Technology has always had an intrinsic link to sexuality. With every new medium for content consumption came a novel use for the distribution of smut. Printing presses, instant cameras, color magazines, and the VCR; pornography has served to ease the adoption curve of new platforms, giving consumers one more reason to buy the latest-and-greatest, and businesses all the more reason to make the format leap.
And no format-leap is more impressive than that of the modern Wellness Brand. Adjacent to sexuality is self-image, desire, and wish-fulfillment; all areas which wellness, as an industry, likes to prey upon.
I spent the first 10 years of my career building DTC brands, 6 of those with a wellness supplement brand. We were highly experimental, to a fault, and always chased the next opportunity for customer experience. Whatever plugin, ad campaign, widget, or popup — we tried it all. In the end, many customers experienced what they believed to be a better life through the products.
In today’s piece, we’ll discuss the three factors that led to rapid adoption of technology by DTC brands, specifically those among the Shopify set, has given rise to a new breed of pornographer: the modern Wellness Brand.
And we’ll set out to prove a hypothesis: that wellness brands are not just frequent adopters of eCommerce SaaS technology, but that they are highly experimental and exhibit sampling behavior when doing so.
Factor #1: Wellness is unregulated
It didn’t take a global health crisis to create the current environment for wellness brands. Prior to the DTC explosion of 2018, there was a regulatory environment that became favorable for small, bespoke, wellness brands to thrive. The deregulation of the wellness industry began in 1994, with the passage of the DSHEA, the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act. From James Hamblin writing for The Atlantic:
The law allows any of these [supplement] products to go directly to market and carry unfounded claims about what the product does. The burden is on the FDA to prove that the product is unsafe, if it later proves to be harming people, and then take the producer to court.
The passage of the DSHEA made it so that the burden of proof fell to a government agency, the FDA, to regulate. The FDA is a chronically under-funded organization. The lion’s share of the FDA’s annual budget goes to regulating drugs — those specifically labelled as a pharmaceutical product that seeks to treat a particular ailment. The development of new drugs also accounts for as much as 30% of the modern-era FDA’s current budget.
Wellness is largely unregulated, and this allows them to become highly experimental in the way that they make health claims, market products, create brands, and position themselves as wholly beneficiary in a consumer’s life.
It’s important to note that wellness brands sell to a customer promising not just a better future, but on the notion that they could be living a better life right now if they had purchased long ago.
This kind of counterfactual thinking is incredibly persuasive for people looking to solve specific problems. It also bears a striking resemblance to the type of euphoric wish-fulfillment that pornography often taps into: at best, frequent use provides fulfillment and gratification. At worst, it’s inert and natural, and of no real harm to the end-user.
While Wellness goes unregulated, there are rules of the road. The chief directive: not to make health claims. Many brands have strict compliance and legal reviews to ensure that they remain compliant in the eyes of the FDA. Falling out of compliance could result in an order to cease sales, relabel products, remanufacture products, or scrub content from a website or collateral.
A common way to skirt around compliance, however, is in areas of user-generated content. Particularly in site ratings, site reviews, product ratings, Q&A, and customer testimonials. These submissions can often go overlooked by a small brand team, and often allow health-claim-laden content leak out into the world. While a brand can be held accountable for health claims made on its own website, the claims made in a Tiktok, or on a user’s Instagram post, remain a grey area where the FDA continues to test the boundaries.
This leads to the first hypothesis: regulatory-driven need for UGC and other forms of third-party health claim statements may lead a Wellness Brand to adopt technology that allow for more engagement with a brand’s customers, and a particular incentive from the brand to the customer to do so. This creates content both on the brand site, and off, that allow a Wellness Brand to grow its user base while not being a first-party regulatory offender.
A regulatory environment makes Wellness Brands into rapid adopters of emergent tech: email, ad tech, influencers, attribution, segmentation, CDP. You name it.
Factor #2: Wellness brands are rapid adopters
Wellness brands are just as prone to fads and fashions as any other category. Apparel may have a slim advantage when it comes to seasonality, but the wellness industry benefits from having a solution to every problem, at every age; even to the unborn. Prenatal vitamins are a $400M industry, according to Grandview Research, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 8.25%, ballooning to $625M in 2026.
