Marketing Wellness: When Food is Medicine and Movement is Life

Alana Sandel, Chief Experience Officer, Marketing for Wellness (Chicago, IL)

Alana Sandel, Chief Experience Officer of the agency, Marketing for Wellness, has a deep passion for helping people “to be well.” Her personal health struggles inspired her to create her agency, which focuses on quality of life, healthy foods, and fitness. “better-for-you products” – “to build brands for a better tomorrow” – especially brands with solutions for people with chronic health problems. 

Alana notes that 60% of our population suffers from chronic health issues. COVID-19 is dangerous, but even more of a threat to people with diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and other ongoing health issues. 

Marketing for Wellness works to link “best fit” social media influencers with client brands. Media events have been crippled by the pandemic, so the agency is exploring virtual and augmented reality options (for education and entertainment) to replicate the experiences audiences used to have with high-touch media events, where such events balanced digital-touch social. Alana anticipates an unprecedented expansion of companies’ use of augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to create meaningful experiences for their prospective clients. 

Alana believes that the companies that survive will be led by people whose work “resonates to the core,” drives them, and feeds their passion. With the strain of the times, a lot of talent will become more affordable. People will develop common goals to help each other through this crisis. Companies not prepared to go digital will need to act quickly if they are going to survive. And right now, Alana notes, there are some great deals in both digital and traditional format channels.

Today, people’s immune systems are the only protection they have against COVID. When will we get a vaccine? When will we have a treatment? How is this virus going to change? What other viruses are going to plague us? When? Alana emphasizes, “The only thing that we can rely on is our immune system.” Many niche brands, Alana says, are developed in people’s garages or kitchens, out of inspiration or desperation. Because these small-time innovators understand their customers’ “pain points,” their brands come across as being “authentic.” She expects to see a lot of innovative product development, both in foods and beverages, with a strong shift toward healthier ingredients.

For the future, Alana expects brands already in foods, beverages, and wellness will expand their offerings in support of our immune systems. Companies not in those industries may support their communities by investing in health and wellness initiatives. Smaller brands will increase their corporate citizenship contributions and make a tangible difference to society through the products they create. 

A lot of people will continue to support their wellness experience digitally, but Alana does not put her trust in health gadgets. Devices may measure some vitals, but the most accurate and complete picture of an individual’s health is in the bloodwork. Simplicity – eating better, thinking of food as medicine, eliminating toxins and artificial ingredients from our diets, and “moving more” are the way to win health, even without the gadgets.

Alana can be found on LinkedIn at Alana Sandel, and on her agency’s website at: marketingforwellness.com.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Alana Sandel, Chief Experience Officer at Marketing for Wellness based in Chicago, Illinois. Welcome to the podcast, Alana.

ALANA: Thank you, Rob. Happy to be here.

ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Alana, why don’t you start off by telling us about Marketing for Wellness and what makes Marketing for Wellness amazing?

ALANA: Marketing for Wellness is designed to help better-for-you brands to succeed in the marketplace. What makes us amazing is really our deep passion to help people to be well. Whatever we do now is really built around health and wellness and how we can help build brands that have the next amazing, great-tasting product that’s gluten-free and dairy-free, or a fitness company that can get people moving and get them excited about living their life to the fullest. How can we make them successful?

It’s really about our passion, our values, and about an outstanding team of professionals who put their best to help many brands out there who need a voice, who need their stories to be told.

ROB: There’s certainly been an explosion of these better-for-you products. What do you think has created that opening and that opportunity? And how do you think about some of the challenges, because there’s almost so many that it’s hard to break through the noise?

ALANA: What created this huge demand is a new generation of more mindful people who appreciate the fact that wellness is the new currency. People are much more conscious about the choices they make, about where their attention goes. I think we’re dealing with a new generation that looks at our Baby Boomers and ask themselves the question, “How can I have a better quality of life?” I think this is one of the areas where we see a lot of demand.

In terms of challenges, how you break through the clutter, I believe if your product is truly great and you have a wonderful story to tell – and especially if it comes from your experience, because a lot of those niche brands were created in a garage, in a kitchen. They came from either a point of inspiration or being desperate. [laughs] They really understand pain points. Usually these smaller, authentic brands really get their audience and they’re able to get noticed. I think it all boils down to what you’re really good at.

