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How to Overcome the Four Challenges to Marketing Disease-Specific Medical Nutrition

by Benoît Gouhier(more info)

listed in nutraceuticals, originally published in issue 200 - November 2012

With the increasing number of medical nutrition solutions for the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes, sarcopenia, HIV and obesity comes a new set of marketing challenges. While medical nutrition is gaining more widespread acceptance, it is nowhere close to being a top-of-mind solution among patients, pharmacists and physicians. Because medical nutrition is traditionally associated with malnutrition, marketers are challenged to not only define their product, but also to define an entire product category.

Disease-specific medical nutrition’ occupies the space between medications obtained through pharmacies and drug stores and health foods sold in supermarkets. Most health services and insurers currently don’t cover the cost of nutritional products for disease prevention or management. As such, consumers and patients become the final decision makers regarding the purchase of these products, often guided by the advice and recommendations of healthcare professionals. The result is a complex and competitive environment and decision-making process that poses real challenges for marketers.


Marketing Challenge #1:

Raise awareness for a new category, not just a new product

Strategy: Clarify the positioning of disease specific medical nutrition for consumers / patients and healthcare providers

Where previously medical nutrition was mainly used to address malnutrition, medical nutrition solutions are increasingly being developed to treat or prevent diseases. At the moment, healthcare professionals and consumers / patients aren't always aware of medical nutrition as a treatment option. How should they view such a product? Is it a ‘serious’, clinically proven medical product or a healthy, consumer product? Is it a drug or a functional food product like Actimel (aka DanActive)? All of this uncertainty demonstrates the need for building category awareness as well as product awareness.

Research shows that dieticians and nurses are generally familiar with medical nutrition products, but most doctors and specialists are not. While the latter acknowledge the importance of nutrition, they are relatively unaware of the potential for medical nutrition to treat or prevent a condition. As marketers, it becomes crucial to take into account this awareness gap when thinking about how to encourage a healthcare professional to recommend these products to their patients.

The first step is to carefully assess the current knowledge and perception of healthcare professionals. Depending on the existing awareness, it would be beneficial to educate them about:

  • The role of nutrition within the treatment paradigm;
  • The efficacy level that can be expected from medical nutrition products;
  • Patient types for whom medical nutrition could be relevant;
  • How to use medical nutrition products as a supplement to, or replacement for, current therapy;
  • Medical nutrition's working mechanism and potential risks in terms of side effects and interaction with other therapies.

When presented with a medical nutrition product for the first time, consumers are often unclear about whether it is a serious pharmaceutical product or a healthy food product. Can a ‘food product’ be as effective as a pharmaceutical pill or ointment? And if it is a food product, why is it more expensive than the healthy products from the supermarket?

When consumers are looking for a means to manage or prevent a health condition, they will often consult a healthcare professional to ask for their endorsement. However, consumers are also becoming savvier about alternative treatments thanks to readily accessible information via the Internet.

As with healthcare professionals, it becomes crucial to understand the current knowledge and perception of target consumers and inform them about:

  • The content of medical nutrition (e.g., ‘natural’ or ‘active’ ingredients);
  • The types of diseases and conditions that can benefit from nutritional therapies;
  • Practical guidelines about when and how to use medical nutrition products;
  • How to integrate therapies into diet and daily life.

Marketing challenge #2:

Utilize 'consumer pull' and 'healthcare professional push'

Strategy: Build a targeting strategy for disease specific medical nutrition

Medical companies need to target both consumers / patients and healthcare professionals simultaneously. Obviously these two target groups have a different level of knowledge and different needs, and therefore require a different marketing approach. But how does one allocate marketing activities to target both groups?

Major medical nutrition players used to focus on delivering medical nutrition for malnutrition (e.g. countering a lack of nutrients). And since these products are covered by health services and insurers in most countries, medical nutrition marketers have traditionally focused on healthcare professionals (i.e., prescribers).

It is crucial to make informed choices about whom to target beyond ‘prescribers’ and how to divide marketing budgets:

  • To what extent do consumers feel comfortable deciding for themselves whether to use a medical nutrition product for their condition?;
  • How much influence do healthcare professionals have in the choice of certain medical nutrition products? Which professionals are key?;
  • How does one design a "pull and push" strategy that balances investment in patient vs. healthcare professional communications?

Marketing challenge #3:

Create desire for disease-specific medical nutrition products

Strategy: Appeal to both consumers and healthcare providers

Medical nutrition companies must develop and market products to both healthcare professionals and consumers. But triggering both target groups is a challenge. While offering great health benefits is a prerequisite, ensuring compliance is also crucial (e.g., by making the product as pleasant-tasting and convenient to use).

