Having spent my entire career to this point working in the dietary supplement industry, I can tell you that dishonesty lurks at many levels within it, in some sectors more than others. While at times this can be disheartening, I also see it as an opportunity: There’s plenty of “white space” (marketing speak) for doing the right thing!
Indeed, if you’re considering launching a supplement company, or any type of brand at all, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you as a brand and product development consultant is that you practice straightforward honesty. Doing so will bring you greater fulfillment and help you grow your sales and profitability alongside. In many ways, it can make operating a business a whole lot easier.
Be the antidote to information asymmetry.
The persistence of dishonesty in the supplement industry, like a lot of industries (cosmetics comes to mind), has to do with something economists call “information asymmetry.” This means that the producers (here, the supplement brands) know more than the consumers. This allows the less ethically minded ones to get away with charging higher prices for lower-quality products.
Some might argue that information asymmetry isn’t always unethical, let alone avoidable. That’s true. After all, consumers can’t be expected to know everything about the products they shop for, or even as much as the producers do. If that were the case, the economy would grind to a halt. Consumers’ trust of producers is part of the lubricant that helps keep it moving.
But that trust is too often abused by producers. This is one of the reasons why I constantly push my clients to be more transparent –to be the antidote to information asymmetry. In general, if some piece of information is likely to make the consumer’s life better (e.g. easier) and it’s practical to do so, then I think it should be shared. If it’s good for consumers, it’s good for business.
This brings us to the debate over “proprietary blends.” Not that many years ago, few supplement brands disclosed the amount (i.e. weight) of each active ingredient in their multi-ingredient formulas on the product label. Instead, they would combine the ingredients into one or more “blends” and declare only the weight of each (hence, “proprietary”), as per FDA labeling requirements. Sport nutrition and weight-loss brands would, and frequently still do, give their blends titles (e.g. “Multi-Stage Protein Blend” or “Fat-Burning & Energy Blend”) to enhance consumer appeal.
Is this a bad thing? Not always.
If you’re hiding your formula behind a proprietary blend on the label because you invested a lot of time and money in R&D to ensure it delivers a satisfying user experience, and you’re concerned about it being copied by competitors, then I think it’s justified to protect it, much like Coca-Cola protects their formula and, for that matter, Kentucky Fried Chicken does the same. This doesn’t have to stop you from being perceived as a progressive, transparent brand by consumers. Far from it. If they ask why or object, start by simply telling them the truth!
On the other hand, if your motivation for using a proprietary blend is that you’re guilty of “window dressing”* and/or any of a number of other sleights of hand that are commonplace in the supplement industry, well, that’s bad business and I’d advise against it. You need a better product-development strategy for your brand.
[*“Window dressing” is when one or more ingredients is included in product formula in a low dose just so that it can appear on the label.]
Do the right thing!
To sum it up, as much as I’m a crusader of straightforward honesty, you can’t expect everyone to be honest all of the time. Humans aren’t wired that way. But to the extent that dishonest business practices exist, there will always be plenty of opportunities for your brand –often very lucrative ones– to do the right thing. If you need help finding them, get me at firstname.lastname@example.org. 🙂