Persona co-founder and CEO Jason Brown is bitter about vitamin startups. Companies like Care/of and Ritual aren’t original. Personalization, Instagram, young people — none of it is original.
“We’re not marketing coolness,” he says. “We don’t try to hawk pills on Instagram on a daily basis; we try to engage our customers.”
He doesn’t understand why vitamins now need to be cool: He was already making money from them. His company created the first customized vitamin advisory system 20 years ago — back when it was called Custom Nutrition Services, which was before it was called Vitamin Packs, which was before it was called Persona, and before it started raising venture capital, which it didn’t do until late 2018. The software was originally used for the celebrity doctor Andrew Weil’s website, and then by Drugstore.com.
Still, he can’t change the fact that today, we’re looking at a surplus of “cool” vitamin companies, all with ample funding and remarkable reach on Instagram. “Many young entrepreneurs did copies of that after we built it,” Brown says. “Care/of realized it was a big idea; they tried to create their own version of it.” He claims that Care/of’s quiz is a crude approximation of the Persona technology, which is capable of creating “over 5 trillion combinations” of vitamin recommendations.
For the most part, they’ve cropped up in the past four years. In 2015, still firmly in the subscription box moment, former Silicon Valley investor Katerina Markov-Schneider founded Ritual, a “clean” subscription vitamin service that offered two multivitamins for women, differentiated by their visually compelling form factor — tiny beads of yellow inside a clear capsule, designed to be “super-shareable.”
Ritual’s multivitamin contains nine nutrients, a sharp difference from the 20 that are typically in a multivitamin, and pared down to the essentials that women are most likely to be slightly deficient in. “The mission was to get out the truth and reinvent the vitamin from the ground up,” Schneider tells me. “59 percent of our customers never regularly had a vitamin habit before Ritual.”
“Are cool girl vitamins a thing?” the lifestyle blog and e-commerce platform Brit + Co asked in fall 2016, answering the question affirmatively. Ritual is very cool, the Glossier of vitamins, the post concluded. The Ritual pill is “almost too pretty to swallow” and the company’s typography is “cute enough to copy onto a tote bag.” In the summer of 2017, Ritual raised $15.5 million in Series A funding.
Vitafive, a subscription service for brightly colored gummy vitamins, was founded the same year by Nik Hall and his Texas Christian University buddy Garret Adair. Then came Care/of in 2016, with its beautifully designed quiz and personalized vitamin packets and aesthetic of efficiency and sensibility — the New York-based counterpoint to Ritual’s California vibe — and, two summers later, $42.2 million in funding.
In 2017, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle and wellness empire Goop started offering subscription vitamin packs with names like “Madame Ovary” and “High School Genes.” That year, the fuddy-duddy customized vitamin brand Vitamin Packs sensed that it wasn’t considered a contender and relaunched as a startup called Persona, keeping the same URL but grabbing a new Instagram handle from which to share photos of watermelon pizzas and bathtubs full of flowers. By December 2018, it had $4.5 million in venture funding of its own.
“If you, your mom, your dad, and I all take the Persona questionnaire, we will all get a unique [recommendation],” Brown explains. “Because I’m a 61-year-old male, right? And from the sound of your voice, you’re a very young female.” As an older bald guy, he doesn’t care about hair, skin, and nail supplements the way I would, he says. His hair doesn’t need to be shiny.
In the past six months, he tells me, Persona has made 40 “cool-looking” new products. They are absolutely on a roll, he suggests, and they don’t care about the competition. “There’s nothing unique about [Ritual’s capsules]. We have many products that are similar in their construction.” Persona is less expensive. Persona is cool-looking but not marketing cool. The quiz is supposedly different and better, but really, the point is just that everyone needs vitamins.
While many scientists would disagree with that conclusion, vitamins and other dietary supplements are a $30 billion industry in the US. Though supplements are popular among all age groups, they are most popular among older demographics — 78 percent of adults older than 55 take vitamin supplements, and about 29 percent of them take four or more. But with the rise of cool vitamins, the numbers for adults ages 18 to 34 started creeping up to match, hitting 70 percent in 2016, up from 65 percent the year before.
