You might know Alana and Lisa Macfarlane as resident Love Island DJs the Mac Twins. But alongside their music career, the sisters have also been helping explain the science behind gut health with their project, the Gut Stuff. Through YouTube videos, a website and live events, the twins are helping raise awareness of the importance of gut health and its impact on our overall wellbeing.
Alana and Lisa launched The Gut Stuff after taking part in scientific research and discovering that despite their identical DNA, they had very different guts. “They realised we had only 30 to 40% percent of the same microbiomes [micro-organisms that live in the gut],” explains Alana. “It was quite groundbreaking research at the time, so they studied 200 other sets of twins and discovered the same thing.”
The Gut Stuff founders Alana and Lisa Macfarlane, aka the Mac Twins
Through research and speaking with scientists, the sisters realised that there was a lack of public awareness around the link between gut health and overall health. “We realised gut health is linked to everything from Parkinson’s to mental health and cancer and yet no-one knew about it … so we decided to set up a YouTube series to raise awareness. We emailed six of the top scientists in the world and asked if they’d talk to us [about gut health], and they all said yes,” says Alana. Six videos turned into 36 and in 2017, they decided to set up a website to host their videos and share advice and links to further information.
Soon after they set up the website, the New York Times published a series of articles on gut health and traffic rocketed. “We realised that this was a really big topic and we thought, how can we [turn] this into more of a business?” explains Lisa. The pair had also become frustrated with the lack of resources and services available to the average person: while the NHS offers advice on eating a balanced diet, most doctors and GPs are not trained in the science of nutrition. Most nutritionists and dieticians charge a fee for their services, with some charging hundreds of pounds for tailored diet plans and advice, and the majority of blogs, Instagram accounts and cookbooks that cover wellness and gut health are aimed at the affluent middle classes – and are often run by people with little knowledge of nutritional science.
“We were frustrated with how disparate the whole category was – there wasn’t really anyone bringing all this information direct to consumers and explaining how we navigate that world [of wellness and gut health]. There’s a lot of charlatans out there and a lot of it is one person’s opinion of what works for them, so we wanted to create something that wasn’t a one-size-fits-all model,” explains Alana.
The Gut Stuff isn’t about promoting ‘clean eating’ – a dubious trend that has cast shame on anything that isn’t raw, organic or wholesome. Instead, it aims to help people understand the types of food that can help promote good gut health (for example, grains, pulses, vegetables and fermented foods), how to maintain a balanced diet and share what they have learned through speaking with scientists and researchers about guts. As the twins have different gut microbiomes, they can also compare the effects of certain diets or foods on each of their guts to show their audience how these foods might affect different people – setting them apart from other sites that are based on one person’s experience.
“That was how it all started really – it was just an online resource, but now, we’re starting to build the business out to fill what we see as gaps in the market from a business perspective and gaps in the public’s knowledge … and it’s all snowballed from there,” says Alana.
The pair’s YouTube videos break down complex science around gut health. There are interviews with professors about the impact of gut health on our immune system and the link between gut health and Parkinson’s. The series also explores which foods are really good for our gut – one episode examines whether smoothies really are good for you, while another makes a surprising discovery about so-called superfood kale.
Since launching the site, the sisters have also put on supper clubs, where guests can eat healthy food, drink fermented cocktails and hear from scientists. In September this year, they opened a pop-up in Shoreditch with backing from Kellogg’s and Pukka Tea, and now plan to embark on a tour around the UK.
The Gut Stuff has also launched a playful visual identity designed by jkr. Gut health and digestion is a challenging topic to portray visually, but jkr developed an inventive solution, creating a system based around an image of a knotted balloon. The image has been brought to life with animation and can be rearranged to form shapes symbolising guts, poo, constipation and even brains.
As the brand is aimed at a mass audience, the sisters were keen to avoid anything that looked too high-end or exclusive. But the identity also had to look appealing. The brand’s signature colour is millennial pink – an unusual choice for a brand aimed at both men and women – but Alana and Lisa say the brand’s core audience of 16 to 30-somethings is “a good mix of male and female” and around half of the visitors to the Gut Stuff’s Old Street pop-up (pictured top) were male.
Rachel Gidlow, Senior Designer at jkr, says: “We kind of went round the houses a bit with colour … we were going to use lots of pastels but then we decided that actually, it can be really powerful when you have just one colour. We’ve seen that from brands like Hippeas [the chickpea snack brand known for its use of yellow] – you get that instant recognition and connection with consumers,” she explains. The agency also wanted to create something that would reference guts and bodies in a fun and playful way.
Alana and Lisa had contacted several design agencies before working with jkr, but says that many companies were reluctant to feature the word gut in branding. “We were told that there was too much stigma around the word … or that people would think we were talking about beer bellies,” explains Lisa. But jkr embraced the name and even suggested using the word shit in its strapline (tote bags and merchandise feature the phrase ‘give a shit’).
The branding – which won a D&AD Pencil and an award for Best TV, Film & Video Graphics at the Design Week awards earlier this year – perfectly captures the twins’ warmth and sense of humour. Its playfulness also helps set the brand apart from more conservative or serious brands associated with wellness. “We didn’t want it to feel like an NHS poster or like some exclusive luxury brand. We just wanted to make something real that would bring [Alana and Lisa’s] personality across,” says Gidlock.
The balloon gives the brand a flexible device that can be manipulated in a surprising variety of ways – “we worked with our motion team to create this sense of energy and movement so it feels like it’s actually something living,” says Gidlock – while copywriting features a generous use of puns.
Since launching its new identity, The Gut Stuff has evolved to offer live events and branded content as well as online resources. Videos and blog posts will still be a core part of the Gut Stuff’s offering but now, the pair hope to grow the brand’s presence in the UK while also venturing into new fields.
“Live [events] is something we want to focus on because the Old Street pop-up worked in lots of ways, so we’re going to roll that out in different regions,” says Alana. “We also have a personalised book coming out [the pair are raising funding through Unbound], and we have a mass market product range coming out next year. We want to keep building out new tools and products and services for people, but while still building out that science arm.”
Through creating accessible, impartial videos and sharing a wide range of expert opinions, the Mac Twins are becoming a trusted voice in a growing area of health.
Talking about gut health and good diet might seem an odd choice of vocation for two professional DJs – a job more closely associated with hedonism than healthy living. Lisa admits that people initially found it odd: “Loads of people told us our Mac Twins career would be over if we started talking about guts and poo – but now, people just accept that you can be DJs but also with that hedonistic lifestyle of a DJ, you really need to start looking after your body because otherwise you’ll burn out, so those two messages fit together.”
“This is going to be the future of healthcare,” adds Alana. “Gut health is not just something that’s going to die out so we’re always thinking about how we can expand [the Gut Stuff] and reach more people. Not everyone knows about it yet so it’s our mission to make sure they do.”
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