Brand Purpose Food & Drink Brand Strategy

How Zoe, Plenish et al are making the most of a global gut health moment


By Richard Draycott, Associate Editor

February 22, 2024 | 15 min read

As part of The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus, we take a deep dive into the hottest topic in the space, catching up with marketers from brands promoting a healthy microbiome.

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Brands fighting it out in gut health sector / Adobe Stock

Every decade has its food health trend. The 80s were about calorie counting. The 90s about avoiding fat. Weightwatchers points and Slimming World sins dominated the 2000s and, during the 2010s, we became obsessed with carbs and sugar.

The 2020s, however, are all about gut health.

Gut health, probiotic and ‘friendly’ bacteria brands such as Yakult, Bio-Kult and Activia have been on supermarket shelves for many years, somewhat unloved until recently. Let’s be honest: for many years, those odd-shaped little bottles in the dairy section aroused more suspicion than sales. Really, what could drinking one of those every day realistically do to make a person healthier and happier?

Accepted science today tells us that swigging the contents of said little bottle can actually do a lot for a human’s overall health and the gut health category has exploded with new products, platforms, brands, podcasts, blogs, YouTube and TikTok channels that have arrived to build the hype, and scientific evidence around taking a more holistic approach to diet.

Figures from Grand Market View show that the global gut health market is worth over $47bn. That figure is only set to head northwards to an indigestion-inducing $83.7bn by 2030 – as more brands and variants hit the market and promote the importance of shoveling billions of microscopic friendly bacteria into your mouth every day.

So, what is ultimately driving this growth?

Sarah Moores, head of marketing communications at UK high street retailer Holland & Barrett, tells The Drum: “The UK is having a gut health moment. Our recent consumer research revealed that 55% of people are now more actively aware of their gut health than last year and that’s not surprising, given that it’s a hot topic on socials, with #guttok content attracting more than 7bn views and #gutmicrobiome clocking over 730,000 TikTok views a week. This has also been supported by the sheer increase in knowledge around what we now know about the gut and how it works. In the last 10 years, more than 50,000 papers on the gut microbiome have been published.

“Here, we’re seeing that while many recognize signs of an unhappy gut, there is still a gap in knowledge for how to proactively look after the gut, particularly for long-term benefits. That is why we believe we have an important role to play by taking the lead in the gut health space.”

And there is certainly no shortage of brands vying to take the lead role in steering consumers towards better microbiomes – Yakult, Zoe, Bio-Kult, Plenish, Moju, Biotiful Kefir, Culturelle and Deeply Gut, to name but a few.

Regarded as a pioneer of the gut health sector, Yakult has been researching gut health for decades, as Reshma Patel, UK marketing manager at Yakult, explains: “We have been researching gut health and beneficial bacteria for over 85 years and were the first probiotic brand on the market. Although probiotics have been a known concept globally, particularly in Asian countries, for many years, the gut health space has gathered momentum recently. New research has come to light and the wider science community has acknowledged that gut health can influence specific aspects of health, such as digestion and overall wellbeing.

“For Yakult, it’s great that this awareness has grown and ultimately helps us deliver our philosophy to contribute to health and happiness for all. We’ve remained steadfast in upholding our scientific credentials and continue to invest in this growing area. This growth, of course, we know will attract new entrants and brands to the category, long and short term.”

The latest brand grabbing the gut health headlines – and, in itself, a masterclass in rapid onset brand-building – is Zoe, an interesting platform amalgam of science, digital tech and nutrition launched by high-profile entrepreneur Tim Spector.

Like Yakult, Zoe puts science firmly at the core of its brand and products. Its online platform assesses the microbiome of users and guides them on what combination of foods and nutrients will ultimately suit their physiology to create a healthy gut and, in turn, a healthy mind, body and soul.

