14 February 2019 Courier Feb/Mar 2019

The age of peak me

New startup brands are taking advantage of the increasingly blurred boundaries between beauty and wellness. Do their supplements, pills, powders and drinks really make us fitter, smarter and more beautiful?

Recently, a long queue of people snaked down and around a street in New York City’s SoHo neighbourhood in the cold. Dressed head to toe in streetwear and designer labels, most of the twenty- and thirty-somethings patiently waited for entry into a bright, white store filled with DJs, tattoo artists and a mezcal bar.

Highsnobiety, the fashion and media brand in the business of selling hype, was co-hosting the event. So far, so normal – just another product launch. And yet people weren’t there for a pair of the latest limited-edition sneakers but, rather, a sprayable anti-stress fragrance made by The Nue Co, a wellness brand that makes dietary supplements.

Never mind that no one at the launch looked particularly stressed out. How have vitamin and supplement companies become cool?

A new kind of capsule collection

Brands such as The Nue Co aren’t like any vitamin companies that have been around before. Their products look nothing like blister packets of Well Woman tablets or plastic tubs of sticky multivitamins. From the brown glass bottles reminiscent of expensive fragrances and scientific tinctures to the slick branding and e-commerce journeys they take customers on, everything about these brands is considered. Unlike the vitamins and supplements stocked at places like Holland & Barrett, they scream luxury and wellness.

The success of The Nue Co – and other brands entering this space – is in large part because of the rebranding of alternative medicine as ‘wellness’. Today, the pursuit of mental and physical health is no longer sanctimonious. It’s cool.

People are drinking less (the number of UK adults who consume alcohol is the lowest since 2005) and spending more on fitness, an industry that is now worth over £24bn in the US. The concept of ‘biohacking’ has gone from a wince-inducing Silicon Valley buzzword to something a wider community of health and fitness enthusiasts are exploring. It’s not just nerds and hippies that want to game their nutrition to get an edge, whether that’s professionally, athletically or aesthetically.

Encompassing the myriad products and services aiming to preserve the health of our minds and bodies, the wellness industry is now growing at 6.4% – roughly twice the rate of the world’s economy. In 2017, the sector’s estimated worth hit £3.3tn. According to The Nue Co’s 29-year-old founder Jules Miller, dietary supplements are one of the fastest growing contributors in this space. People seem more keen than ever to take them. In the US, the vitamin industry’s largest market, the number of adults taking dietary supplements has reached 75% of the population – up from 65% in 2009.

Today, it’s estimated that around 90,000 products are available for Americans looking to up their nutritional intake. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for startups to build supplement brands that consumers can latch on to as part of a modern luxury lifestyle.

‘Good looking science’

To do this they’ll need to find customers who think what they’re selling is value for money, showing them exactly how they will feel the benefits.

When Ritual, a supplement brand for women, launched its first major advertising campaign in the second half of 2018, it took the sceptics head-on. Positioning its product as sitting above any kind of passing wellness fad, it aimed to demonstrate that its products are supported with hard evidence. ‘Just good looking science,’ ran the tagline.

‘Our obsession with science and research is what makes people trust our products,’ says Katerina Schneider, Ritual’s 33-year-old founder. She quit her job as a venture capitalist after seeing companies such as the eyewear brand Warby Parker and the mattress brand Casper disrupt stagnant categories, and figured she could to the same with vitamins.

Three years on, her brand has over 93,000 followers on Instagram. ‘We have an in-house scientific team led by a Harvard trained physiologist and our VP of research and development has a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. [We also] have an advisory board made up of medical doctors, nutritionists and scientists from very different disciplines, informing our thinking around clinical studies and product development.’

Ritual is not the only new entrant to offer up such extensive evidence to support its claims. HVMN, which launched in 2014 and creates sports nutrition supplements, is working with the US military to test how one of its products can enhance cognitive and physical performance in extreme altitudes. Its website is littered with scientific footnotes, throwing weight behind some of its claims.

Elysium Health, which launched its flagship anti-ageing pill Basis in 2015, has even gone so far as to commission its own medical studies. Founded by Leonard Guarente, an MIT professor, and Eric Marcotulli, a former Sequoia Capital partner, the brand has received a ‘Seal of Approval’ from Good Housekeeping, a leading authority on product testing. In January, Elysium announced it would be sponsoring Good Housekeeping’s new ‘Wellness Lab’, which will test fitness programmes and other health products.

‘We’ve published a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomised study – gold standard from a [pharmaceutical trial] design standpoint, to show that Basis can reverse the decline of NAD+ [nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, a compound which keeps humans alive],’ Marcotulli explains. ‘It’s important for us to deliver messages that are clinically validated.’

However, some of Elysium’s claims are on the wilder side of the supplement industry: it reckons that people can add years to their lives by taking its pills, which contain compounds derived from blueberries and milk.

Old ingredients, new tricks?

If blueberries and milk sound a bit run-of-the-mill, that’s because it kind of is. The majority of ingredients being used by these new wave supplement brands – turmeric, maca, cherries, black pepper – while perhaps not mainstream, are nothing new at all. This has benefits: it’s much easier to substantiate the perks of something that’s been around for aeons – and to find Harvard-educated medical professionals that will agree with these claims. Even companies offering blood, microbiome and DNA testing aren’t really offering anything new.

