Why are immune support supplement sales dropping?

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Written by:

VP, Client Experience

How studying meaning can reveal the “why” behind market shifts and protect you from making hasty decisions.

In 2020, COVID-19 was sighted as a major cause for a massive spike in immune support supplement sales.

In fact, articles like this projected that the growth potential for 2020 would be the highest in a decade. Publications like the Nutrition Business Journal went as far as to project that immune support supplement sales would spike above 25% (up from 8.5% growth in the previous year).

But, something changed.

People stopped buying.

In fact, market data from the last 6 months indicates that sales of immune support supplements have dropped by more than 30%.

To better understand the “why” behind this drastic shift in the market, we turned to our MotivBase Trends platform to study the changing meanings that are shaping the culture of immune support supplements.

The difference a year can make.

We began by looking back at the culture of immune support supplements a year ago, during the peak of the sales spike. Immediately, we can see that the cultural data and the market data did not align. While purchase behavior was showing growth, cultural data was indicating high levels of volatility in consumer culture.

From an anthropological perspective, a topic (like immune support supplements) is mature when it is consistently understood to mean the same set of things to large groups of people.

Conversely, a topic is considered immature when the meanings that it stands for are constantly evolving or exhibit inconsistent patterns.

But when a topic is volatile, this is our AI system saying that there is so much inconsistency, we can’t calculate growth. We can estimate where it sits on the maturity curve, but there is so much disagreement or new meanings entering the cultural universe, that we can’t confidently predict that a topic is increasing in relevance with consumers. In other words, people might have been buying immune support supplements, but they didn’t agree upon or deeply understand “why”

This can also be seen in some of the tensions that present themselves in the topic universe or the dominant meanings that consumers were associating with immune support supplements back in 2020.

If we zoom in on the dominant topics that were shaping the culture of immune support supplements in 2020, we can see that consumers were unsure about what the “right solution” was.

On one hand, they are looking to vitamins and multivitamins as a potential way to bolster immunity. But we can also see that food (and more specifically the role of nutrition) is also very prominent in the culture.

The more we explore the meanings, the more we can see that consumers were going through an awakening, where they were starting to become increasingly aware of the role they needed to play (through diet in particular) in supporting or protecting their immune system.

But they are unsure on what is truly, the best solution.

This lack of clarity is also very present in the Ethnographic DNA of the consumers who were most engaged in the culture of immune support supplements.

In 2020, these were people motivated to take steps to enhance their longevity, and protect the wellbeing of their loved ones. They were in the throws of COVID-19. They were scared. They were looking for ways to take control of their health, but in the process they were deeply confused by the product information that was being presented.

But at the core, people in 2020 were fearful of harm, occurring to themselves, and their loved ones. They were trying multiple solutions, but were unclear on if they were actually taking the right steps.

The big supplement shift in 2021.

When we fast forward to the present, and examine the culture of immune support supplements, we can see two important shifts in the culture.

The first is that while the maturity has stabilized and slightly increased, the size of the population that this culture is relevant to, has actually decreased.

Secondly, we can see in the topic universe, that unlike 2020, the dominant meanings that consumers are associating with this culture, are much more educated and nuanced than a year ago.

Consumers are clearly being more selective in the choices they are are making as indicated with topics like “certain supplements” or the direct association now being made to Vitamin B and its role in keeping the immune system strong, making new red blood cells, and transporting oxygen throughout the body.

The association with vitamins and supplements has decreased. But more importantly, the conversation has shifted from what foods should be eaten less (and what supplements should be used) to what nutrient rich foods (like flax seeds) should be eaten more (in lieu of relying on supplements).

In other words, while COVID-19 may have driven a large number of consumers to purchase immune support supplements, it also drove them to educate themselves on how they could truly bolster their immunity.

This can also be seen in the Ethnographic DNA for 2021.

The key driver is no longer fear of harm to you or your loved ones. It is fear of falling prey to a vested agenda. People are wrestling with doubt in the “system”, and wrestling with the belief that the medical industry is designed to profit from our sickness.

But most importantly, the dominant motivation is one that says that the solution is most likely not entirely encapsulated in a pill or gummy.

If you want to regain control of your body and health you need to embrace a more holistic approach to your wellbeing.

More Money. More Problems.

Normally, our clients are excited when we see more affluent consumers engaging in relevant culture. But in this particular instance, the drastic shift in the type of consumer that engaged with immune support supplements in 2020 versus 2021 is troubling for the supplement industry.

In 2020, consumers from households making less than $50,000 were very dominant in this culture. When we take this into consideration, with our topic universe and ethnographic DNA in mind, we can ascertain that COVID-19 drove a large number of consumers to try immune support supplements as they were fearful for their health.

But this also drove large numbers of people to question the validity and efficacy of immune support supplements.

One year later, in 2021 we can see that lower income consumers abandoned this culture in droves.

Instead, the culture is dominated by households making +100k.

But these consumers are not willing to accept that any or all immune support supplements will truly help them better control their health. Instead, they are embracing a holistic approach. They are gravitating to natural solutions. They are looking to nutrient dense foods to bolster their immunity.

This is where they are spending their money.


Our research technology specializes in studying meaning, and more accurately predicting growth opportunities for our clients. One of our key roles in 2020 was preventing our clients from getting distracted by short-term behavior, or getting enamored with things that were garnering a lot of mentions.

Focusing on top 10 lists of what people are saying or only focusing on what people are doing will never give you the full picture of what is happening in culture.

Cultural data, like the data above, can help us better understand the emotional journey that consumers are going on, to better predict the longevity and potential for a trend.

The reality is that while COVID-19 may have forced a group of consumers to over engage in the immune support supplement category for the short term, the culture was very small, and not showing culture growth to prove that this sales growth would continue.

If you are a client, I suggest that you run a search on “immune support” and “skin health” to see a culture that is not only growing consistently, but that is going to break into the mainstream in the next 12-24 months.

This is why adding an anthropological lens to your business is so important.

What do you want to research today?