Convincing everyone of the clinical or health benefits of the product is necessary. But the two target groups are convinced in very different ways: Healthcare professionals require compelling data supporting nutritional product efficacy, while consumers mostly rely on healthcare professionals and professional resources for advice and must ultimately “experience” the benefit of the product to continue its usage.

Healthcare professionals will often assess the clinical relevance of a medical nutrition product based on the same clinical endpoints as for drugs.

There are various reasons for this:

  • Healthcare professionals are most familiar with these clinical endpoints as reference points;
  • Clinical endpoints help them understand when and how to best use the product;
  • They are sometimes offered incentives for improved performance on these endpoints.

While the health benefits should be clear and understandable for consumers, they will most likely rely on recommendations from their healthcare professionals’ when deciding whether to initiate the use of a medical nutrition product. Since consumers typically pay for the product themselves (from their own pockets), they should clearly notice and feel the health benefits in the long term, whether it is evident to them as laypeople (e.g., observing benefits such as weight loss) or validated by a healthcare professional.

Unlike pharmaceutical treatments, there is an expectation that medical nutrition products will be at least somewhat pleasant and convenient. In developing medical nutrition products for disease prevention or treatment, R&D departments can easily focus only on offering great health benefits. However, even if healthcare professionals and consumers are convinced that your product offers them a relevant benefit, there are always other forces at work preventing them from using it, e.g. concerns about taste, convenience or price.

With these added criteria playing into compliance, products should also be designed and marketed with consideration for:

  • Taste: A pleasant taste is a pre-requisite to avoid rejection or fatigue;
  • Convenience: The product should be easy to purchase, use and integrate into daily life;
  • Stigma: Consumers want products that do not make them look or feel different from others;
  • Price: If it’s too expensive, consumers will not try it, nor will they comply with a long treatment regime.

Marketing challenge #4: 

Highlight the unique value of disease-specific medical nutrition

Strategy: Differentiate aggressively using benefits and positioning

Disease-specific medical nutrition products are often compared to a wide scope of alternatives from health foods to prescription drugs. Medical nutrition companies must not only differentiate from other nutritional options, but also from potential competitors belonging to different categories. How can you effectively differentiate from potential alternatives in consumers' and healthcare professionals' minds? How do you know whether your differentiators are strong enough to drive willingness to use or recommend?

Choosing the Right Differentiator There are various ways nutritional companies can differentiate their products from competitors (other medical foods, drugs and health foods) - differences in benefits, functional features or design, in communication and promotional activities, etc. All that said, a differentiator has to be relevant to current brand positioning and the business model. Which differentiator makes more sense for your products? How do you know that your differentiator is strong enough? It is crucial during the product development process to determine how a new medical nutrition product is perceived by consumers and healthcare professionals. Then optimize the positioning and communication strategy to ensure the success of the product.

Differentiating through Functional Benefits How to differentiate from health food products, regular exercise or a healthy diet:

  • Show efficacy when used in addition to exercise or healthy diet;
  • Present convincing evidence of the superior clinical effect of the medical nutrition product;

How to Differentiate from Drugs:

  • Address multiple health benefits instead of focus on one benefit, which might come across as ineffective;
  • Look for potential added benefits when used on top of, rather than in replacement of, current drugs;
  • Highlight other benefits of medical nutrition (convenience, safety, naturalness, less stigmatizing, etc.).

Differentiating through Positioning For example: ‘Medical’ vs. ‘consumer’ packaging

Besides differentiation on functional benefits, a product can be set apart through positioning (e.g., product packaging.) Using fewer colours gives a product a more ‘serious’ medical look, which might be perceived as more effective. However, it may also be considered to be less enjoyable to take and more stigmatizing.

On the other hand, a more consumer-oriented packaging may be more attractive and easier to spot alongside bland medical packaging on the shelves in a pharmacy.

Drawback of this type of packaging is that it can be difficult to convey relevant clinical effects and it might be harder to differentiate your product from health foods. The most suitable packaging route should therefore be based on both your brand positioning as well as on the positioning of the perceived competitive products.

Turn Challenges into Opportunities

In spite of the daunting challenges faced by this burgeoning and exciting new category, consumers and patients are hungry for options. Within these challenges lie significant opportunities to be the first and best to lay claim to the as yet uncharted territory of medical nutrition.


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About Benoît Gouhier

Benoît Gouhier is the moving force behind SKIM’s Consumer Health team, providing advanced market research solutions for medical nutrition, functional foods, OTC drugs and cosmeceuticals. With a passion for market research and an international mindset, Benoit has built extensive knowledge in the healthy nutrition business over the past 5 years. His areas of expertise lie in the field of product communication, new product development and pricing research. Benoit holds a Master in Food Science from the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture et d’Agroalimentaire d’Angers in France. He is currently based in SKIM’s Geneva office in Switzerland. And may be contacted on Tel: +41 22 710 0190; via his colleagues in London at +44 203 178 6910;



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