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DALL-E's interpretation of poop as the hero of the gut microbiome story

For the love of poop, rebrand your microbiome startup!

September 7, 2023

Editor’s Note: Adam Hanft – an advisor to AgFunder, [disclosure: AgFunder is AgFunderNews’s parent company]– is a widely-respected brand strategist who advises Fortune 500 companies, and the world’s most innovative startups. He sits on the boards of Scotts Miracle-Gro – the leader in the consumer lawn and garden space, and a significant investor in cannabis – as well as 1800Flowers. Adam is co-author of the “Dictionary of the Future,” co-host of the podcast JOLTY, a frequently published journalist, multi-award-winning creative director, and active investor in all things plant-based. He was a strategic and digital advisor to the 2008 Obama campaign, and to the current Prime Minister of Israel. Email him at [email protected].

The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AgFunderNews.

The world’s oldest joke, traceable to 1900 BC and the Sumerians, is nothing less and nothing more than fart humor.

The durability of such jokes is captured in a Wikipedia page titled “Toilet Humor,” which manages to include everything from Mozart to South Park. In other words, we’ve been fascinated by this subject since the dawn of communication.

Today we recognize that our microbiome — especially gut microbiome — is central to a life of well being. With that in mind, we need to dig into our fascinations and phobias with our feces with a public health focus that hasn’t been necessary since the mid-19th century.

It was back in 1854 when the British physician John Snow identified the fecal-oral route of transmission as the culprit behind London’s cholera outbreak.

Snow’s discovery primed our rational brain with reasons to see feces as unadulterated evil. This science joined with the psychological explanations for our bowel bias, like feces as symbolic of death and the Bible’s view of it as unclean.

And yet, poop can be our ally, too. For example, the publication Vice several years ago did some research and uncovered the history of poop as a weapon in a story called “Brown Death.”  The result: an inexpungable waste revulsion.

There is a method to the madness of my excrementitous excursion, which brings me back to the microbiome. We are in a post-Snow moment, propelled through the alimentary canal of poop history by the growing amount of data about the profound role of the gut microbiome in health and wellness.

DALL-E’s interpretation of poop as the hero of the gut microbiome story

Wellness starts with poop

Nature magazine explains the role of the gut microbiome like this:

“Differences in gut microbiome composition and function have been associated with a variety of chronic diseases ranging from gastrointestinal inflammatory and metabolic conditions to neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses.”

An out-of-balance microbiome can potentially trigger autoimmune conditions that include rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. The gut-brain axis and populations of intestinal microbiota are also related to neuropathologies such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and ADHD.”

With so much research pointing to the microbiome as a “forgotten organ,” it’s no wonder that gobs of venture funding are flowing into startups targeting this opportunity. “Silicon Valley is coming from your gut microbiome” screams CNBC, noting that nearly $500 million was invested in 2021, the last year data was tracked.

This August, a startup called Viome raised a Series C of $86.5 million, bringing its total raise to $175 million; it recently signed a distribution deal with CVS.

A company called DayTwo, which analyzes the microbiome of those with Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic issues, and prescribes a personalized diet to manage glucose, has so far raised $90.4 million.

These startups often use a “razor and blade” model. Viome gives away its “Gut Intelligence” sequencing test as part of a monthly subscription, which includes personalized “precision probiotics, prebiotics and supplements,” as well as nutritional recommendations and coaching, for $69.95 a month.

Yet despite all the detailed marketing about the science, what’s missing is the centrality of poop in the process. Wellness starts with a stool specimen. But for all the cultural and psychological reasons I have discussed, this poop reality is largely ignored. You have to work to find the actual language on these companies’ websites, where it is enveloped in euphemism.

That’s understandable. It’s easier to trumpet the benefits of a healthy microbiota than to talk about having to go fishing in the toilet.

But it is also a fundamental mistake.

Reframing our relationship to feces

To create the behavior changes necessary to achieve mass adoption, companies on a microbiotic mission must take on the challenge of reframing our fundamental relationship to poop.  Consumers need to be inspired to run to poop, not from it.

In an early warning sign of trouble, DayTwo recently announced it was laying off dozens of employees.

With the hype-bottoming of crypto, NFTs, and the metaverse an unfaded cautionary tale, the exploding microbiome sector must create a run-to-poop future. It can do so by moving beyond science, to storytelling. Beyond just science, to be more accurate.

In fact, there are few categories where storytelling is as essential, because the perceptual mountain is so, so high. That’s why I urge every microbiome CEO to read William Ian Miller’s “The Anatomy of Disgust,” a cultural history that revolutionizes the history of revulsion.

