It's all part of the packaging: how marketing can solve the problems food and drink brands face

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The food and drink industry faces criticism from every angle. From government regulations on the advertisement of alcohol, society’s pressures to keep trim and slim and ‘Lean In Fifteen’, to the impact of waste and resource on the world’s rising temperature; food and drink brands have to cater for any possible criticism.

Members of The Drum Network came together to discuss how marketers can guide brands through their issues, making things taste a little sweeter (without added sugar of course)...

According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), there are some 6,620 food and drink businesses in the UK, 96% of which are small to medium sized companies. While there are more opportunities than ever for food and drink brands to promote themselves, the increased competition makes it more difficult to reach audiences.

As the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, food and drink brands are huge contributors to the economy as well as massive cultural players. Not only do they employ 3.7 million people in the UK, they add a gross value of £21.9bn to the UK’s economy. With such a valuable stake in the economy comes responsibility. Around 7m tonnes of food are thrown out by UK households each year, half of which could have been consumed. We are the third fattest nation in Western Europe, behind Iceland and Malta, with 67% of men and 57% of women carrying excess weight. The recent horse-meat furore also raises the question – do we know the provenance of the products we are consuming?

The list of political, cultural and environmental pressures is endless for the food and drink industry. Perhaps one of the biggest responsibilities, challenges even, is people endeavouring to live a healthier lifestyle. With one in 10 children starting primary school in England obese, the government has levied a ‘sugar tax’, fast food is frowned upon and clean eating is everywhere. Celebrity chefs such as Deliciously Ella and Joe Wicks are shoving avocado sticks wrapped in cucumber and a few burpees in between bites down our thr oat (seriously, is there a point in eating at all?) This of course is not a negative prospect for the nation, yet for the food and drink br ands that are producing goods which make up nearly double our recommended intake of saturated fat, it’s becoming ‘a thing’.

The Drum Network brought a panel of experts together around the boardroom table of partnership marketing agency Mediator to discuss the current challenges facing food and drink brands, and how advertising can help solve them. Joining the panel were Lisa Thomas of Mediator, Richard Buchanan of The Clearing, Janaina Scalise of Gravity Thinking and Jen Musgreave of Rapp UK.

“Brands need help. They need help understanding themselves and consumers,” says Musgreave, discussing how brands can navigate themselves in an increasingly more health conscious society. “At the beginning of the year I conducted some loyalty research. Customers at supermarkets were asked whether they would like to live healthily, deliciously, green or British. And surprisingly, the overwhelming result was that people wanted to live British. Healthy came second and delicious third. This result just shows to me that people are crying out to live traditionally, more authentically. There is an authenticity that brands need to grasp to be able to navigate the healthy lives, or not so healthy lives, people wish to live.”

Scalise of Gravity Thinking relays how brands must be true to themselves, to allow for consumer trust: “If you are an unhealthy brand, you should not pretend to be healthy. You cannot claim you are something you’re not. Everyone eats unhealthily from time to time, and brands just need to be honest, they have to position themselves in a way tha t allows for consumer choice.”

Navigating a health-conscious society also entails displaying the nutritional value of food stuffs. Brands have a responsibility to tell the world exactly what is in their product. Obviously, it’s difficult for some brands to pretend to be a healthy choice where sugar and saturated fat are consistent throughout products, despite being the devil’s spawn. Let’s not even start on the cheese.

Richard Buchanan at The Clearing expands by claiming “Brands have to be honest and will increasingly have to be ‘doing the right thing’. The explosion of digital media has shifted the power in favour of the consumer. Everything a brand does will be explained over and over in your face. To do the right thing, brands need to talk about themselves in a completely honest way and acknowledge the fact we don’t all live a perfect life. People want different flavours and different experiences and brands need to tap into that craving."

Health advice and honesty is even more prominent when marketing alcoholic beverages. Lisa Thomas at Mediator explains how brands can embrace regulations. “Heineken launched its moderation campaign, with the message ‘moderate drinkers wanted’. Recognising that people don’t want to drink as much is crucial – it leads into the want to live a healthier life. Brands are starting to realise that they can’t promote a mass drinking culture. It’s all about giving consumers the choice. Consumers have a choice, don’t they? Brands need to offer that and provide some balance through mixed messages.”

