Patients Are Consumers

Vital Cuisine products (Image credit: Hormel Foods)

There are 18 million cancer patients going through therapy right now, and that number increases by 2 million or so annually. After combating illness, the biggest challenge they face is nutrition; their metabolisms change, as do their tastes and capacity to prepare meals, and loss of weight or muscle mass is the No. 1 reason they’re readmitted to hospitals.

So Hormel Foods decided to do something about it, and found itself inventing a new customer segment.

“People are sensitive marketing products to cancer patients,” explained Wendy A. Watkins, vice president of corporate communications at Hormel Foods, and herself a breast cancer survivor.

“Had my husband not been a chef, I don’t know how I would have eaten.

It turns out that the company, which specializes in protein-based consumer products and side dishes, is almost half-owned by a foundation that supports cutting-edge cancer research, focusing much of its largesse on food chemistry at the nearby Hormel Institute. One of its researchers, Chet S. Rao, Ph.d., started with Hormel Foods in 2005, moved to the company’s Specialty Foods group in 2007, and is now its business development manager.

“At a dinner, Jeff [Chairman of the Board & CEO Jeff Ettinger] challenged us to innovate ways to bring taste and nutrition to cancer patients,” said Rao. The mandate was a surprise, but also it wasn’t, according to Watkins: Ettinger regularly gives his organization such big challenges, and keeps tab on their progress.

“We know a lot about how to make food tasty, but the needs of people with cancer as consumers, not simply as patients, wasn’t covered well,” Rao said. “So we went knocking on doors.”

Rao began discussions with the Hormel Institute and Dr. Paul Limburg at the Mayo Clinic, which led him to the Cancer Nutrition Consortium (“CNC”), which had done research on the science of cancer patient nutrition needs, and was working on finding solutions. All of the research pointed to their overriding need to get calories and fluids, and not vitamins (which were usually provided via supplements).

“We learned that cancer patients have unique issues.”

Hormel Foods also sent an anthropologist to visit patients’ homes and discovered the requirements for things like specific labeling content. The company drew on its other businesses, like the expertise its grocery products division has in quick-prep meals, and innovated an online distribution channel, since volume (called “velocities”) wouldn’t be large enough to capture the necessary retail space.

When they brought samples of possible products to the CNC for feedback, they struck out on, of all things, taste.

Round No. 2 was much better, consisting of shakes and protein powders, which were launched in January, and 60-second meals that could be eaten warm or cold, and will start shipping this month. The company hopes to reach 1% of the population of cancer patients this year and can see growing to 10% over time.

Creating the new line, dubbed Vital Cuisine, took only 18 months from inception to market ready. It could have extensions for other maladies, such as nutrition for Alzheimer’s patients, further down the road.

“We’re sharing a portion of the sales proceeds with the CNC, to fund a pediatric cancer research project that will kick off this fall,” Watkins said.

“It’s very hard to talk about this as a marketing opportunity,” Rao added.

“You have to be authentic about why you’re doing it.”

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