Thoughtful Formulations: What Millennials and Gen Z Want in Cough/Cold Products  1/4/2021

In its simplest form, there are really only three things required for success in consumer healthcare: 1) getting the product on the shelf (virtual or otherwise), 2) convincing consumers to take the product off the shelf, and 3) having them repurchase.  

When it comes to Millennials and Gen Z consumers, retail buyers of cough/cold, preventative and allergy products may need to reconsider some of their decision-making criteria when creating an ideal shelf set with broad generational appeal.

First, let’s take a look at the range of products in these categories. It’s important for retailers to have a diverse selection of products that deliver effective cough/cold and allergy solutions. For consumers, these categories can be confusing, with both symptom-relievers and condition-preventers. Further, some of these categories (and their claims) are more highly regulated than others. Coronavirus has certainly accelerated the demand for immunity-boosting nutritional supplements, from Vitamin C to Echinacea. While some homeopathic products containing zinc, like Zicam, claim to shorten the duration of a cold, most (but not all) effective cough/cold remedies are non-prescription drugs.

The symptoms that cough/cold and allergy sufferers experience are as diverse as the sufferers themselves. Some consumers prefer to treat individual symptoms, whereas others seek combination treatment products. Retailers will certainly want to have both drug and non-drug products to treat coughs, chest congestion, runny noses, stuffy noses, body aches and fever.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers, however, evaluate both the product’s formulation and its broader premise. (Buyers and sellers of such products can meet face-to-face at ECRM's upcoming Cough/Cold, Preventative & Allergy Program next month.)

Millennials represent a diverse cohort. The oldest Millennials, born 1981 to 1996, will turn 40 in 2021; the youngest are just 25 years old. As a result, many Millennials are now parents, with concern for their children as well as for themselves.

Many Millennials favor natural alternatives, or at least products without unnecessary additives. Based on the soothing effect of honey, Zarbees offers both adult and pediatric cough syrups and lozenges to relieve sore, irritated throats. A more recent category entrant, Genexa, was started by two dads who put “people over everything” to create “the first clean medicine company”; Genexa products, which include both OTC and homeopathic remedies, are formulated with no artificial dyes, flavors or preservatives.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing disease are also concerns for Millennials, particularly as we progress toward a post-Covid environment. Immunity products are important for this target, including brands like Sambucol which contain elderberry; elderberry has been growing in popularity as an alternative medicine, earning an almost cult-like following.

Millennials also favor products that are aligned with their political and social beliefs, and are willing to pay more for a brand that “gives back.” While we have seen this type of charitable giving with vitamin brands like Smarty Pants under a partnership with Vitamin Angels, cough/cold and allergy brands have yet to take advantage of an altruistic opportunity.

This audience is much more likely to receive marketing messages from social media (especially Instagram) and from influencers. The Millennial consumer is searching for additional information, however, and needs a whole interactive experience; they are seeking to learn as much as possible prior to purchase and are highly conscious of reviews. This decision-making process creates an opportunity for brands to provide education, particularly about their ingredients. Ultimately, the products need to deliver on their promise, however, to score a coveted five-star rating and drive repeat purchase.

Generation Z
Now reaching adulthood, the oldest of the diverse Gen Z will be 24 years old in 2021. Similar to Millennials in some ways, Gen Z consumers are empowered by social causes. They are even more environmentally conscious; products like Biovanta, the only 100% naturally derived over-the-counter drug for the treatment of cold symptoms, including sore throat and cough, should appeal to this audience. Yet Biovanta is surprisingly regulated as (and therefore has the efficacy of) a non-prescription drug with active ingredients, including aspirin, from natural sources.

Gen Z consumers favor personalization. The start-up brand Cabinet offers personalized advice to “cut through the drug store confusion” with “expertly curated kits” delivering the right OTC medicine for specific cough/cold symptoms at a no-frills price. This direct-to-consumer experience enables consumers to search by symptom and promises to be “always gluten free”. 

With a desire for societal change, Gen Z has a mindset of inclusivity. Having grown up with a screen in their hands, these consumers are digitally savvy, open to the upstart brand, and supportive of underdogs with admiration for the entrepreneur.

Gen Z is more likely to consume their social media via TikTok.  They want their brands to be authentic and “keep it real”, yet are drawn to artistically beautiful products and creative expression. For these consumers, this delicate balance needs to be struck in all forms of communication, including packaging.  

Beauty and creative expression can also be delivered with innovative dosage forms. Founded in 2016, Seattle Gummy Company has launched immunity gummies and announced that it is working with FDA to develop Benadryl, Tylenol, Nyquil and Mucinex gummies.

Assuming that retailers (virtual or otherwise) stock products that are attractive to Millennials and Gen Z, it is important for buyers to encourage manufacturers to get the right message to the right audience. Given that the first impression can often be online in one form or another, marketers need to make their brand stand-out, especially when the consumer no longer can touch or interact with the product before they purchase.

Messaging the younger generations
What message should brands targeting Millennials or Gen Z deliver about their brands to ensure that consumers will make the purchase? 

  • Have a story of authenticity. Explain the brand’s origin. Tell consumers who you are, what you stand for in this world, and what you believe in.
  • Keep it simple. The message should be straight-forward, as should the formulation. Don’t add artificial stuff (language or ingredients) if it’s not needed.
  • Be as natural as possible, both in communications and in the formulation.
  • There is elegance in clarity.  All forms of communications, including the packaging and the look and feel of the product can be attractive in this manner.
  • Help consumers on a one-on-one basis to discover the solution for what ails them. Thoughtful formulations can cut through the clutter of the cough/cold or allergy aisle with carefully curated remedies that simplify the decision-making process.
  • Develop marketing and content campaigns that are native to the social platforms in which these two groups live on, such as Instagram and TikTok.

Of course, all of the bells and whistles to attract Millennials and Gen Z won’t work if the products aren’t effective. Buyers need to ensure that products deliver on their promise, because if not, there won’t be any repeat and the “thoughtful formulation” won’t appear so thoughtful.


Susan Levy

Founder & Principal
Susan B. Levy Consulting

Susan B. Levy has over 30 years of global, cross-functional experience in the consumer healthcare industry and has worked for industry leaders such as Merck/Schering-Plough, Pfizer/Warner-Lambert and SmithKline Beecham. In 2011, Susan founded Susan B. Levy Consulting, LLC, a boutique consulting firm that works with consumer health and wellness companies to develop and implement growth strategies.

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