Yes, even during the worst pandemic in a century, there is some good news. The country, probably thanks to social distancing and more people washing their hands more often, is facing an uncharacteristically mild cold and flu season.
Yet, for retailers and the suppliers of cough-cold products, that bit of good news for consumers means a slowdown in category sales among cough-cold and flu remedies.
A number of suppliers reported that the category, which saw a boom around the time the COVID-19 pandemic began last March and April as consumers stocked up, has trended down since the beginning of flu season in the fall, with a good amount of sales going to immunity and stress/sleep as shoppers work through their stores of cough-cold and flu products.
“My guess is it’s because of a couple different things,” said Les Hamilton, president of Los Angeles-based Hyland’s. “One, people pantry loaded in March and April, and they have yet to go through what they already purchased. Two is people are wearing masks; three, people are socially distancing; and four, kids aren’t necessarily back in school and, if they are, they’re wearing masks so nobody is getting sick, and as a result, there is some decrease in the overall cough-cold business.”
On the more traditional flu side, the company, which also makes TheraFlu, said the focus is on providing solutions that flu shoppers need — namely effective ones that work fast. “We also know that the flu shopper is different as it relates to their path to purchase,” said Litthya Burgin, shopper insights manager for upper respiratory at GSK. “They look for products that are geared towards tackling their severe flu symptoms specifically and want clarity when they are searching for them either in store or online.”
At Boiron, the company continues to grow its line of “Calm” products, with the recently rebranded ThroatCalm, formerly sold as Roxalia, joining a lineup that includes ColdCalm and SinusCalm, the latter of which also was rebranded from Sinusalia to better tailor Boiron’s offerings to American consumers (the company’s global headquarters is in Messimy, France, where the company began).
Tefft said that ThroatCalm, in particular, offers a differentiated delivery method via a drug-free sublingual tablet that can be used on anyone age 3 years old or older. “It’s benzocaine-free, so it doesn’t mask symptoms or numb, but actually treats the throat,” she said. “Teachers and singers use it all the time, and we’re starting to get some traction in distribution because it’s a great white space opportunity.
Coconut Creek, Fla.-based LifeLab Health, which makes the brand HoneyWorks, also is looking to differentiate itself on sore throat relief. The HoneyWorks Kids Soothing Throat Spray, which contains USDA-certified organic honey, moved beyond the walls of food and drug this year, picking up distribution at Walmart and Target.
“Part of the attraction to the retailers is that it’s an incremental sale,” said Lou Machin, managing director at LifeLab Health. “The USDA organic honey is all dark honey sourced in the U.S., and because it’s a differentiated delivery system, when you sell the spray you’re not going to take away a sale from anything else on the shelf.”
He also said that children’s products offer a key entry point for the entire family for brands that offer products for both children and adults. “People try homeopathic and natural on their children first and, if that doesn’t work, then they go for a product with an active ingredient,” he said. “We’re at the entry point where young moms are looking at not giving their kids any unnecessary medication.”
Moms have been a critical area of growth for Hyland’s as well. Hamilton said that the company’s top-selling products are its Cold and Cough for Kids, Cold and Mucus for Kids and several of Hyland’s cough-cold products for babies. He also said there has been good growth in the value channel. “People are still wanting to treat and treat naturally,” he said. “As people have been gravitating toward the value and dollar channel to make purchases, our brand has emerged as the No. 1 pediatric brand at Dollar General.”
Beyond value, one of the critical draws for homeopathic and natural products is their purported safety when used alongside prescription medications. “If you have any kind of medication that you have to take on a daily basis, there are no known drug interactions, and you can feel safe that if you have high blood pressure you can use ColdCalm or SinusCalm,” Boiron’s Tefft said.
As cough-cold and flu begins to cede sales ground to immunity, several companies are looking to position their cough-cold offerings closer to immunity or ingredients that are sought after. GSK’s elderberry-flavored Robitussin Natural is a case in point. At Hyland’s, the company is looking to better position one of its existing products, redesigning the packaging for its Cold Tablets with Zinc to lean into the zinc segment.
Machin said that LifeLab is looking toward immunity with the coming launch of BerryWorks, which will roll out with four SKUs — a liquid and chewable tablets for children and two tablet offerings for adults, one with an on-the-go focus — containing black elderberry (sambucus nigra) and vitamin C. He said that the company will be positioning BerryWorks with cough-cold and flu when it launches in the first quarter of this year, and in the immune support category beginning in the second quarter.
“At the end of the day, people want a natural or holistic solution to be able to ward off or tamp down a cough or a cold and they really only want to resort to active ingredients if they have no choice, and we’re seeing that trend more and more,” Machin said. “We continue to see very strong growth in the natural segments of all these categories, particularly cough-cold, and it’s going to continue for the foreseeable future.”
As consumers continue to look for solutions, companies are working harder to make shoppers aware of their products. Hamilton said that this past fall, Hyland’s ran its first TV ad. GSK’s Burgin said that the company’s consumer targeting has had to adapt to better reach customers throughout the pandemic.
“Now more than ever, Theraflu and Robitussin have made sure that we are meeting consumers where they are by spending more effort on engaging consumers digitally, targeting new segments using incidence-based data and remarketing to our loyal consumers to drive consideration and gain market share,” she said.