ROB: At the onset, you alluded to, in your introduction, the food category and I think fitness as well as some categories. Are those maybe some of the hotter areas for this better-for-you movement?

ALANA: Absolutely. These are our basic needs. Food is medicine, and I think a lot of people are starting to appreciate that fact. We’re looking at food differently, and we’re reading the ingredients. We’re getting ourselves educated. Because of social media, things are going quite all right now. If you have a great product, people will endorse you, they will embrace you. If your product sucks and you’re not being true to your claims, it will also become pretty transparent relatively quickly.

When it comes to fitness, movement is life. If you are not out there, if you’re not taking the time to invest into your wellness and not giving yourself time to take a class or go for a walk or just do breathing exercises, your body is not going to be happy. So, food and fitness are definitely two big pillars that people are paying attention to and taking better steps than we used to in the past.

ROB: What marketing channels are you most often involved in? What are the key avenues to get the word out on a brand that probably can’t do everything?

ALANA: I think it’s obvious now that social media is one of the most important channels, especially working with social media influencers. Our agency has spent a lot of time to create valuable partnerships, working with social media influencers directly or through talent agencies. It’s really an art to find the best fit between the influencer and the brand to make sure there is really an authentic relationship where it doesn’t feel forced or staged.

Many influencers actually don’t want that. They’re looking for brands that they can represent with passion and brands that align with their values. Social media is basically a space that we embrace, that we enjoy working with, and this is where a lot of our work is done now.

But obviously there are other avenues with digital marketing, and most recently I have to say, because we can’t do media events like we used to – we really appreciated the balance it could create between high touch during the events and digital touch social. We’re exploring options with augmented reality right now, AR and VR, and how we can replicate experiences for people to connect with brands around entertainment and education.

ROB: That’s a very salient trend. Some places are opening up, but to a large extent a lot of people still aren’t going out. They’re certainly not getting together for events in the wake of this global pandemic around COVID-19.

Are you also finding perhaps some amplification opportunities that were less appealing before? You’ve got these influencers, and at least what we’re hearing sometimes is that some channels are opening up for paid media in ways where you used to have to spend a little bit more money to get the same message out.

ALANA: Rob, clarify your question for me.

ROB: Have you seen any opportunities open up because maybe the cost for certain ad channels is lower because some retailers aren’t advertising, some movies aren’t advertising, so you can get let’s say an impression rate or a click rate or something that’s lower than it used to be?

ALANA: Oh, absolutely. In the last I want to say 5 to 6 weeks, we’ve seen a lot of great deals on different channels. Both I would say in digital and traditional formats. Yeah, I agree with you on that.

ROB: That makes sense. Alana, tell us a little bit about how you got into this Marketing for Wellness. The business is a little bit newer, but your industry experience is quite extensive. What shifted your attention in this direction?

ALANA: When I started with my own journey back in 2001, I always had a commitment to myself that I’m not going to compromise on what I believe in. Early on, pretty much as a team, we primarily went after brands that we knew improved quality of life, but it was really a mix of organizations, from food companies to financial services companies and not-for-profits.

Last year, I realized that I really want to polish my focus on working with brands that can make a special difference for people with chronic health conditions, because I think with 60% of our population having chronic health issues and with COVID-19 putting a lot of these people in a very vulnerable spot, I think those people that have diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and others need a lot more support today perhaps than before, especially when it comes to food and beverage companies.

So, Marketing for Wellness is designed to build brands for a better tomorrow, and we’re focused on quality of life, but our special attention now goes to those brands that have a solution for people with chronic health issues.

ROB: It almost seems like this was a little bit of a reboot, that you had built this career and you had built a firm that could do more things, and you felt the desire and saw the need to go focus in a little bit more. Is that part of the journey?

ALANA: That’s right. This is under my skin. This is something that I’m vested in personally because it’s part of my personal wellness journey and the struggles that I faced. I know there are a lot of people out there with pain points that have not been addressed.