Yet currently, the major players speak like high-school biology classes. Viome lectures consumers about “…advanced RNA-based testing, addressing root causes and supporting overall wellness and longevity.”

Missing is a narrative superstructure that follows the archetypes of storytelling, recognizing the essential role that emotion plays in all buying decisions. To offset the psychological and cultural biases that resound with negativity, fear and disgust — we flush poop down the toilet as we flush away evil — marketers must construct what the storytelling master J.R. R. Tolkien called an “enchanted state.”

I know that sounds airy-fairy, but neuroscientists recognize that our brains are wired for stories — about the world, each other, ourselves. When stories connect with existing pathways, the neuro-coupling elevates our dopamine. The psychologist Jerome Bruner described our evolved brains as primed for “narrative thinking”; Oliver Sachs wrote that “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ … this narrative is us, our identities.”

How to make poop our hero

So how can those who’ve raised millions by encouraging us to test our poop, swallow supplements, and change our diet, put all this into action?

First, the industry must construct a narrative that uses innovative storytelling that’s the equal of their innovative science:

Like this…

Your poop is a superpower that can bring you on a journey to fulfillment

and self-actualization.

It is the living window into your microbiome.

It gives you the ability to fight back against the battalion of enemies that

stand in the way of wellness.

Those enemies are a toxic world, an industrial food system, and antibiotics that destroy the life force in your gut.

These forces are conspiring to turn your own body against you.

At every turn they want to steal your joy and pleasure.

We are the hero who can restore and rescue your basic biology.

Poop opens a new path through a dangerous world.

The place to start this brand journey is by heroizing our poop, beginning with the very act of collection.

Microbiome brands should replace their clinical sampling vessels with cool designs that can move from the medicine chest to the kitchen counter, paralleling the aesthetics of water bottles. Get Karim Rashid to design them. The new form factor will trigger neural circuits of delight, using beauty to create positive reinforcement cycles that push out the filth circuitry and replace it with clean circuitry.

Beyond re-branding poop as a signifier of clean health that vanquishes the enemies of wellbeing, the new wave of genomic startups should gamify collection, using incentives and other tactics that the videogame industry has mastered. Each sample should be part of a dopamine-inducing reward cycle, tracked on sticky and visually appealing apps.

What’s more, the content can be extended into actual video games that show the microbiome triumphing over evil; by embedding poop into cultural norms and forms, it becomes mainstream. Scientists are using fossil poop to study the dinosaurs; microbiome companies can enlist their consumers in a new form of citizen science.

At the same time, the microbiome space must be de-hackified, soaring beyond the early adopter biohackers and fanatic optimizers. It will take sophisticated consumer marketing talent to accomplish this mainstreaming. The industry must move past its founders, most of whom come from the body-as-laboratory community, and don’t appreciate the power of the story to hit us, well, in the gut.

Poopaganda for the masses

This new poopaganda plan needs to go beyond physicians and scientists. Get chefs and other influencers to join the mission. Now is the moment to associate the microbiome with the foodie culture; you can’t be a true foodie without being a poopie.

Stories also require a powerful visual dimension, which is totally lacking. Brands in this category need to hire brilliant artists and have them create their vision of what a healthy microbiome looks like. And what its enemies look like. Use that “good versus evil” imagery to replace the textbook-art examples that are used on websites and in social channels. Turn that art into beautiful bathroom wallpaper, so that the room associated with elimination becomes a place of transformative health.

This construct of the microbiome-brand-as-hero, putting the consumer in Tolkein’s enchanted state, will enable the category to embrace hedonism and gustatory joy, rather than residing in an emotional landscape of deprivation.

There’s one more existentially important point here, which is that the science behind microbiome testing, and providing recommendations based on it, is still debatable. One medical society is telling physicians that “Microbiome tests are currently of limited value for your clinical practice.” This emerging industry, as a result, faces the risk of a backlash; being put on the defensive when it can least afford to be.

The best inoculation is a powerful story that consumers believe in, which will in turn trigger the confirmation bias and help neutralize the rational arguments against the efficacy of the microbiome model.

Roelof Botha, managing partner of Sequoia, one of the largest venture firms and an investor in the space, has said there is a “societal reawakening” about the complex universe of the human gut. If his investment thesis is right, then the best way to turn that cultural momentum into a new behavior is to activate our brain biology with primal storytelling that is as evolutionarily powerful as our gut biology itself.

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