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Viktoria Tchoudakov, vice-president of marketing and growth at Zoe, outlines why the brand is a welcome addition to the burgeoning microbiome zeitgeist: “What makes Zoe stand out is how we bring insights from cutting-edge scientific research to a field that is rife with misleading and outdated information. That’s why hearing from people like Professor Tim Spector, our chief scientist Dr Sarah Berry and our head nutritionist Dr Federica Amati has been so powerful in growing Zoe’s brand and increasing the awareness of the relationship between food and health and the critical role that gut health plays. The success of our top-charting Zoe Science & Nutrition Podcast shows that people are hungry for solid scientific evidence that’s insightful and, most importantly, actionable in their daily lives.”

Another brand-building presence in the gut health category is Plenish, now owned by drinks giant Britvic. Launched in 2012 by New Yorker Kara Rosen when she couldn’t find high-quality juices in the UK, the brand has grown from a small line of organic juices to a leader in plant-based drinks, with a range of health shots and milk.

Talking about the explosion in gut health products and how the Plenish brand is winning over consumers, Alex Petrogiannis, marketing and e-commerce director at Britvic, says: Like our brand, our target audience hasn’t changed, but has grown over time as more consumers look for proactive ways to stay healthy. We’ve built a range of products that seamlessly fit into our customer’s daily rituals and make it easy to work towards a healthier lifestyle. This includes our award-winning ’M*lks’ range, complete with our newly launched ’Barista M*lks,’ the UK’s only barista range free from added oils and additives commonly used by other brands.”

The category welcomed yet another innovative new product recently when Zoe announced its partnership with retailer Marks & Spencer to jointly launch the M&S x Zoe Gut Shot probiotic drink – another strong PR story to further ramp up choice and excitement across the category.

“When Marks & Spencer approached us to create a daily gut shot, responding to its customers’ demand for healthier, gut-friendly food, this aligned perfectly with our ambition to educate people about gut health,” says Zoe’s Tchoudakov. “Our science team worked hard to create a gut shot that we’re proud of from a nutrition science perspective, with carefully selected ingredients and over 5bn live cultures, which also tastes delicious. Marks & Spencer has already told us that the M&S x Zoe Gut Shot has been a very popular product and we have also heard from our members that many shops run out of the gut shot quickly. The product is resonating and that’s great to see.”

Retailers, ranging from specialist health stores to supermarkets, have also played an important role in the growth and consumer acceptance of gut health science and products. Stroll past any Holland & Barrett store and, chances are, a window display will scream out about the benefits of ‘Living the Gut Life.’

Moores says the brand aims to play a positive role in improving not only the digestive health of people in the UK, particularly around preventative health and wellness, and already the chain has made some fundamental changes to its product range to meet that objective.

“Last September, we overhauled our entire food category and launched our new H&B Food range, the biggest transformation in food at Holland & Barrett in a decade,” he explains. “Made up of over 300 entirely new own-brand lines, designed from scratch and over 200 branded lines, the new range also saw the return of fresh, chilled food and drinks to Holland & Barrett’s high street stores.

“In a market first, the Holland & Barrett range also offers customers foods by key wellness need or specialist diet, with new lines designed by our expert nutritionists, chefs and in-house experts for areas including gut health. From snacking treats like tummy-loving trail mix full of dried fruit, seeds, nuts, and prebiotics to tangy apple cider vinegar dressing, our new food range is bursting with gut-health benefits.”

So, with myriad new products and brands all vying for market position, profile, share, and loyalty, how are brands like Yakult, Zoe Gut and Plenish communicating their brand messages to win over consumers?

Unless you have been residing on Mars for the last year or so, you will have seen high-profile celebrities Davina McCall and Steven Bartlett in mainstream and social media heavily promoting the Zoe platform and as its brand ambassadors.

“Our brand ambassadors have been crucial in Zoe’s success,” points out Tchoudakov. “The key point here is that these incredible people we’re partnering with are true believers in our mission and approach. Davina was drawn to our brand based on our work in communicating the latest nutrition science on our Instagram. She was curious about what Zoe could do for her health as a woman in menopause.

