutritional products, including vitamins and minerals, has selected spend management and B2B eCommerce company Proactis to plan and execute online sourcing events. In addition, Indian supplements retailer Guardian Healthcare has signed actor and fitness celebrity John Abraham as the company’s brand ambassador to promote GNC.

Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the United States in terms of revenue, will build an R&D facility conducting research on omega-3 fatty acids from canola plants to reduce reliance on fishmeal. In the meantime, DuPont Nutrition and Health has released new results from a clinical study of Howaru Shape, a synbiotic dietary supplement for overweight consumers. Sanofi was mentioned as one of the companies paying Dr Michael Holick, a Boston University endocrinologist who according to NBC „almost singlehandedly created the vitamin D sales and testing industry“.

A juxtaposition between the chart with the most often mentioned supplements and the chart with the most often mentioned companies underlines the finding that the promotional efforts in this area have revolved around particular ingredients: companies have concentrated on promoting how the ingredients tackle health issues. Due to the lack of brand awareness, products become commoditised, which leads to consumers having difficulties differentiating between brands. And since 80% of Internet users in the US alone search for health-related topics online, brand awareness is especially important in online media.

This goes to show that companies need to step up their promotional activities in this sphere. They should establish themselves as thought leaders at a time when different studies on the same supplements often have different results, which can confuse consumers. Moreover, the articles reporting on negative findings tend to diffuse more quickly: for instance, among the top trending articles on social media include “The food supplement that ruined my liver”, “Vitamin D, the Sunshine Supplement, Has Shadowy Money Behind It” and “Those Vitamin And Mineral Supplements You’re Taking Make No Difference To Your Health”.

When reporting on such studies, journalists often don’t include the results proving that supplements could have many benefits. This is also where pharma companies need to position themselves as thought leaders: the buyers of their consumer products should have the full picture. Firms need to go beyond the market analyses and their own websites, and secure permanent positions in the voluminous coverage. In this way, the main topics in the conversation won’t circle around just specific ingredients, but also around specific brands. And the first step is deep-diving into the debate through sophisticated media analytics and measurement.