It is inconceivable that immunity won’t remain a raised priority in people’s minds for years to come, says Andy Wardlaw, who argues that brands must respond now.

MMR Research recently (April 22) ran a special online broadcast called Winning in Immunity, which featured an interview with Jake Schneider, Head of Product Innovation at the Biotiful Dairy.

The company’s range of kefir products have recently broken free from their niche and are becoming a destination in many UK and US retailers as people make the link between gut and immune health. “Retailers are seeing the numbers to back it up and are supporting consumers at fixture” said Jake.

He acknowledged how COVID-19 has given gut health a pointed edge. “Immunity gives something really tangible [in gut health] for consumers,” he pointed out.

“Scientifically, we know that a balanced gut is one that reacts when it needs to towards genuine pathogenic bacteria, and one that doesn’t overreact in an allergic fashion.”

The evidence mounts

Even before coronavirus, the momentum behind immune health was noteworthy. Research published in December 2019 by Wellmune, part of the Kerry Group, spanning 11,000 consumers across 14 global markets found that nearly two thirds (63%) placed immune health ahead of supporting healthy bones and joints, good digestive health, improve energy levels and heart health.

New research undertaken by MMR in association with TOLUNA in April 2020 found that immunity was now the number one health concern in China and South Africa, and only beaten by heart health in UK and US.

All of which suggests that the tectonic plates are shifting in the world of immune health and so it is vital that companies do not hold back from innovating in this space.

World’s biggest campaign

Massive government and media publicity around the coronavirus have created what is effectively the world biggest ever advertising campaign, where the key message is ‘you’re vulnerable’.

Hence new peaks in demand for hand sanitisers, antibacterial cleaning sprays and food supplements. But also in other, associated categories, such as fermented foods (kefir to kombucha), dairy and non-dairy immunity shots, juices high in vitamin C, herbal tonics and teas

For companies seeking to respond to increased demand, they must consider immunity as a growing demand space in their category, with an urgent need to get answers to the what, when, where, how, who and why. What is the occasion? Breakfast is typically the time when people invest in their health – which is why dairy and juice products excel in this space. Should immunity become an all-day concern, it is likely that other categories will need to get in on the act, such as snacking.

Brands must also consider how COVID-19 will affect the balance between taste and efficacy. In future, it is quite likely that people will respond better to products that provide greater sensory assurance of efficacy – even at the expense of taste cues. Similarly, there is likely to be a preference for science over nature, causing greater acceptance of fortified products – a recent example being Yakult, who have had the foresight to add vitamins D and E to a formula largely untouched for 20 years. (Recent trials have suggested vitamin D could play a role in supporting the immune system against respiratory infection.)

Efficacy that’s felt

Evaluation of products playing in the immunity space revealed how some brands are successfully playing in this area.

Consider, for example, the evocative language used by innocent’s Citrus Shield drink to reinforce a feeling of protection, subsequently backed up by the complex, intense flavour delivery with lasting, warming ginger notes indicating the active properties of the product.

Obvious security seals deployed on packaging were highlighted as further ways to strengthen communication of robustness and integrity – executed by products such as RE: NOURISH Immunity Soup, which also borrows semiotic cues from medicine, whilst letting the vividness of its natural origins shine though.

Not all players are getting it entirely right, however. Mighty Gum’s Immunity Boosters offer medicinal reassurance across the pack experience but fail to deliver on the vibrancy of the elderberry, a trending ingredient linked to boosting immune health.

More convincing experiences

With immunity set to be a key demand space across multiple categories beyond dairy, it is important that brands consider how they can more forcefully convince the consumer of the product benefit during the consumption experience – getting the balance between good taste and expectation of efficacious cues exactly right.

In the new world order, with immunity a much higher priority than it has ever been, convincing consumers that the product is doing something is more important than ever, so understanding the exact sensory cues that communicate efficacy is going to be critical.