Retailers & Brands Need to Adjust to the Rise of Weight-Loss Drugs 

Jan. 31, 2024

By Phil Lempert, SupermarketGuru, Consumer Trend Tracker, Food Trends Editor, NBC’s Today, and Author

A Forbes Health/OnePoll survey found that improving fitness is the top resolution for 48% of respondents, followed by improving finances (38%), mental health (36%), losing weight (34%), and improving diet (32%). The survey also underscores the significant role money plays in people’s resolutions, with a majority believing that improving their financial situation would positively impact their emotional health, relationships, fitness, and diet​. The Forbes poll also reported that only 8% of those surveyed stuck with their goals for one month and the average resolution lasts 3.74 months. For those of us that include health and wellness resolutions, this year’s success rate may be considerably better.

Understanding the trajectory and status of the significant pharmaceutical advancements of GLP-1 (Glucagon-like peptide-1) is crucial for food and retail brands. The GLP-1 receptor that mimics the actions of a neurotransmitter or hormone in our brains has transitioned from diabetes treatments to mainstream therapeutic options, offering vast opportunities, and challenges, for brand and retail marketers.

GLP-1s made their debut in the early 2000s, initially approved for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. These drugs mimic the action of the natural hormone GLP-1, enhancing insulin secretion, suppressing glucagon release, and leading to improved blood glucose control. The first GLP-1 Exenatide (Byetta), was approved by the FDA in 2005, marking the beginning of a new era in diabetes management.

A pivotal moment for the GLP-1 drugs was the discovery of their potential in treating obesity. With obesity rates soaring globally – a 2023 report published by the World Obesity Atlas predicts that 51% (over 4 billion people) will be obese by 2035 – the demand for effective weight management solutions became more pressing. GLP-1s, particularly Semaglutide under the brand name Wegovy, received FDA approval for chronic weight management in 2021. This marked a significant shift, positioning GLP-1s not just as diabetes drugs but as essential players in the obesity treatment market.

As GLP-1 medications, like Ozempic, Mounjaro and Wegovy, continue to increase in popularity, usage and become more available, Gary Stibel, Founder & CEO of The New England Consulting Group, told me that the implications of these drugs on the food, healthcare, clothing, and weight loss industries are bigger than anyone can imagine.

One impact that frankly I never thought of will be the demand for more plastic surgery procedures as people shed those pounds and look to tighten the loose skin on their bellies, necks, and other body parts. The average industry estimate for the number of Americans on GLP-1s by the year 2030, Stibel said, is more than 23 million; his estimate is far greater. He and The New England Consulting Groups’ healthcare project manager, Riley McCarthy, predict the number to exceed 36 million. Based on today’s U.S. population, that’s more than one in ten people.

Stibel explained that the job of the food industry, to date, has been to encourage and increase consumption, and GLP-1s will change that way of thinking as people eat less. His team has created a proprietary model of four AIs of GLP-1s — Physiological, Mental, Social and Psychological — to help marketers fully understand the implications on their brands and services.

Kim Severson, one of my favorite writers at the New York Times, recently wrote the thought-provoking “In the Ozempic Age, Has Craveable Lost its Selling Power?” It’s a must-read feature everyone in the food world and adds another dimension to the challenges for the food brands.

Cravable for food brands has long stood as a beacon for food developers to produce products with qualities that engender a desire, sometimes an intense desire, for “more.” All too often those properties are sugar, salt, and fat. And all too often they can become addictive and are found front and center in ultra-processed foods.

There is more to being craveable. Creating craveable foods is an art that involves a delicate balance of flavor, texture, aroma, and visual appeal, and a touch of emotional connection. Food is not just sustenance; it should also offer comfort, celebration, and tradition. Effective food brands should aim to create an emotional connection through their food offerings. The crux of craveability lies in the perfect balance of flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and each of these taste profiles play a vital role. Texture is often a second thought to flavor, but it’s a critical component of food that’s craved. The contrast between crunchy and creamy, or the satisfying bite of a high-quality piece of dark chocolate, can elevate a food from good to crave-worthy.

And then there is the aroma. We’ve all walked into a bakery, or our grandmother’s kitchen, and sensed the overwhelming desire because of that warming aroma for a piece of that crusty bread or just baked pie. Even walking through the produce department, where the scents of fresh citrus puts us in a better mood, is as powerful as aromatherapy.

Severson begins her column mentioning (and showing us) the memorable advertising from Frito Lay’s award-winning and powerful TV ad where actor Bert Lahr held up a potato chip and challenged a generation by simply saying “Betcha can’t eat just one.” She goes on to cite other examples of craveable foods and how brands advertise them to lure consumers towards craving them – but the takeaway from her column is posing the question to food marketers on how they will have to respond with new recipes as the GLP-1 drugs change the way people consume foods.

These drugs, as The New England Consulting Groups 4-AIs demonstrate, eliminate food cravings – and that will create a major change and challenge for food brands. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Emerita at New York University, told Severson that these drugs are “an existential threat to the food industry and certainly an existential threat to the processed food industry.”

Other experts aren’t as convinced as Nestle that these drugs are game-changing. I tend to agree with her and do believe that the food world is at a turning point, not just because of these GLP-1 drugs, but also because consumers are fed up with long lists of ingredients, preservatives and artificial anythings in our foods. During the pandemic, we saw shoppers all around us temporarily gravitate to comfort and highly processed foods to make us feel good in a time of unprecedented stress. But the pandemic is over, and we are finally seeing increased awareness and interest in the foods we eat.

As food inflation also reached new heights, our shoppers paid more attention to the foods they chose and reading labels. The food industry does not have to – or should – sacrifice craveability. There will be marketing challenges for sure, and a re-education for those one in ten shoppers will be critical. As an industry we just must work a bit harder to make better- for-you foods and non-ultra-processed foods as craveable as Bert Lahr’s challenge.