Obviously, there are medications and there are a lot of health options, but at the end of the day what’s important is what you do every day and how you invest in yourself. What type of food you eat, how you exercise, how you develop yourself from within, how you make your life meaningful, how you look for purpose – this is all interconnected. It’s all one big holistic picture that creates wellbeing for people. But for those with chronic health conditions, it’s a lot more challenging. It’s a lot more painful. It’s a lot more expensive. I’m really embracing those brands that have great products to help those people manage life much better.

ROB: You can definitely hear the resonance between this business and your own personal journey. I couldn’t help but think as you were talking earlier about influencers, and now about some of these different conditions, it almost seems like a very good intersection where there could even be brands that would pay some influencer more to advocate on their behalf – but someone who self-identifies with a particular health concern, a particular need, may just be so grateful to find a product that helps them, whether they’re dealing with celiac or lactose intolerance or whatever, that they might choose your clients over a lot of other options. Is that part of the dynamic? You get to resonate also with your influencers?

ALANA: Absolutely. I’ll give you one example. I have the privilege to support Lively Foods. They are a manufacturer of a kefir beverage. It’s a probiotic drink that is rich with good bacteria that loves your gut. It’s especially important now because most of the health of our immune system sits in our gut. About 70% is there. So, taking care of our digestive health is critical.

Lively Foods is so loved by those people who appreciate how good this product is for their lives, both for adults and kids, that they’re extremely popular with influencers, going beyond food. You can see it on Lively Foods’ Instagram channel, classes that range from fitness to mental and emotional health. Influencers are drawn to this brand, knowing that this is one of the best choices you can make on a daily basis to keep yourself strong and resilient by taking care of your gut. So yeah, this is exactly right, Rob.

ROB: That definitely makes sense. I can’t help but notice when you talk about originally launching a business in 2001 – many would say that was not the best timing. Many would say that this year is not the best timing. Of course, 2001, we had 9/11 and the dot-com bust. Along the way, you also kept in business through the Great Recession as well.

What are you seeing, knowing that we’re probably heading into recession now – or maybe we will have an amazing recovery, as the stock market seems to believe – but knowing that we may be into a leaner time, what have you learned, at least the past couple of rounds of downturn that you have been in business through, that you’re thinking about as we look forward?

ALANA: Great question. Here’s my big idea. I believe if you are doing something that resonates with your core, something that drives you, something that you’re passionate about, you’re going to make it. You’re going to be resilient, and you’re going to find ways to sustain your business and yourself and your family. It’s not going to be easy in the next couple of years, but there’s going to be a lot of talent available that perhaps before were a little bit pricy for small to mid-size brands to tap into. There’s going to be a lot of I would say common goals to help us through this crisis and find better solutions, so people are going to be drawn to ideas, and those people who have tools and solutions that can actually help us.

So, I think we’re going to see a positive transformation where people are really working together on projects that inspire them and connect them to their better selves, and this will give us strength and resilience. We’re going to see a lot of great ideas. We already do. I believe it’s not going to be easy, but at the same time, we’re going to tap into some areas within ourselves that are going to give us that superpower.

ROB: Right. This is the time where the tourists in the industry might go away, the folks who could stick around when you could just throw a stick and find someone who needed some help with digital advertising. Those types might be on break for a little bit. People need thoughtful performance, and they need someone who’s going to adapt and find those opportunities. It sounds like you are on that journey.

ALANA: I believe I am, yes.

ROB: If we widen the aperture a little bit, Alana, having been in the industry for quite a while and having been a business leader, a business owner, what are some things you would do differently if you were – I mean, you are starting over from scratch, so maybe it’s more interesting to say what are you doing differently this time that you left behind when you left your previous business?

ALANA: Happy to share. One of the things that I wish I did from Day 1 is finding a mentor or mentors. For me, when I found my mentor, Ted Pincus, he was a financial PR pioneer. Unfortunately, he passed away. He made a world of difference within my life. Within the short time that I knew him, he led me to some really important decisions that I’d make. Because of his guidance, I joined an executive management course at Kellogg Business School. I revisited how I managed the business and how I looked at priorities.

I would encourage everyone, no matter where you are in your professional development, whether you work for a small business or a Fortune 5000 organization, I think having the right mentor by your side, who can listen, who can reflect, who can give you guidance, is the most important step you can take towards your success.