“Steven has a huge reach via his Diary of a CEO podcast and is an innovative digital media leader. Working with him is a fantastic opportunity for us to drive awareness and education in both the UK and the US.”

On Yakult’s market position, Patel says: “Yakult’s brand tone of voice exudes positivity, inspiration, knowledge, and passion – all firmly grounded in scientific credibility. The importance of gut health is communicated throughout the shopper journey to ensure our brand pillars are easily understood and as engaging as possible in what is now a cluttered market. We take pride in offering products backed by its science and heritage, which is unique in this category.”

The number one marketing priority for Plenish is, according to Petrogiannis, building trust in the products and range: “Every day, we hear from customers how disappointed they are when they discover that their favorite plant-based drinks contain artificial or ultra-processed ingredients. What sets the Plenish brand apart is that you’ll never find additives, preservatives, or flavorings in any of our products. Every m*lk, juice or health shot is made with the finest fruit and vegetables and the promise that when you see Plenish on the label, you know it’s all good.”

While the Zoe platform may be glam and hi-tech, traditional marketing methods are also paying dividends for the brand, as Tchoudakov explains: “We’ve seen a lot of organic growth and referrals through word of mouth as people love their Zoe experience and share with their friends and family. This is amplified by our brand efforts across everything from PR to ambassador partnerships, and that has been very powerful.

“We’ve built a very strong paid social machine and have seen a lot of success there, and I’m proud of our award-winning Zoe Science & Nutrition podcast, which brings valuable, actionable advice from world-leading scientists to millions of people and generates interest in Zoe from new members and partners.”

Yakult also adopts a multi-channel approach to marketing its products to global audiences, as Patel explains: “We use a vast number of channels dependent on the market, depending on which channels deliver the best relevant reach to drive brand equity and consideration of our segments, according to what we need to dial up in the brand funnel and when.

“While digital/social, BVOD and online videos are growing channels for the brand, we also recognize that there is still a space for traditional channels like AV, radio and OOH where targeting capabilities have improved to drive brand equity and top-of-mind awareness at scale, especially during key moments of the year. Additionally, we’re actively investing in sponsorships, partnerships and podcasts to build brand fame and drive consideration in the ever-evolving landscape of marketing channels.”

A recent interview in The Drum saw Moores outline the brand’s shift away from price-led promotions to more mission-based campaigns and that is no more clear than in the gut health category, as she explains: “Over the past couple of years, and based on our customer insights, we decided to shift to mission-based campaigns – by mission we mean customer needs such as gut health, women’s health, sleep, immunity to name a few.

“This shift has been very successful for us – both from a sales growth and customer acquisition point of view – showing the power of focusing on customer wellness needs over a transactional approach. A focus on wellness products and services that support our key missions, such as gut health, are here to stay and we’re excited to see these grow and evolve with our customers’ needs.”

And what of all the competition in the category? Is it giving anyone sleepless nights?

Petrogiannis at Plenish actively welcomes it, saying: "We love that there’s so much interest in food and drink categories that are better for you. Raising awareness and offering choice on the shelf helps us, collectively, deliver on shopper expectations. But we don’t get distracted. We remain focused on developing products that taste great, are nutritionally balanced, deliver functional benefits and fill you with confidence when you turn to check the ingredients on the back of the pack. We find this is the most effective way to build loyalty for us as a brand."

So, is gut health a fad that will disappear into the ether, much like kale, quinoa and calorie counting? The evidence suggests not. With a far stronger focus on what you can put into your mouth rather than what you can’t, the gut health trend appears to have plenty of life left in it yet. And the brands driving the gut health category are in excellent health.

From fast food to sloe gin, the food & drink space is massively appetizing to marketers. Join us as we dig into some of the sector’s biggest trends during The Drum’s Food & Drink Focus.

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