Direct sticks: does the opportunity outweigh the development challenges?

Published: 2-Sep-2022

Matevž Ambrožič, Marketing and PR Director at PharmaLinea, examines why you should consider launching products in direct stick format — despite the development challenges involved — and what health areas and markets they’re most suitable for

A direct stick is an innovative delivery form that has elicited a positive response from the market. They are an appealing format for consumers with a fast-paced lifestyle who prefer to take their supplements on the go. An increasing number of leading companies are deciding to launch products in stick form, but what are the development challenges involved and which categories and regions are they fit for?

Recently, direct sticks have been gaining a lot of popularity with both brands and consumers. The latter are convinced by the convenience of the format. For many people who live very busy lives, this user-friendly form that can be consumed on the go, without water, goes a long way.

There is a lower chance of spilling than with classic sachets and a reduced chance of taking an incorrect dose than with non-single dose supplements. It is no wonder, then, that many of the leading companies have recently launched products in direct stick form, including Sanofi, Holland & Barrett, Herbitia Fill and Dompé.

But as convenient as direct sticks are for consumers, the development process can be quite demanding, especially when it comes to orodispersible powders. Delivering a product that disperses quickly and effortlessly, while not inducing the production of too much saliva, can be complex — especially when we are constrained by the final amount of powder.

The volume of material — powder or liquid — that is pleasant to consume in this way is very limited; therefore, there is little space for active ingredients and excipients. Additionally, taste buds are in direct contact with very concentrated ingredients.

Direct sticks: does the opportunity outweigh the development challenges?

For the user experience to remain pleasant, developers need to find a way to make the product taste good, which, for some formulations, can pose a considerable challenge. Examples of problematic ingredients include botanical extracts that are often bitter or minerals such as iron that have a strong metallic taste.

Another difficulty in the development process is ensuring that consuming the product will not result in teeth or tongue staining. And, finally, for the format to retain its convenience factor, developers need to make sure there will be no stickiness or powder clumping. To be able to deliver all of this, with the additional requirement to keep the formulation sugar-free, a lot of knowledge and effort is required.

Direct sticks are a trending format in several segments, but they are especially appropriate in certain regions and for specific health areas. In some of the most developed European markets, such as Germany and Italy, some of the fastest growing SKUs among iron and UTI supplements come in direct stick form.

For example, the number one iron supplement in Germany, EISEN VERLA plus, is available in direct sticks, and OmniVision, the number one eye health supplement brand in Germany, has also recently launched an SKU in this form. The popularity of the direct stick delivery format is growing in certain Asian markets as well.

For example, Mintel GNPD data shows that 67% of all tracked new supplement launches in stickpack form in 2021 were in the Asia-Pacific region — with South Korea launching more than half of those products, followed by Japan, China, Taiwan and Thailand.

The format itself is more frequently used in health areas that are already crowded with products, such as those with immunity and energy function claims.

For example, Holland & Barrett (Immunity Support) and Dompé (Bioritmon Energy Defend) both launched products in direct stick form in 2022.

When we discuss these indications, we need to keep in mind that they are among the more developed and there is already a substantial number of products available in those markets. Therefore, direct stick delivery form can bring much-needed market differentiation when launching a new product. Developing such products may come at a slightly higher price, but it’s well worth it.

Of course, this delivery form can be used for products with other functional claims as well. Interestingly, iron supplementation and preventive UTI supplementation are two segments in which we see high demand for our direct stick products. It appears that any supplement segment wherein products are consumed daily, for the long-term and can therefore be taken in a hurry, may be fit for direct sticks.

There are, however, some limitations to using direct stickpacks, such as joint health products. Those often contain a high dose of collagen ingredients and, consequently, they would contain much more powder than would be pleasant to consume for the user.

Despite presenting some development challenges, direct sticks are becoming a new trending delivery format. They bring clear differentiation for brands who are considering new product launches in developed segments and are excellent for improving compliance and consequent consumer retention.

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