By Brian Howard
Picture a devotee of alternative health methods—chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, and the suchlike—and you'll likely imagine the hippie type with incense burning and a tape of forest sounds playing in the background.
Think again: Alternative health may one day become a misnomer, as more Americans seek care outside of traditional allopathic methods, i.e., drugs and surgery.
Alternative health principles—prevention, natural remedies and treating the whole body rather than individual parts—have existed throughout the world for centuries, yet have only gained a foothold with mainstream health institutions in America in the last 20 years. There may be no better indicator of the mushrooming prominence of alternative health in this country than the fact that employer insurance plans are becoming increasingly receptive to covering alternative methods of care.
According to the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists, approximately one-fifth of companies offered benefits covering alternative treatments other than chiropractic (which is the most widely accepted form of alternative care, and was covered by 86 percent of employers surveyed). And those numbers were compiled three years ago.
A Wide Swath
The alternative health field is large and multi-faceted, encompassing chiropractic, yoga, homeopathy, herbal remedies, dietary supplements, acupuncture, massage therapy and more.
According LOHAS Journal, the "lifestyles of health and sustainability" market—which includes alternative health, as well as environmental, social justice and sustainable living issues—spends in the neighborhood of $230 billion per year on products in this field.
The Web site for the American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) summarizes surveys conducted between 1990 and 2000 to measure the prevalence of what it calls complementary and alternative medicine. All but one of the independently conducted surveys place the alternative health population of the United States somewhere in the 35 percent to 45 percent range.
However, statistics defining the alternative health market are a bit fuzzy, since there's no real consensus on what is and what is not alternative health. Suzan Walter, president of the AHHA, believes that these figures would show more growth if the categories included in the studies were consistent. "For all of these statistics," she says, "you have to ask, 'what were they including?'"
For example, now chiropractic is considered mainstream by many, and therefore may not be represented in later studies.
Either way, the almost simultaneous rise to prominence of organic grocery store Whole Foods, book club One Spirit, and catalogs GAIAM (sustainable living) and Pacific Spirit (spiritual gifts), which cater to this market, is pretty overwhelming proof of a phenomenon.
What They Want
Patricia Gift, editorial director of One Spirit, recalls seeing the Dalai Lama speak recently. "He said something along the lines of, 'We all want to live longer, but we don't want to grow old,'" recalls Gift. "People want an extended life, but they don't want it in the same way their grandparents had it."
Gift feels that the stereotypical view of alternative health is "a pretty outdated viewpoint as to who the
market really is."
"The majority of the market," says Gift, "is aging baby boomers, with a fair amount of disposable income, who are well-educated, and are interested in living longer and doing it well."
Though Gift, who places herself in this market's demographic, says she's seen more men becoming involved in alternative health, it's still about 80-percent female.
Book categories that do particularly well for One Spirit include women's health, diet and nutrition, non-Western medicine, and yoga.
Gift suggests exercise props, dietary supplements, vitamins and minerals as products that will appeal to this market. "And certainly," adds Gift, "these are people who are predisposed to go to workshops and lectures, and take classes having to do with these subject areas."
P. S. Khalsa, president of NAM Lists, got into the business selling the mailing list for his New Consciousness Sourcebook, one of the first directories of alternative health practitioners.
He notes that the market "tends to be more liberal politically … and [has] an interest in issues such as the
environment and animal rights."
With regards to creative and strategy, Khalsa says, "Be more direct … [and] tone the hype down."
This is a market of consumers who are ready to buy, but who need to be convinced of an offer's long-term benefit to themselves and the world around them.