Trends in Wellness include collagen, CBD, and probiotics, to name a few. These are all fairly recent, developing over the past 15-20 years. Recently nootropics and adaptogens have become fashionable, and new brands have emerged to provide solutions. FourSigmatic, a mushroom-based adaptogen herbal tea company, has built its brand on this fashionable trend. Functional food is another macro trend that blends form and function; we have witnessed an explosion of protein and adaptogen-laden snacks and beverages in the past 5 years.
How does this compare to the porn industry? Macro-trends are evident there, as well. A 2019 Medium post by academic philosopher Matthew McKeever explores how an open data set, provided by the website Pornhub.com, shows larger emergent trends based on search results. There we see search terms rise and fall in popularity. For instance, hentai had a surge in 2016, but took a backseat to step-sister in 2018. The cultural dynamic of what is “fashionable” is universal, it seems, and not just reserved for apparel or wellness.
It's not necessarily that the porn industry comes up with the ideas, but there's a huge difference in any technology between the idea and the successful application,"— Jonathan Coopersmith, a professor of technology history at Texas A&M University
This fashionable position in the market is also evident in the Wellness Brand’s adoption of technology. A brief survey of the 2PM DTC Power List shows that roughly 25% of the tracked brands are in wellness/beauty/cosmetics, and of those, 99% of them were on Shopify. Technology choices are often fashionable as well. As we observe in our forthcoming VISIONS 2022 report, there is a “keeping up with the Joneses” effect at work when choosing eCommerce technology. A brand doesn’t want to be at the disadvantage when hiring or building comparable customer experiences to their competitors.
A survey of select 17 eCommerce SaaS providers found a direct correlation to the recency of the founding date, and its propensity to displaying wellness brands as homepage case studies. If a SaaS offering is in its nascency (less than 5-years since founding) there is a higher likelihood for wellness brands to occupy the homepage.
Factor #3: Sampling behavior and the new consumer behavior
Junip, Tydo Analytics, and Postscript are all far more likely to have early-adopter Wellness brands on their homepage than Yotpo, Ordergroove, and Nosto. The prime difference: the age of the product. Newcomers to the marketplace are far more likely to be dependent on lower-cost point solutions than they are full-blown experience platforms. The older and more mature a SaaS offering, the less likely it is to appeal to a Wellness Brand. This is likely based on more factors than cost; some may include ease of adoption, ability to trial before committing to a lengthy contract, or the complexity of the solution. Wellness Brands need the ability to adapt before committing.
Sampling behavior is something we witness in consumers: a consumer is far more likely to try a product if they can get it for free and cheap, than they are if they are required to make a lengthy commitment. The Shopify-ification of commerce technology means that most brands don’t need long development cycles to trial software. In many cases they don’t even need a contract. This shortens the half-life of technology present on a website at any given time. If there’s no need to commit to a long-term relationship with tech, brands become more experimental.
Sampling behavior used to be a consumer phenomena. Shopify turned business operators into consumers.
Wellness brands suffer from an innovation deficiency, however. The majority of brands do not manage their own supply chain, but instead white-label products from core manufacturers, a technique also employed in the mattress industry. Most don’t conduct their own research, but instead rely on the efficiency of the supply chain to create new and exciting offerings to bring to the marketplace. These supply chain manufacturers effectively guide the bulk of the market direction, as suppliers push brands on the next products to create and sell.
But not all brands operate this way. One of the standout Wellness Brands that are performing primary research is Seed, a probiotic brand. Their peer research and accreditation methods are a standout in this category. They have gone so far as to patent a particular strain of pre- and pro-biotics, calling them Synbiotics. Of particular note, they have a conspicuous lack of third-party technology on their site. Rather than make conspicuous health claims, or feature dozens of widgets which attempt to upsell you into a subscription, Seed instead points you to their research. Seed isn’t looking for a lustful tryste with their consumer, they’re trying to get married.
This is no indictment on the Wellness industry as a whole, or of the nascency of the eCommerce tech stack that they often implement. Rather, this is an examination of how our industry creates customer experiences.
Wellness Brands are wonderful customers of many SaaS products. So many, in fact, that the growth of Wellness tracks alongside the growth of DTC and eCom as a whole. No industry better encapsulates the content + commerce journey as Wellness. As Jackson Jayanayagam said on Episode 175 of the podcast:
There are three levels of intimacy that you build with a customer. It’s Around You, On You, and In You. All three require different levels of understanding, education, and trust.
Around you, on you, in you. Hmm.
Portions of this piece referenced articles from The Atlantic and the LA Times