The term “snake oil” now a catch-all for any scam good with a flashy sales pitch originated in the days when con artists would roam from town to town by wagon, shilling useless health elixirs to unwitting marks.
Today, their spiritual successors have a bit more technology at their disposal. They’ve traded in the slick speeches and stages for blogs and websites, making for an online media universe of holistic cures and herbal remedies that’s notoriously rife with sometimes dangerous misinformation.
That bad reputation is one of the biggest challenges faced by a new startup called Care/of, which offers personalized vitamin and supplement regimens on a monthly subscription basis.
As the media industry’s attention remains fixed on fake news, Care/of is tackling a problem that most journalists would probably find familiar: How do you build trust in a space plagued by embellishment or outright lies and bad actors looking to make a quick buck?
“When it comes to anything health-related particularly vitamins and supplements that you are putting into your body there is a huge trust factor involved,” said the company’s co-founder and CEO, Craig Elbert. “What’s happened in the industry is that in the past decade or so, that trust has eroded.”
There’s good reason for that erosion. Over the past several years, a series of high-profile scandals and negative studies have tainted the industry’s public image. From phony ingredients to illness scares to pyramid scheme allegations, consumers have plenty cause to be skeptical of the industry’s promises.
A recent survey from Nutrition Business Journal asked supplement customers to rank the industry’s trustworthiness relative to other public institutions. The publication found that it fared only slightly better than “big business” and “congress” and that was only among the people who actually buy supplements.
“Compared to other industries, it’s pretty far down,” said Rick Polito, the trade journal’s editor-in-chief.
But even as the industry’s credibility has decayed, business has boomed for the most part. The U.S. vitamin and supplement market is estimated to be worth around $37 billion as of 2015, and the journal is projecting continued growth through at least 2020.
Care/of wants to fill that role while cutting out the trip to the drug store altogether.
The company employs an advisory board that includes doctors from Harvard, Tufts and Northwestern along with a practicing naturopath to sift through available research around each of its products’ effectiveness and condense them into a single score.
That information is then used to power an algorithm that spits out sets of recommended vitamins and supplements tailored to an individual’s health goals. Customers simply fill out a questionnaire, pick and choose from the subsequent suggestions and then wait for monthly shipments of personalized daily packets.
One of the most novel aspects of the business plan is that while the company won’t offer anything tied to flimsy evidence, it does include supplements with inconclusive or newly emerging scientific backing. In those cases, a label is appended that makes that professional uncertainty clear to customers.
“I’ve realized in the past year that there’s a spectrum when it comes to science,” he said. “When you go into a vitamin store and see that it’s all weighted equally, you make a judgment like, ‘Okay, this is all hocus pocus. There’s nothing in here that works’ or you believe in everything. I think the reality is that most of us are more nuanced consumers.”
A wall of confusion
Like any media-savvy startup founder, Elbert has an inspiration-flash personal anecdote to serve as an origin story for the venture. In his case, it was a store run in search of vitamins and prenatal treatments for his wife that left him daunted by a wall of choices.
“[The vitamin store] bragged about having thousands of products on the shelves, but in terms of help navigating, I just had a store clerk who was probably paid a bit above minimum wage,” he said.
Looking for answers on the web can be similarly exhausting. Oftentimes, credible advice can be difficult to entangle from more dubious sources, and misinformation abounds. Promotional marketing copy is deceptively billed as news or blog posts, studies are singled out without mention of the more abundant ones to the contrary or unfounded claims are spread through user forums.
“There’s a significant amount of false information in terms of chat rooms and forums,” Alpert said. “Oftentimes it’s just over-amplifying one’s study when there might be ten to the contrary or a study with a tiny sample size.”
From that fateful shopping trip, the idea grew, and Elbert eventually left his job as a marketing executive at apparel retailer Bonobos to team with co-founder Akash Shah, a veteran of senior healthcare startup Hometeam.
The service opened its virtual doors last November with $3 million in backing from New York venture capital fund Juxtapose.
Silicon Valley supplement swarm
Elbert was by no means the first to see the tech potential in overhauling supplement sales.
The twin trends of a growing supplement use and the rise of niche-market e-commerce startups have turned the space into a crowded field. Among Care/of’s competitors are Zenamins, another box-a-month vitamin supplier; Ritual, which focuses on vitamins for women; and Elsyum, which claims to have developed a pill that will make you live longer.
Elbert said that Care/of’s focus on personalization and transparency set it apart from the fray.
The relatively low barrier of entry for companies in the industry is another reason consumer trust has become so broken, Polito said. In such a scattered, diverse industry, it’s easy for small companies to make a quick profit play then disappear entirely.
But the positive flipside of that environment for a company like Care/of is that it causes consumers to cling with particular loyalty to brand names in which they have faith, Polito said.
“People trust whatever brand they choose,” Polito said. “They don’t trust the industry, but they trust that brand.”
As Care/of looks to grow, building and maintaining that bond of trust will be chief among its concerns.