Vitamin supplements have never been a particularly sexy subject. There's not much about choking down several hulking, ambiguously effective pills on a daily basis that's inherently appealing. That's not to mention the mundane process of shopping for them — whether it it involves scrolling through a series of sketchy-looking pages on Amazon or staring at a drugstore aisle full of outright ugly brown and yellow bottles. Given that the vitamin industry is relatively unregulated, it's also hard to know for sure what ingredients are in any given supplement, not to mention whether those ingredients are effectively absorbed or efficacious in any way. But it's 2017, and consumers are becoming increasingly willing to shell out cash for items that contribute to notions of self-care and wellness. With that — and the fact that the vitamin and dietary supplement market is on an upward trend — in mind, a crop of new direct-to-consumer startups have arrived. They're hoping to shake up the category and appeal to customers with transparency, simplicity and branding that's actually visually enticing. Meet Care/of and Ritual, two high-tech brands that are poised to become the Warby Parkers of the supplement world.
Craig Elbert, the CEO and co-founder of Care/of, conceived of the company after shopping for vitamins for himself and his wife, who was pregnant and taking prenatal supplements. "I was standing in one of those stores where the shelves are full of everything and it was unclear," he says. "There was basically a teenage store clerk assisting me and he wasn't helpful at all. I felt like a real opportunity to create something delightful that can impact people's health." Elbert has a background in the direct-to-consumer fashion business, having held several positions at menswear company Bonobos between 2009 and 2015, most recently serving as vice president of marketing before leaving to create Care/of. He drew on his experience with men's fashion when thinking about how to approach the wellness industry, launching Care/of (along with co-founder Akash Shah) in November 2016. "What we thought a lot about at Bonobos was how you create delightful customer experiences in a stagnant category. In that case, it was men's khaki pants — there's really nothing more boring than men's khaki pants," he says.
With Care/of, Elbert is hoping to bring the same streamlined, user-friendly shopping experience (and a more pleasant, appealing product) to pill popping. In addition to being effective and safe, says Elbert, vitamins should be enjoyable — a quality he says the industry at large was mostly neglecting. "The products that we have in our lives should look nice. They should talk to us, they should be a reflection of who we are. When I looked at this category, you either had something oversimplified, like a green bottle with someone doing yoga and put a leaf on it, and that's the extent of the marketing; or it would be chrome tubs marketed to bros. There was no nuance," he explains, also stressing the importance of having a direct dialogue with customers. "It's really important to have an authentic voice, versus just a walled-off, cold, distant tone, which I think is historically [what supplement brands have had]."
Care/of builds that notion of authentic communication and personalization right into the shopping experience. Users begin by answering a series of questions about their health and wellness priorities, which span the categories of "brain," "heart," "immunity," "skin," "digestion," "stress" and "bones." The survey also allows you to factor in lifestyle and diet in order to determine which supplements are recommended. And those supplement formulas weren't just haphazardly concocted. "The credibility is super important, and I think that's something that's different from fashion in this category," says Elbert. "First we had to start knowing we had a great product and knowing the right recommendations [for different people], so we started by working with doctors at Harvard to make sure we had research behind everything. Ultimately the product is something people put in their bodies, and they're taking it to live healthier lives."
While vitamins can typically run the gamut in terms of price point (often skewing toward $15-20 or more for a month's supply), Care/of's formulas were developed to be accessible. Depending on the supplement, each capsule retails for between $5 and $25 for a 30-day supply. (The $25 supplement is the brand's prenatal formula.)
Once the personalization process is complete, users can determine which of the suggested supplements they do, in fact, want to purchase, and then their final selections are packaged into separate foil pouches meant to be taken daily (one shipment includes a 30-day supply, but you can also purchase various supplements a la carte). Care/of's design team drew inspiration from fashion, beauty and wellness brands when creating said packaging, aiming for a modern look that's not stuffy or overly serious — Elbert mentioned AYR, Outdoor Voices and Glossier as points of inspiration.
