What Came First, the Evidence or the Marketing Plan?

Making any sort of claim about the benefits of a product, be it food-based or otherwise, can be a double-edged sword. It may be marketing gold, but are you building your house on sand? Tom Smart takes a deeper look at the latest scientific food trends.  

Kale. Protein snacks. Low-carb diets. Fermented foods. Coconut oil. Food trends come and go. Some stick around for a while trying to cement a place in consumer culture, while others are washed away into the culinary ether quicker than you can say Unicorn Food. It takes skill to position a product correctly in order to ensure it succeeds long-term.

So what transforms a trend into a movement, a movement into a lifestyle choice? Look a bit deeper into any of the above and you realise that the exponential rise in popularity was linked to the sudden unearthing of potential health benefits or sustainability perks. An unheard-of leafy green dense in antioxidants. Jars of cabbage packed full of potentially-beneficial probiotics. An oil that could assist with weight loss thanks to ‘healthy’ fats. These products got a science-based rebrand that positioned them as the next magic bullet, and it worked. For a time. Their longevity in the spotlight was governed by just how well these claims stacked up to testing.

The world is growing accustomed to fact-free claims: to date the Washington Post has tracked over 10,000 made by the U.S. President since he first took office. Cynicism has become part of the modern-day survival skillset, yet unsubstantiated food messages continue to crop up and the public appear happy to swallow them, leading to considerable increases in revenue on certain products. Why? Because they make themselves appear beneficial to the consumer, and in a way that sounds scientific.

The fact is the majority of people can’t argue with science. From a young age we are trained to trust and accept its findings as part of our education, even if we struggle to understand it. This makes it an incredibly powerful marketing tool, and when pitched right ensures that even the savvy consumer casts their regular aspersions aside and buys in, quite literally.

But while the crest of the wave can be reached by sounding plausible, history shows that riding it into the sunset of success is an altogether more difficult proposition. With popularity comes intense scrutiny, and if you don’t have the evidence to back up your claims, where does this leave your company and its products? A quick study of the Atkins Diet will show just how damaging a lack of scientific evidence can be. Written in the early 70s, a plethora of unsubstantiated health claims released in 2002 put it firmly at the forefront of the weight loss charge. It promised so much; eat all the fatty foods you like, just no carbs. Books flew off the shelves and at its peak in 2003 one in eleven U.S citizens was reportedly following the plan which led to a flurry of low-carb products hitting the shelves. Continual calls for substantial and scientific proof of sustained weight-loss were ignored and failed to materialise, and once further damaging claims of potential negative effects surfaced the plan sank back into the dieting cast-offs bin, leaving Atkins Nutritional filing for bankruptcy just two years after its meteoric rise.

Fast forward 15 years and we are in the midst of another trend: the Keto diet. On the surface it looks remarkably similar to Atkins, however the Keto diet comes with an array of robust scientific language which appears to add credibility to its argument. Once again however a lack of proof is beginning to undermine it; perhaps this will be the next in a long line of trends to be shelved.

It isn’t just the dieting industry where handfuls of health claims are being thrown against walls in the hope that one sticks. Functional foods, CBD, plant-based diets; all have had various claims associated with them over the years. A quick Google search of the benefits of kombucha (explored in our previous blog post) would lead one to think they required little other sustenance in their lives. But mainstream success is now calling for a marketing shift; the public demanding claims become facts and hearsay is substantiated. It feels like make or break territory for a number of products in the natural products industry.  

When credible research does emerge, it often has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The EAT-Lancet commission was a piece of collaborative work between EAT, a leading Norwegian Think Tank, and the well-respected medical journal The Lancet. It outlined its proposed diet for a more sustainable future, including a 95% reduction in beef consumption in favour of plant-based options. This seemed like the vindication the vegan industry needed, but quickly after release news emerged of potential funding by individuals and companies with a clash of interests, as well as a discrediting of the ‘independent’ panel chosen to compile the paper. The commission took steps to dispel these rumours, but the report never achieved the level if impact it could have because of this.

Every producer wants to believe in the claims they make about their product, and waves of popularity drummed up by magic bullets or planet-friendly initiatives can be incredibly profitable. But a lack of scientific evidence to back claims can be equally as damning in the long run. What were once niche markets are now Big Business, and that means substantial scepticism from increasingly-aware members of the general public. In our opinion, building your products on a bedrock of credible evidence is the key to long-term success.