Vitamin or Painkiller: Which is Your Product?


What motivates customers to buy your product? Knowing the answer is essential to targeting the right demographic with your marketing and sales efforts. After all, you don't want to waste your time and money hawking the health benefits of your product if customers buy it primarily for pain management. Likewise, you don't want to talk about managing a chronic health condition when people are buying your product primarily to stay healthy.

This post isn't about pharmaceuticals, however. Vitamins and painkillers in this case are analogies for the two types of products developed by entrepreneurs, and they can be applied to almost any product. The theory was originated by venture capitalist Mahendra Vora and is explored in detail in a Forbes piece by George Deeb.


As Deeb explains it, "vitamin" products are nice things to have, but non-essential. Buyers of vitamin products buy for emotional reasons, not out of necessity. Examples of this type of product include luxury linens, restaurant meals, smartphones (as opposed to basic, functional flip phones), jewelry, and motorcycles.

Many vitamin type products are incredibly successful — and it's true that consumers often buy what they want in addition to (and occasionally instead of) what they need. When vitamin products run into trouble, it's because they are a "feature or functionality" of a painkiller product, rather than a stand-alone vitamin product. My word of caution to the vitamin developers: Make sure your product is big enough to exist on its own!


In contrast, "painkiller" products are essential (or at least semi-essential). Consumers buy them because they fill a specific need. Examples include clothing, a basic automobile, heating and cooling systems, health insurance, and most grocery store items.

Painkiller products tend to be successful when they are meeting a real need — or pain point — for consumers. This is the differentiating factor between success and failure for many products. In a past blog post, I discussed the idea of the MVP (Minimum Viable Product)the smallest possible thing you can build that delivers real value to the customer. The MVP is a great litmus test for whether the product you're developing is a vitamin or a painkiller.

Vitamins, Painkillers, and Marketing

What does this theory have to do with your marketing strategy? Both vitamins and painkiller type products have the potential for runaway success. However, the success of your marketing efforts depends on knowing where you sit and how to market to the right consumers. This means that you need to sit down and determine how your customers view your product or service.

There's a vast difference in how you appeal to someone who views your product as a luxury item as opposed to someone who feels your product is essential. Get the distinction wrong and you risk alienating your customer and losing a potential sale. Whichever category you fall into it, embrace it and let it inform every aspect of your advertising and promotional efforts.

Vitamins, Painkillers, and Investors

From an investment point of view, potential investors are more likely to put their money into a product or service they feel meets an immediate need (painkiller) rather than one they view as a luxury (vitamin.) For start-ups trying to raise capital, that means presenting a new product or service so that potential investors can easily see the need it fills. As Nir Eyal writes in a post for TheNextWeb:

"Innovators in companies big and small are constantly asked to prove their idea is important enough to merit the time and money needed to build it. Gatekeepers such as division heads and managers want to invest in solving real problems — or, meeting immediate needs — by backing painkillers."

Painkiller products excite investors when they fill a need that is persistent and universal. Think about it — this is the kind of product consumers will come back to again and again, recommend to others with the same needs, and become habitually engaged with. Brands that provide painkiller products quickly gain the enthusiasm and loyalty of the customers whose needs they are successfully meeting.

From Vitamin to Painkiller

Eyal notes, however, that sometimes a product that starts out looking and behaving like a vitamin will become a painkiller. These are the real innovations that change the game by becoming essential (or habit-forming) to their customer base. Consider Facebook, for example. In the beginning, it was a novelty for college students, a vitamin that provided a fun diversion. A few early adopters and investors correctly guessed that it would become something much bigger.

Today, almost everyone is on Facebook. In fact, Facebook claims an average of 864 million daily active users as of September 2014! What started as a vitamin product grew into a painkiller, revolutionizing the way we interact with each other online and becoming an essential part of millions of people's daily lives. This is the ultimate goal of a vitamin product, to become so popular that it becomes essential.

Both vitamins and painkiller products can achieve great success. The bottom line is to know from the beginning what you are trying to create, and follow through on that vision 100%. Good luck!

What was the best "vitamin" and/or "painkiller" startup product from 2014? Tweet @SparkLabKC to join the conversation.