In March, in anticipation of turning 30 this year, Taylor Swift announced via Elle magazine that she had learned 30 life lessons. “Vitamins make me feel so much better!” she wrote for lesson 15. “I take L-theanine, which is a natural supplement to help with stress and anxiety. I also take magnesium for muscle health and energy,” explained one of the most famous people on earth.
While this is an incredibly boring piece of information, it is also indicative of a larger trend: the looping of vitamins into the category of “self-care,” the evolution of careful, watery language around semi-medical health choices, and the rebranding of something that used to sit in the most visually unstimulating aisle of the grocery store into something that can be performed and publicized — a beautiful ritual, shareable and satisfying regardless of what measurable effects it has on the body. In 2018, 69 percent of adults 18 to 34 were taking supplements, and more than a third of them said they were doing it, as Swift does, for “energy.”
It has taken close to 80 years for it to occur to anyone that vitamins could be cool.
They entered American popular culture as part of the war effort in 1941. Nutrition was a patriotic duty, and a vitamin-fortified population was an act of resistance against the Nazis. Catherine Price, the author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, explained the history to the Atlantic in 2015, saying, “There was this idea of optimization: ‘What do we need to do to optimize Americans’ health, to make sure we have enough pep and vigor to get us through this war?’ There were all these rumors that the Nazis were restricting vitamins in their conquered people’s foods and giving their young men vitamin supplements and basically race-building through vitamins.”
The first recommended daily allowances for various nutrients, as well as salt and fat and sugar, were released around World War II as well. This was serious business, in part because people really do need the 13 essential vitamins and it is dangerous to not get them. Scurvy is an absurd disease in which your body basically crumbles from the inside. Being deficient in vitamin A can make you lose your eyesight.
“If you don’t have enough of [the essential vitamins], you’ll die in often quite gruesome ways,” Price told the Atlantic. “But it doesn’t translate into the idea that we seem to want to have, which is that if you can cure nutritional blindness with vitamin A, then if you take 17 times that amount in a pill, you’ll be able to see in the dark. The idea that more is better, and more gives you superpowers, is not true.”
Forty years later, supplement intake was high — 36 percent of men and 48 percent of women were taking some kind of vitamin at the end of the 1980s. The famous chewable Flintstones vitamins were acquired by Bayer in 1979 and became a nationwide household staple. But as Pieter Cohen writes in “The Supplement Paradox,” this was still only the beginning.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed in 1994, assured that all supplements would be considered safe unless the Food and Drug Administration actively pursued a study to prove that something was harmful. “The lax DSHEA requirements for proof of product safety led to a rapid increase in the number of supplements in the marketplace,” Cohen argues. “From an estimated 4,000 in 1994 to 55,000 in 2012.”
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking vitamins if you are deficient in specific things. There’s also, typically, nothing explicitly useful about taking vitamins unless a doctor has diagnosed you with that specific deficiency.
Thirty years of conflicted and mixed research has yet to prove conclusively that fish oil does much of anything for most people. Decades of consistent and unequivocal research has proven that multivitamins do not actually slow cognitive decline or prevent cancer or reduce risk for heart disease. Probiotics don’t really matter. Certain supplements can even hurt you: Antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamin E can increase the risk of cancer and heart disease. Taking too much vitamin D can actually cause an irregular heartbeat that leads to blood clots, stroke, or heart failure.
In 2007, the National Cancer Institute found that men who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from prostate cancer (as the man responsible for introducing vitamin C into popular culture did in 1994). This was the same year that Coca-Cola acquired VitaminWater for $4.2 billion cash. In 2011, the University of Minnesota published a study that found women who took multivitamins died faster too. This was also the year that Gwyneth Paltrow’s doctor launched his nutritional supplements brand.
In 2013 — two years before any of the cool vitamin startups were founded — an editorial from five doctors at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Warwick Medical School in the UK, published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, which has been published by the American College of Physicians since 1927, stated, “We believe that the case is closed — supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”
Nevertheless, here we are. “A lot of people get so bent out of shape about all this research,” Vitafive’s Nik Hall tells me, when I bring it up. “Vitamins are a very, very touchy subject to a lot of people.” Would I rather have low vitamin D levels or the potential harmful effects that “one person” described?