People spend more on products during economic booms, but during lean times the cost of new luxury supplements may be prohibitive for many existing customers. Still, it’s possible to find cheaper alternatives by using ingredients from less glamorous retailers like Amazon and mixing them together. For example, customers could switch the £70 ‘Why am I so effing tired?’ supplement from Gwyneth Paltrow’s e-commerce lifestyle brand Goop with a £31.50 jar of Brain Force Plus (so long as they’re comfortable with the fact that they are sold by Infowars, the far-right news site created by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones).

Brand beauty

The supplements industry offers an education in the power of branding. Paltrow doesn’t have to worry about Goop’s customers seeking out a better deal by purchasing Brain Force Plus, because her customers share Goop’s values and outlook on the world. Brand loyalty has served Goop well on many occasions, even when it was called out for giving misleading, sometimes unsafe and often ridiculous health advice (for example, the jade stones it sold for vaginal insertion).

For The Nue Co’s Miller, ‘The world is governed by brands. It’s not unique to the supplement industry – it’s happened to mattresses and every other industry out there that has been ripe for disruption. People need to have an affinity with the products they consume, it’s not just about pretty packaging. It’s about trust and it’s about feeling like that brand is doing something good for you and good for the planet. That’s what luxury really is today.’

Miller is no stranger to the inner workings of the dietary supplements industry. Her grandfather helped develop B12 supplements, and she has worked with ‘the best in class’ labs to make her perfume and dietary supplement products, free from the fillers and bulking agents that many other vitamin companies use.

This year she is planning to launch a stimulant nootropic. According to Miller, it can effectively replace the effect of drinking two coffees – minus the caffeine. She is tight-lipped on the actual ingredients but says the product has been years in the making. When ‘Nootrofocus’ launches, possibly as soon as February, it could become the startup supplement industry’s most high-tech offering yet.

As well as the credibility afforded by top manufacturing partners, Miller also has a solid foundation story. A chronic IBS sufferer, she says she cured her bloating and discomfort by taking a specific concoction of ingredients. They worked so fantastically for her that she now sells them herself – called The Nue Co’s Prebiotic + Probiotic powder.

The Nue Co has made sure it is clear about expressing exactly who the brand’s customer is. The average customer basket contains just three products, reaching £195 in value. While Miller acknowledges her products sit at a price point that is simply much too high for a lot of people, she remains unconcerned. The Nue Co is selling to a specific demographic. ‘Our customers are extremely busy people, so they need that element of convenience,’ she says. ‘We launched our personalised subscription model and about half of our revenue is coming from that at the moment.’

Around 25% comes from partnerships with third-party retailers such as Goop and Net A Porter, which Miller credits as being ‘the first luxury fashion store that saw the wellness category within the beauty category’. Specifically, these brand partnerships also aim to strengthen The Nue Co’s brand positioning.

When The Nue Co launched in 2017, it did so with an exclusive partnership with Net A Porter for two months. ‘It was the best thing we ever did, positioning us alongside our target customer,’ Miller reflects. ‘Right now, this concept is almost a given. But two years ago people couldn’t understand why I wasn’t launching through Whole Foods or gyms. Our business alone with Net A Porter has grown over 40% from one year to the next.’

Sticking with the tribe

Evermore, a UK supplements brand founded by Alessandra Sollberger in 2017, is guided by the same principle. Prior to launching the brand, the 29-year-old’s CV essentially reads as a who’s who of elite institutions: she studied at Oxford, was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, worked in private equity at Blackstone Group and was a venture investor at Mosaic Ventures.

She was also an early investor in Bitcoin, turning £2,700 into £80,000. The money went towards launching Evermore, which sells tablets packed with ingredients such as spirulina, guarana, baobab and more. As it is the case with Goop, The Nue Co and many other vitamin and supplement brands, all of these ingredients could be found elsewhere if customers didn’t like the Evermore brand or if they found it too expensive.

Sollberger also doesn’t believe it’s necessary to go chasing customers who don’t ‘get’ her brand. She isn’t approaching the buyers at Boots for shelf space (nor does she think her brand would perform well in this kind of retail environment).

By tightly controlling its sales channels (Evermore’s pills are currently only available to buy on its website), the brand only has to worry about proving itself to its core customer base. Indeed, Sollberger says customer reviews are generally positive, with many saying they notice a positive difference within two weeks.

‘Growing up in Switzerland, I trained as an athlete, so I knew a lot about nutrition. But when I got here I couldn’t find any brand I trusted. I remember going into Holland & Barrett and thinking, “These do not look legit”,’ Sollberger says, explaining she stopped taking vitamins altogether for a period when she was unable to find a brand she could connect with.

‘I started thinking about how to provide supplements that are high quality but are also transparently and sustainably sourced, because I personally care about that. We [the Evermore customer] are go-getters, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously either.’

Evermore’s pills come in handbag-sized tubes with a risqué tagline – ‘Swallow, don’t spit’ – on the labels. The brand’s website is packed with information about where exactly the ingredients have come from, a method Ritual and other new supplement brands also favour, and interviews with nutritionists and athletes for her customers to be inspired by.

‘We really want to put something out there that people understand and that fits their lives,’ says Sollberger. ‘It’s really part of how they live their life.’