ROB: That process of finding and then also recruiting a mentor can be a little bit intimidating. In other words, some people would say that going up to ask someone to be your mentor is a lot like walking up to a stranger and asking them to marry you. How do you think about that process of, number one, finding someone who’s resonant and isn’t just somebody who seems important, and number two, building that relationship to the point where it’s not such a weird question, perhaps, to ask for a mentor?

ALANA: I think there are a number of options. My path to finding Ted Pincus, my mentor, was through another private organization where I reached out to some of the people I knew and I said, “I’m looking for help. I need guidance.” Once people got to know me, they said, “You should talk with Ted and see if he could help you.” Then Ted led me to another person who I greatly respect, Lloyd Shefsky, who was also a part of the Kellogg School, who led me to other ideas and opportunities.

So, it’s kind of a chain reaction. You talk to people, you connect with people, and you find the right person. I see many universities now, their alumni programs, offering that as an option, or there are now online portals where you can go in and look for a mentor or make yourself available to mentor someone.

I think it takes a conversation. It takes creativity, how you reach out to people. If you set an intention and you’re clear on who you need in your life now, I think you’ll find the right solution as long as you’re creative and resourceful.

ROB: Which is all part of success anyhow. I did want to poke in on one thing you said there. You initially said you didn’t say, “I need a mentor”; you said, “I need help.” First of all, asking for help is a tremendously powerful thing, and it’s also a much lower commitment. How soon into that relationship did you feel like it was going to be a long-term one?

ALANA: I knew right away. Ted understood me. He immediately responded to some of the issues that I had, and he really lent constructive support on many levels. This relationship was meant to be, so I was really fortunate to find Ted.

ROB: That’s great. You also mentioned there was a geographic resonance with Northwestern – around Chicago. People do have that affinity around their school that makes them more likely to help, I think. So that all makes plenty of sense there.

For those of us who are not as deep in the wellness industry – I think a lot of us know the lactose, gluten – what are some surprising categories of product that you see coming up? Maybe some new client categories or just the digital marketing world making the universe smaller for people to find exactly what they need?

ALANA: One of the things that I see coming, which makes me really excited – again, I’m going to use the example of food and beverage because I think this is going to be one of the biggest areas where we’re going to see change – is innovation around ingredients, what companies are putting in our food now. There are a lot of breakthroughs around alternatives to sugar.

In fact, my team a few years back was working with an organization, Tate & Lyle, as they were branded a sugar alternative, which was monk fruit. We were engaged in this process, which I was really passionate about. I think we’re going to see a lot of innovation from a product development standpoint, both in food and beverage.

Also, I see a lot of digital innovation of how people experience wellness. With COVID, there are a lot of restrictions. Before, you could go into a yoga studio and take a class with 30 people in a really tight setup; now, that capacity is probably going to be cut in half and classes are going to become more expensive. So, we’re going to see a lot of people continuing their experience digitally in terms of how they’re going to support their wellness.

Another thing that I see, and actually I’m a part of, is I believe we’re going to see a lot of smaller brands creating contribution to the society at large, not just bigger brands. For example, my firm recently launched a project for wellbeing, which is a not-for-profit initiative. We are developing a platform where we make it much easier for people to practice wellbeing. It’s not only about employees; it’s also about the wellbeing of employees’ families and loved ones. So, we’re actually investing resources to build a platform that can create more wellbeing and wellness.

I think we’re going to see more projects like that coming from smaller organizations. Fortune 5000 companies have practiced corporate citizenship for a while, but smaller companies don’t have as many resources. But now, with the transformation we’re seeing, I believe a lot of people will be driven to make an impact and make a contribution and to make it tangible so people can really feel the difference of their efforts.

ROB: A lot of that can line up with these brands also owning their own platforms. I know I’ve seen some things. What have you seen in terms of shifts around smaller brands and ecommerce, perhaps, in this season?

ALANA: Oh, my goodness. I think those companies that were not prepared for digital transformation had to wake up and get their act together really quickly. If you are not prepared to sell your product online –whether on Amazon, on Etsy, or maintaining your independent platform, or a combination of all – you’re going to have a really difficult time sustaining business.