Before he co-founded Care/of and became its CEO, Craig Elbert worked at Bonobos. There, his job was to make something boring (khaki pants) into “something delightful.” That’s his job now too, he tells me. Whenever he went shopping for vitamins, they were in ugly containers in ugly grocery stores, sold by teenagers who didn’t know anything about them. “A lot of times when it comes to health and wellness, you know, the products can be a little bit boring or too medical,” he says. “We wanted to build something that was friendly.”
That’s why Care/of daily vitamin packs have smiley faces on them, and a sunny greeting that acknowledges the customer by name. The pills inside are multicolored, in beautiful shapes, and refract light.
“For me, I like things that are aesthetically appealing,” Elbert says. “I think aesthetics are just generally something I appreciate in my life. So with building a brand that was important to me. We felt like aesthetics played a role in helping people build healthy habits.”
The Care/of packets are designed for Instagram in that they have a hashtag and a handle printed on them, and in that they say things on them like “Today’s challenge: Start reading a new book today. Maybe fiction?” Some of them have quotes, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Ritual has a better Instagram than Care/of — it’s funnier and warmer, full of bright yellow and memes. And “Take your vitamins” dad hats. It makes references to the Lipsmackers and Flintstones chewable vitamins of the 1990s, and most of the posts have nothing to do with the company’s product. One recent post was of a woman using a lemon and two oranges as a pair of high heels. Another was a picture of Chrissy Teigen crying, with Mac file folders running down her cheeks (labeled “meetings,” “emails,” calls,” “texts”) and the caption “Back to work on a Tuesday like …”
The product is different — a single pill has to be beautiful on its own. And the pitch is that it everything is stripped down to the bare minimum.
“The thing about our product is that it is visually appealing but there is a science behind the form factor,” Schneider says. “Water-solubles and fat-solubles are kept in their original form. The outer capsule bypasses the stomach and goes to the small intestine. It’s intentionally designed so that we wouldn’t have to have multiple capsules. Most women didn’t want to take more than two pills a day, and we didn’t want women to feel like they were sick.”
Not sending adorable packets of half a dozen photographable multi-hued vitamins is another differentiator. If you didn’t know better, it would look like Ritual and Care/of had sat down together and divvied these things up — you take this popular aesthetic and this direct-to-consumer trend; we want this one and this one.
What the supplement industry has done most subtly and beautifully over the past few years is to arrange nutritional imperatives and vague beauty aspirations in the same basket. Supplements are for your body and your mind. The health of your bones and the glow of your cheeks. They fit perfectly in the heart of the wellness industry, which has so gracefully erased the line between self-care and medicine. It’s all about buying things to make yourself better. The care and maintenance of the human body — once disgusting, as bodies are — is now a delight.
Hum Nutrition, which launched in 2012 and started appearing on Sephora shelves in 2014, offers “nutrients for a better life,” which includes less acne, more hair, and fewer wrinkles. Following suit, this new wave of vitamin subscription services offers not just vitamin D for those who can’t step outside on their lunch break, or vitamin C for those looking to avoid scurvy, but also things like biotin and sea buckthorn for thicker, shinier hair, and borage oil with saffron for clear skin.
Regulatory bodies don’t evaluate any of the health claims made by supplements — they do only “risk reduction” by checking for illegal ingredients or dangerous mixtures.
“If you were looking to make a lot of money selling something that doesn’t do anything at all, supplements would be a great place to go,” Pieter Cohen, a professor at the Harvard-based Cambridge Health Alliance, tells me. “You’re permitted by law to say that this will maintain healthy stomach function or this will enhance immune response. Even if there are no studies to suggest that actually happens in humans.”
When I ask Graham Rigby, Care/of’s head of innovation, whether he can tell me the difference between medicine and self-care, he tells me that supplements walk the line between the two. “There are some that are pure fun, and there are some that are more medicinal,” he says. “One hundred years ago or 120 years ago, when our doctors would come to our houses, there was a lot more blending of self-care and this medical piece. Your doctors knew where you lived and what kind of food you were eating and what environment you were in, so they could be a little bit more learned. And herbs were much more popular then, sort of before big pharma coming in.”
