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Selling Immortality: How Elysium Brands Its Impossible Promise

by Erin J. Mullikin

“When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick.” George Burns, who spent 93 years in show business, and famously died mere weeks after turning 100, had a humorous way of looking at his century on the planet.

Burns’ self-effacing nature is not widely shared in today’s culture, which is obsessed with aging. In 2015, the global anti-aging market surpassed $281.6 billion: an enormous annual haul for preventing illness, joint corrosion, cellulite, stretch marks, bone weakening, wrinkles, gray hair, incontinence, and memory loss (to name a few). Thanks to the exploding biotech industry, by 2020 the world will be spending $331.3 billion each year to forestall the effects of aging.

The anti-aging industry is massive because aging (at least for humans) and dying are inevitable. It’s a market driven by certainty: everyone is going to age and everyone is going to die. Any business in this space is among thousands, and it’s perpetually difficult to find ways to be different. When every product is trying to meet the same underlying need — stave off the fact of aging — it’s easy for consumers to see them as the same or similar — with only slightly differentiated features and benefits.

In a cacophony of options, it’s effective message that allows brands to break through the din.

George Burns understood his brand: his signature humor and cigar helped him build a career that spanned from vaudeville to radio to television to film — the first of which he starred in at 79. “I don’t believe in dying. It’s been done. I’m working on a new exit. Besides, I can’t die now — I’m booked.” Burns defied aging with an endearing authenticity, despite its visible effect on his body. For the companies offering Burns-like vitality at a price, the issue of authenticity rings even more true: Are the changes all skin-deep, or a genuine salve in the inevitable march toward mortality?

The Place of Rest, Blessed By the Gods

Meet Elysium. Not quite the golden fields and natural, ephemeral place in Greek mythology where gods were given immortality, but pretty close, if you believe their story.

Co-founded by legendary MIT biologist and anti-aging researcher Leonard Guarente, Elysium seems like, indeed, a mythological paradise with a 2017 update: pristine labs and genius scientists attempting to hack man’s cellular structures to slow how and when we age, with the possibility of extending the human lifespan.

Elysium sells a combination of two, readily available over-the-counter supplements— if you can fork over $60 per month. Pay-per-month programs are quite common across health services, so the business model is nothing new. What makes Elysium stand out is the language it uses to tell its story. Where other health and wellness subscriptions might promise fantastic results, Elysium focuses on scientific validity and advancement. Elysium’s scientific advisory board is made up of seven Nobel Laureates in chemistry and physiology or medicine, and that certainly lends credibility to its messaging.

Elysium has a highly-touted advisory board on its website, which it uses to elevate the company’s purpose above its competitors’ commercial concerns, further giving an air of credibility: “Rather than endorsing a specific product, this network of scientists, clinicians and health professionals advises the Elysium team on product identification and development, clinical studies and ongoing research.” The advisory board is augmented by partnerships with the University of Cambridge, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford to research aging and cellular health. These laureates and partners are the gods in the fields of Elysium.

Elysium presents science in a way that is easy to understand, along with its vision and promise of potential. The company has mastered the art of translating scientific advances that could transform humanity into sharable elements consumable over social media. Yet it is exactly this process of translation that paradoxically makes the promise unclear.

Translating Science is the Story

Any consumer who has browsed health products is familiar with the term antioxidant. But what percentage of buyers really know what an antioxidant is? Most don’t – they just know that antioxidants are supposed to be good for them. Antioxidants are only an example of how marketing for supplements takes advantage of ignorance and reliance on hope. Consumers trust terms like organic, non-GMO, natural, supplement, and immunity boosters even if they don’t understand the science behind why those terms matter in the first place.

Elysium might be a young company, but the science behind what Elysium promises to do has been around for much longer, and it may be the first to so overtly tie themselves to the scientific community. With such a heavy emphasis on science and its illustrious academic backing, most consumers would assume Elysium’s product, Basis, has been approved by the FDA. But since Elysium markets Basis as a dietary supplement, it isn’t. Some might find the combination of human test subjects and limited oversight alarming; however, Elysium goes out of its way to assuage these concerns by stating they are “creating a new category in the health industry by translating advances in science and technology into effective, scientifically sound health products available to people in their everyday lives.”

They’re even nice enough to break it down in an animated video:

It’s proven that cellular science works for anti-aging, but there’s a fine line when it comes to branding between a science-backed supplement and a quack remedy. Elysium must navigate a tough balance: as a non-FDA approved product, Basis is missing the peer review and critical eye that verify whether its claims hold up. On the other hand, the health supplements industry is rife with snake oil products that promise unlikely results and rely more on ignorance of the consumer than on sound science.

Elysium bridges this gap by translating the technical language of its scientific research to a more general vernacular. Slick marketing reinforces the mission “to solve the biggest challenges in health with science, to help people live healthier, longer.” Elysium even states honestly, “The time required to develop a new product is approximately two years, and not all compounds that we research or study in pre-clinical and clinical trials will ultimately come to market.” This admission of vulnerability builds trust immediately. Even its minimalist packaging design demonstrates a deliberate nod to present and futuristic sleek design — there’s elegance to it that supersedes any vitamin or supplement you’ll find at GNC.

There are no simple pill bottles at Elysium – instead, solutions arrive as if emanating from the future of medicine and science.

Elysium’s branding efforts and apparent transparency have certainly made an impression on others: Fast Company says that Elysium offers “[t]he opportunity is the chance to make a difference by translating findings in the booming field of aging research directly to consumers today.” Scientific American states: “Elysium is taking no chances when it comes to scientific credibility…I can’t remember a startup with more stars in its firmament.” New York claims: “[T]he pill’s seduction was powerful. The potential benefit was profound.”

Read the complete, original sources, however, and things appear less clear. Most sources, including the ones with selected quotes used by Elysium themselves, question the validity of Elysium – the product and the nature of the company.

For all of its lofty claims and scientific advisers, the compounds Elysium uses in Basis are identical to those found in other products. Along with dozens of other supplement companies, Elysium purchases these compounds from ChromaDex. In the short-term, a story about evading the certainty of death might push Elysium to success. But if the product itself can’t keep the promise, will the company be anything more than a flash in the pan?

Out of the One Fear Come Many

Elysium is just one of many high-tech companies peddling a solution to prolonged life.

Mortality has been the one obstacle that has escaped every person, no matter how intelligent or what resources they have access to. It’s why the promise of “solving” this problem is so enticing, both for the companies working on it, and the consumers who embrace the products they produce. After all, if both aging and dying are inevitable, what is there to lose? And how much are consumers willing to both believe and pay for the chance to undo the undeniable?

George Burns once told The Washington Post, “You can always pay someone to make it better.” Although it took 88 years for him to arrive at that observation, he wasn’t talking about aging – he was referring to creating material for entertainment. In business, that same maxim may not apply. Failing to offer context in marketing places consumers are at the mercy of a company’s collateral and messaging. When that message is earnest and authentic, it can be a powerful signal to customers that they have found a solution for their ills. However, if that story is merely skin-deep and does not apply to the core of the product, it becomes one of deceit, and spoils the authentic relationship a company is building with its consumers.

Erin J. Mullikin is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.