I saw a lot of companies, overnight, getting an online makeover in terms of getting their ecommerce act together, which was very impressive. And I’m not surprised, because we have a lot of tools and technologies. You can build a website overnight. If you know what you stand for and what you want to say, you can do that. We built the For Wellbeing platform in 5 weeks, and it has thousands of resources. Technology creates opportunities right now for people who get it done quickly.

ROB: The toolsets are certainly remarkable, between some of your lightweight website things, your Wixes, your Webflows, your Squarespaces, but even into – a friend of mine runs a company that has been in the grocery space. They’re in technology for grocery gig economy work, and a lot of that went away, and they very quickly stood up not just an online store, but a multi-vendor online store. They’re a mini Amazon that lets all their different clients sell food products online, and they did it so quickly. It would’ve taken months and months, if not over a year, to do this in different areas, and now a Shopify store – I think there’s a reason their stock went up. It’s just so fast, and there are so many tools that integrate, that you can be shipping just shockingly quickly.

ALANA: Absolutely.

ROB: Alana, we’ve pulled forward several years of digital transformation already, so where do you see the next horizon now? People who have been pulled into the future now, what is their next future that they’re being pulled towards that they’re going to have to figure out, as maybe a challenger food brand having a wellness dimension to it?

ALANA: I think brands that can will market around wellness, and this is how Marketing For Wellness is set up, to help organizations to figure out how they can market around wellness. With COVID, you realize that our immune system is the only shield we currently have to protect us against COVID. We don’t know when we’re going to have a vaccine. We don’t know when we’re going to have a treatment or how this virus is going to behave, and are we going to have other viruses that might intrude on our lives? The only thing that we can rely on is our immune system.

So we’re going to see those brands that are already in the space, in food and beverages and wellness, stepping up their game and helping people to support their immune systems. But then we’re going to see companies who might not be in that play – they might be in a different industry, but they want to support their communities. They’re going to start investing into wellbeing and wellness initiatives. That’s one area that I see.

Another one, I definitely forecast huge growth for AR and VR technologies to take off, and for many brands, figuring out how to use it wisely, in a way that people can have meaningful experiences – and there are already some interesting innovations coming, like from Lego, where they employed an AR tool working with a company called 8th Wall to create retail experiences to get people to stay in the store longer and get engaged with the product and buy more. We’re going to see a lot of the area of AR and VR, I believe.

ROB: Around wellness in the past few years, with things like the Apple Watch, and as it’s actually become better, we see people trying to quantify some parts of their health. Same thing with Fitbit. But a lot of the sorts of health that you’re talking about seem like they are harder to quantify – for instance, the quality of the sugar in a particular product or the quality of your gut biome. Is there anything emerging that you see that may quantify a new area of health that has been a little bit unobserved that may help a category pop?

ALANA: Let me first share with you my perspective on all the gadgets. I think they’re awesome. I think we need them. I do want to know how many steps I took. But at the end of the day, if you look at the number of insurance claims, they’re the same. We still see doctors at the same rate as we did a few years ago, regardless of how much investment has been made into gadgets and into platforms. This is just my overall position.

The most accurate measurement of how well your body functions and the most precise measurement is your blood work because gadgets measure some vitals, but it doesn’t give you a complete picture. I saw some really interesting technology coming out of Germany where they actually measure your wellbeing and your wellness using your frequency. It looks promising.

But what I believe in today is simplicity. As long as we can get people to eat better and to perceive food as medicine, if we eliminate toxic ingredients, artificial ingredients from our diet, if we move more, it’s a win. Simple steps. Even if we don’t have any gadgets. [laughs]

ROB: Yeah, simplicity more than technology.

ALANA: Simplicity, yes.

ROB: I dig it. Alana, when people want to find you and find your company, where should they go to find you?

ALANA: They can find me in two places. They can find me on LinkedIn, Alana Sandel, and they can go to our website, marketingforwellness.com.

ROB: That’s a good domain for it. I like it. Alana, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It’s been great chatting with you.

ALANA: My pleasure, Rob. Thank you for inviting me.

ROB: Now more than ever, I can say: Be well.

ALANA: Thank you.

ROB: Bye.

ALANA: Bye.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.