I do not know that I think doctors were better 120 years ago, but I see what he’s saying. I do not think an online quiz is as holistic as a blood test. But I see what he’s saying.
That’s the thing: You can always squint.
Like any modern wellness brand, Care/of works with a group of health-conscious influencers like Angi Fletcher and Miko Bowen. They also show up in the feeds of fashion and beauty influencers, like Glossier and Ouai superfan Cierra Fitzgerald and @shoesandsashimi blogger Lauren Nakagawa. For now, these people are posting glamour shots of their morning vitamins and Care/of is reposting them to its account. But as the company expands into new products (like it did last month with the launch of a line of protein powders), it might start asking influencers to weigh in on the business side too.
“We hope to integrate influencers, get their opinions, bring some of them in while we’re developing products,” Rigby says. “It’s not something we’ve done yet but certainly would make sense going forward. Considering their importance in the business and role in society, and in how people learn about health and wellness.”
In September, the New York Times pointed out that Ritual had been paying for sponsored content endorsing its product on health blogs like Well & Good and PureWow, then pulling positive quotes from the articles to put in ads on Facebook and Instagram. When I speak to CEO and founder Katerina Markov Schneider, she tells me Ritual is just “starting to form relationships with bloggers and influencers,” and they’re only interested in partnering with people who understand the science behind the product.
The cost of a Care/of subscription varies based on the results you get when you take the Care/of quiz. Some pills, like vitamin C and iron, are $5 a month. Milk thistle is $8, B-complex is $12, a yeast probiotic is $16, and the hair, skin, and nails Glow Trio pill is $19. When I took the quiz, I was recommended a daily pack including B-complex, rhodiola, calcium, astaxanthin, and fish oil, which would add up to $57 per month.
The most similar custom gummy pack on Vitafive is $44.95 a month. Ritual’s nonpersonalized multivitamin for women is $30 a month, which is a bit easier to swallow — sorry! — but not much. It’s still more than a medical copay; I’ll just go to the doctor and see if I need any of this stuff at all. Or I’ll subscribe to get Goop’s “Balls in the Air” pack, which is $75 a month and “plays defense” so that I can “play offense.”
“Hmm, should I pay my rent or buy some vitamins I will take for six days?” comedian Catherine Cohen asked recently on Twitter. Most of the responses were votes for the vitamins.
I forgot to pay my rent yesterday AND took that care/of vitamin quiz today so I feel you.— ❤️ (@samtweetshere) April 3, 2019
In February, Ritual raised another $25 million. Care/of raised another $29 million late last summer. Vitafive does not feel it wants to compete, because raising lots of money raises lots of expectations, and anyway, all that money is just going to acquiring new customers via Instagram, Hall tells me. He wants to put Vitafive gummies in Target. He’s tired of being direct-to-consumer. He’s tired of having to explain a gummy vitamin — it’s just a gummy vitamin.
“People look at it and say, ‘Oh, Care/of has a quiz,’ or, ‘Persona has a quiz,’ The reality in our eyes: Their quiz is great, they have a ton of research behind it and stuff, but the reality is you truly need to have some type of bloodwork done,” Hall says. “If I’m out there, saying, ‘Hey Kaitlyn, how long are you outside every day,’ this, that, and the other — they’re good questions, and they’re probably fairly accurate, to be honest, but the reality is you just don’t know. I don’t know exactly what you’re eating every day. I don’t know all the details about someone’s day-in, day-out kind of thing. We’re against the quiz thing, to be honest.”
But, to be clear, you don’t need to get bloodwork done to take Vitafive vitamins either, in Hall’s view. You just take all of them to get all the vitamins you need from the five food groups, he tells me. “People say, ‘Oh you can get all your vitamins in your food,’” he says, after I say that you can get all your vitamins in your food. “Absolutely, you definitely can. For us, for the majority of people, the reality is you’re not eating a kale salad every day at lunch with this, that, and the other, and if you are, there are still days where you’re not. Why not have this safety net?”
Nobody will tell me what the difference between self-care and medicine is, and it’s possible nobody knows anymore. Anyway, it all looks good on Instagram, so what does it matter?
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