Offering information and choice is nearly as important as offering education. Brands such as HelloFresh and Ocado are changing the way we eat. By delivering the exact, fresh ingredients to consumers’ doors, these subscription brands are providing efficient ways to cook at home. Scalise, who has used HelloFresh before, says that the educational aspect of the brand is what makes consumers order again. They are essentially offering a cooking course for a reasonable price, taking away all the hassle.

The craving to live a more traditional ‘British’ life is clear to see with the popularity of entertainment shows such as The Great British Bake Off and the Danish ‘hygge’ way of life topping the best selling book charts. “The strangest thing I heard about the UK last week was the fact that we produce and create more cookery programmes and books than any other country in Europe. However, we are also the nation that buys the most ready-meals,” Buchanan comments. “People are so time poor these days from working, commuting, family time. Anything that makes cooking easier, even eating easier, is going to kick off.”

“Another thing that stands out is attitude – brands need something different to stand out and attitude is something that is seriously under utilised; it’s a real differentiator,” Rapp’s Musgreave concedes, stating that “attitude is something that needs to be broadcast”.

“For smaller brands to stick out against bigger brands, people need to listen to message, whether it be through social or recommendations. As a small brand you have to cut your foot off, as you are competing with big brands with even bigger budgets. A yoghurt brand in Australia did this marvellously. It cut off all its ad budget and used hashtags to inspire the savoury uses of yoghurt. It was user generated content that turned out to be a really successful campaign.” Scalise expands by saying that “people need a sustainable brand vision”.

“Brands have a lot of issues – carbon footprints etc. However, as long as they are transparent they shouldn’t be scared of standing out. "Mediator’s Thomas believes that smaller brands, despite having less marketing budget, have a one up on bigger brands from the outset. “As smaller brands have less red tape to cut through, they are more agile. They don’t have those limiting corporate restrictions. This agility is how they can stand out. Big brands are too scared to do things which might upset people. Smaller companies can cut through, they can follow the latest trends and talk to consumers.”

With the abundance of brands, products and campaigns out there, with little differentiation in the actual taste; how do marketers make products taste sweeter, without adding more sugar?

Rapp’s Musgreave discusses the importance of aesthetics. “Packaging is a huge element of making products seem more attractive. If you poured a glass of wine out of an expensive looking bottle, then you automatically think it tastes better. Packaging and the semiotics of messaging can definitely help br ands cut through.”

The Clearing’s Buchanan discusses a previous packaging project commissioned by various supermarket brands. “Tesco had traditionally wrapped groceries in plastic packaging with print on the outside – you couldn’t see the produce, and the lighting in the stores simply reflected off the packaging which made it hard to read. In the UK market, fresh produce is the most important driver of store choice. It is central to shaping quality and freshness perceptions, with a strong halo effect on the rest of a supermarket’s own label produce.

“We stripped away the plastic and introduced environmentally friendly recyclable packaging – using netting, putting windows in to see the produce inside, making the produce visible. Ultimately if you get groceries right, it has a positive uplifting effect on the whole of the brand. Brand perception with supermarkets is tied to the quality of the fresh produce, how long it lasts. Changing the pack aging put a greater emphasis on groceries for the Tesco brand, and helped pull Tesco out of the squeezed middle ground. We know it was hugely successful, and the only part of the business seeing growth.”

So, how can br ands make products taste better without altering the appearance or composition of them? Buchanan discusses the fact that eating is all about experiences. “People don’t have time to sit down at the table and eat together anymore. There is an intimacy about sharing food, and brands should focus on this experience by bringing people together to share and to cook food. There has to be something that brands can do through the taste of an experience.”

The key for food and drink brands is clearly a transparent and honest conversation with consumers, to engage their loyalty and involvement in their daily life. Laurie Colwin, food columnist and New Yorker writer, once said “One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while eating with your friends.” To connect with consumers and balance cultural criticism, brands should be looking to provide these delights. Brands need to start respecting the opportunity to tap into their customers’ values, with a lit tle salt and pepper.

This article was originally published in The Drum Network Does...Food and Drink supplement on 8 December.

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Naomi Taylor

Naomi Taylor is editorial account manager at The Drum Network, covering members' news, insights and publications.

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