Health Pros Play Leading Role in Push for Brand Loyalty

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Lean Cuisine's 'Weigh This' campaign
Lean Cuisine's 'Weigh This' campaign Credit: Lean Cuisine
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Organic baby food maker Plum Organics got an unexpected free plug a couple years ago when Kate Middleton told Vanity Fair that she satisfies young Prince George's hunger pangs with the marketer's additive-free baby food. But while a shout-out from the royal family is always nice, Plum prefers to spend its influencer marketing dollars on dieticians and doctors, not future kings.

Celebrity plugs can help make a product look cool, said Ben Mand, senior VP-brand marketing and innovation at Plum Organics. But "baby food is a serious thing, especially for parents," he added. So "at the end of the day, they also are going to look to their physician, their pediatrician or other health-minded, nutrition-minded researchers."

That is why Plum Organics and other brands seeking a wellness halo are increasingly hooking up with certified health professionals to plug their products in tweets, videos and sponsored blog posts. Celebrities might have massive followings, but doctors, veterinarians, nutritionists, fitness instructors and other health pros bring trust—something that brands crave as they seek loyalty from increasingly skeptical consumers.

When asked who they trust most to provide accurate information about foods they should be eating, 70% of consumers chose their personal healthcare professional, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation's 2015 food and health survey. Only 24% of respondents chose a food expert on TV and just 7% said food companies. (People could make up to three choices.)

Plum, which is owned by Campbell Soup Co., earlier this year established a five-person wellness advisory panel, whose members include a practicing pediatrician and a registered dietitian. Plum uses the group to advise on product development, but also for influencer marketing. One of the members is Lindsay Stenovec, a registered dietitian/nutritionist. She has authored several sponsored posts on Plum's behalf on babycenter.com, a popular pregnancy and parenting advice site. One post provided advice on "combo feeding," meaning alternating between breast milk and formula. The post did not overtly plug Plum (other than a sponsored logo), but the brand stood to gain because it sells an organic formula product.

Another brand tapping into the power of professional health influencers is Lean Cuisine. The Nestlé brand and agency 360i used certified fitness instructor Cassey Ho in a recent campaign called "Weigh This" that sought to change the brand's perception from diet food to a modern health and lifestyle brand. Ms. Ho, who runs a fitness site called Blogilates, was among the influencers the brand tapped to try a device that connects to a TV and mutes the audio when the word "diet" is mentioned. Ms. Ho posted a video about the device on her YouTube channel that drew more than 1 million views.

"I would sooner work with somebody like Cassey than I would with Kim Kardashian because she has an authenticity about the particular topic we are talking about, in this case wellness," said 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter.

Health pros might have fewer followers than celebs, "but the following they do have is quite devoted to what they are saying," said Karen Koslow, co-founder of a new agency called Wellness Amplified, which connects brands with credentialed health and wellness experts. The agency's influencer network targets the "power middle," defined as health pros with between 10,000 and 250,000 online followers.

Certified professionals are less likely than celebrities to make embarrassing social media mistakes, Ms. Koslow said. Case in point: Earlier this year, reality TV star Scott Disick tried to do an endorsement on Instagram for health food brand Bootea. But he cut and pasted the exact instructions from the marketing team, including "Here you go, at 4pm est, write the below," according to a report by Refinery29.

Wellness Amplified prefers to work with people like Dr. Andy Roark, a South Carolina-based veterinarian who runs a website targeting vets and pet owners. The agency recently hooked him up with Pettura, a dietary supplement for dogs that comes in liquid form. Dr. Roark crafted a BuzzFeed-like post titled "The 5 Ridiculous Reactions Your Dog Has to Being Pilled" that was sponsored by Pettura and targeted vets. The post plugged the brand subtly, providing a link where vets could get a free trial of Pettura, described as "your anecdote to fussy pill takers."

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