So far, Elbert has been pleased with the way consumers have responded. "It's been really fun to watch the customer base grow — we're about a 50/50 split between men and women, and honestly, I thought it would skew more toward women. In the industry, women often still drive the conversation around nutrition within households, so they're the ones who are doing the purchasing and research," he says. "The overall reaction has been really positive — we've seen a lot of love on social media when people receive their boxes."
Another startup looking to change the supplements business is Ritual, a Los Angeles-based company founded by Katerina Schneider in October 2016. A subscription-based brand that sells a single product — a multivitamin specifically formulated for women's nutritional needs — Ritual's roots are similar to those of Care/of. When Schneider, whose background is in venture capital, became pregnant, she turned a skeptical eye toward the products she was using and the ingredients in them. "I started clearing everything in my house to avoid harmful ingredients, and one day, I started to look at the prenatal vitamins I was taking every day and realized that some of the ingredients I was avoiding around the house were in the vitamins I was taking every day. I was shocked," she says. "I called friends trying to find a better vitamin and asked what brands they'd been taking for years and for their pregnancies, and in general, people couldn't remember the brand of vitamins they'd been taking." Schneider saw that lack of brand recognition as an opportunity. "I decided to leave my job and take a risk and start a company that was going to reinvent the vitamin from the ground up."
Affordability is a tentpole of Ritual's business; the 30-day supply of supplements costs $30, and the brand drives home that "dollar a day" point in its marketing. But the first priority for Schneider was to come up with what she sees as a truly revolutionary product in the category. "I spent over a year just meeting with scientists and doctors, figuring out what it is that women actually need — do we even need vitamins? — and then once it turned out that we do, there are nine essential nutrients that women actually needed," says Schneider. The next step was to combine those nutrients into a single capsule that could effectively supplement the nutrients many women miss out on in their diets. "We worked with the leading company to come up with our encapsulation system, which is different from anything else out there. We figured out a way of encapsulating dry ingredients and oil ingredients into one capsule," she says. And the resulting pill, as it turned out, looked a hell of a lot prettier than most other vitamins. "Form follows function — we were trying to solve for [having to take] fewer vitamins and keeping them in a form that the body actually uses, and we ended up with something that was also visually stunning. The effect is kind of like a snow globe."
Like Care/of, Ritual hopes to connect with consumers via social media and a refreshingly upbeat, cool-kid visual persona. "Most of us are millennial women designing the branding and marketing behind it, so we wanted to design a product we wanted to take," says Schneider.
Schneider has noticed that people in the fashion and beauty industries seem especially drawn to Ritual, which perhaps owes to its aesthetic appeal. "We're seeing a lot of fashion and beauty bloggers and influencers posting our vitamin in their weekend bags or next to their cute shoes," she says. In addition to perfecting the formula and the visuals, Ritual hopes to grow its business by fostering a community with its customers. "We're focused on building a cult-like following," says Schneider. "And with the subscription model, we can put cute calendars and stickers into the boxes, which allows us to get people to remember to take their vitamins — it's really important, and that hasn't been done before."
While both Care/of and Ritual are still in their infancy, their timing is apt. According to a 2016 survey by Deloitte's Consumer Goods Forum, consumers are prioritizing health and wellness more than ever, and value companies founded on transparency and facts. So the accessibility and openness both vitamin startups are aiming to establish — combined with their clear messaging, appealing branding and an emphasis on community building — could be just what people are looking for right now. This cultural moment is not lost on Elbert. "If you look from a macro level of where things were at in the '80s and '90s, with so much processed food and an obesity epidemic within the country, there's been a lot more of a conscious effort to start taking care of ourselves," he says. "It's become cool and relevant [to focus on wellness]. People are gradually understanding the impact of what they're doing and how it impacts how they feel, and I think that's a trend that will continue for a while."
Homepage photo: @ritual/Instagram