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Wellness Brands Hope for an 'Immunity' Boost in the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Wellness brands are seeing surging demand but risk a backlash or even legal trouble if they tackle Covid-19 head on. The solution: stay-at-home tips and lots of talk about ‘immunity boosting’ products.
Collage by BoF
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — News about the coronavirus pandemic was impossible to avoid online last week. Homebound readers were greeted with wall-to-wall Covid-19 headlines whether they logged onto The New York Times or TMZ. Even Victoria's Secret's website confronted shoppers with a pop-up announcing that the lingerie brand had closed its stores and e-commerce operation due to the virus.

Then there was Goop. The March 17 edition of the site’s popular newsletter made no mention of the virus; its subject line (Hibernation Nation) and subject matter (“research, recipes, anxiety antidotes, and more for staying healthy and keeping your immunity up”) could be interpreted as a nod to pandemic prep, but also a late-winter staycation.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and lifestyle brand at first seems like an odd candidate to be one of the last remaining oases of pre-pandemic calm. Consumer demand for health and wellness products and advice is soaring as the virus spreads.

But the pandemic presents a conundrum for the booming wellness industry, where many brands have adopted Goop’s strategy of merging commerce with advice, articles and other content. While a few brands have leaned into the crisis — Sakara, for one, has ramped up the marketing of its home food delivery service, offering discount codes to entice new users — many more are adopting a lighter touch, promoting “immunity boosting” products and releasing articles and photo spreads featuring loungewear, in-home beauty routines, and other stay-at-home guides.

Brands of all types are struggling with striking the right tone in their marketing as Covid-19 kills thousands and shuts down economies worldwide. Wellness brands, which even in normal times face scrutiny from both the public as well as watchdog agencies over their health claims, must tread especially carefully.

Some consumers feel overwhelmed with coronavirus content and want an escape, while others might see the trappings of many wellness brands — photos of influencers cosied up in plush sweatsuits in well-appointed mansions — as out of touch.

“There are certainly people on our list for emailing who want more information directly on coronavirus, and others who were like, ‘I don't want to hear about it or think about it at all! I want to escape,’” said Goop Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen. “We’re trying to please everyone. It’s difficult.”

Goop operates as part-lifestyle publication, part-e-commerce platform, with frequent overlapping between the two entities. One recent article by Dr Gerda Endemann, the site’s senior director of science and research, explores the relationship between Vitamin C and immunity, before plugging Goop’s $60 Vitamin C-rich GOOPGLOW Morning Skin Superpowder. The article does not mention Covid-19.

The problem is when these products are presented as an alternative to reputable medical care.

Content helps wellness brands build trust with consumers. Much of the content they produce — stories about practising positivity or yoga — will resonate with anxious readers, whether or not they directly address Covid-19.

“Many of these communities work to make their users feel good, or to improve their self-image. They are positive environments, which is appealing in times of uncertainty,” said Renee DiResta, technical research manager at Stanford’s Internet Observatory. “The problem is when these products are presented as an alternative to reputable medical care.”

Poosh, the holistic wellness site Kourtney Kardashian launched in 2019, published a story about creating DIY hand sanitiser, but has otherwise largely stayed away from Covid-19 content. Instead, articles about the best pyjamas for lounging and plants that enrich home air quality appear to target self-quarantined readers.

Wellness brands enter murkier territory when they pitch products directly to consumers worried about coronavirus, DiResta said. Many appear to have settled on “immunity” as a code word to appeal to Covid-19 anxiety without promising to address the virus itself, which has no treatment that has been proven effective. Immunity-boosting superfoods, powders and pills have not been shown to reduce transmission, and experts say social distancing is the only sure way to avoid infection.

“Immunity means something different today than it did yesterday,” said Allen Adamson, the co-founder of Metaforce, a branding consulting firm. “Yesterday, immunity might have referred to fighting the common cold and being healthier and building up your resistance to sniffles. Today, when you use the word ‘immunity’ it's hardwired … ‘What if this could help protect me from the virus?’ I think that's a dangerous place for these brands to tread.”

Moon Juice, best known for products like its "adaptogenic herb" anti-stress supplements, has promoted its usual powders and recipes. The brand's founder, Amanda Bacon, posted her own 10 commandments on boosting immunity to her Instagram story, as well as a post with a photo captioned, "notes from an immunomodulation enthusiast," which then outlined a variety of strategies and supplements to take to avoid compromising your immune system. Bacon told BoF she "shared my immunity protocol before Covid-19 was being taken seriously, before our government had any recommendations in place," and that she encourages people to "FaceTime, Zoom, write letters, call each other, and be intimate in you time of separation."

Today, when you use the word 'immunity' it's hardwired.

Elle MacPherson’s WelleCo brand posted on its Instagram page recipes for its “Super Elixir,” which “serves up your daily dose of immune support.” In a statement to BoF, a Welleco spokesperson said, “as circumstances continue to evolve, we feel this is about internal wellness, with us as individuals, as a company and as a community. We see this as an on-going wellness journey — and not just a virus cycle.”

Even Dr. Smood, a fast casual health-food restaurant with locations in New York and Miami, sent an email to subscribers on March 20 with the subject line "boost your immunity." Between mentions of its $10 detox juices and tumeric chicken salads, the brand tells customers the foods will help you "stay healthy and help maintain a strong immune system to prevent disease."

Brands could get in trouble with regulators if they took the extra half-step and claimed these products could ward off Covid-19. Supplement sellers are barred from promising their products can cure specific diseases, but can make claims about boosting immunity, reducing anxiety or other more-ambiguous benefits.

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission sent letters to seven companies selling "fraudulent products" claiming to treat or prevent Covid-19, including Herbal Amy Inc. and The Jim Bakker show, an evangelical Christian television programme that hawks end-of-days survival products. The FDA said it is "particularly concerned that products that claim to cure, treat or prevent serious diseases like Covid-19 may cause consumers to delay or stop appropriate medical treatment, leading to serious and life-threatening harm."

A spokesperson for the FDA said they are monitoring social media and other marketing, but are not sending additional warning letters at this time.

[Wellness brands] have to be really careful that they tread very lightly right now.

Instead of focusing on the kinds of supplements consumers can buy to “boost” their immunity, brands may be better off sticking to the lifestyle side of their businesses, with posts about self-care and home improvement strategies. The products that have sold out on Goop during the pandemic include a $34 package of sustainable toilet paper rolls, the company said.

“[Wellness brands] have to be really careful that they tread very lightly right now, but the wellness and meditation and calming stuff is fair game, and they should lean into that,” said Adamson of Metaforce. “People are stressed to the max by this, but any sort of overt immunity play, even if they’ve done it before, I think would expose them and could cause a backlash.”

In recent days, Goop has begun to post more stories that speak directly to Covid-19. For example, a note to consumers outlines the preventative steps the company is taking to protect its employees and shoppers (closing retail locations, continuing to pay staff) while another story outlines how readers can help support vulnerable communities during the pandemic without risking others’ wellbeing.

“We're just trying to support [everyone],” Goop’s Loehnen said. “We're not pushing any miracle here.”

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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