Amid soft flu season, natural remedies drive cough-cold category

David Salazar
Managing Editor
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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.”


The data bears this out. There are not that many cases of influenza-like illness, as tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the agency’s FluView map, as of the week ending Dec. 19, all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands are some shade of green, denoting minimal activity. For comparison, during the same week in 2019, 30 states’ flu activity was classified as either high or very high.

“We’re definitely seeing trends that it’s a softer season,” said MaryEllen Tefft, vice president of sales for food, drug and mass at Newtown Square, Pa.-based Boiron. “Looking at numbers from the beginning of the pandemic, people were definitely pantry loading. And for this cold-flu season, I think the transmission rate is lower, which we’re all happy about, but we’re seeing some softening. While immunity is up and treatment is down, we are starting to see less softness in the shorter time frames.”

The boost in immunity is no secret, but it also is part of a larger consumer trend toward natural and drug-free products. The natural trend now is so prevalent that suppliers — both the giants of the category and the formerly niche homeopathic and natural suppliers — are looking to capitalize on it and have a host of products ready when consumers next hit the store to stock up. With new products and focused efforts to appeal to consumers, suppliers are looking to help boost the segment later this spring and again in the fall.

Among the category giants, GSK Consumer Healthcare is adding to its extensive Robitussin lineup with Robitussin Naturals, a line of drug- and alcohol-free cough syrups that also are free of artificial colors, preservatives and GMOs. Sold in honey and ivy leaf varieties, the products are designed to relieve cough and clear mucus with an elderberry flavor that also is meant to support the immune system. The products also are offered as gummies.

“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. We’re at the entry point where young moms are looking at not giving their kids any unnecessary medication.”
Lou Machin, managing director, Lifelab Health

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.