Brands look to healthy marketing as prospect of sugar tax looms

There’s a growing urgency among food and drink makers to make healthier eating desirable now that it’s getting harder to convince people to consume sugary products and the threat of legislation looms.

The prospect of a sugar tax in the UK has sparked debate among brands, politicians and consumers over who and what is needed to tackle the country’s obesity crisis. It has been estimated a 20 per cent sugar tax could raise up to a £1bn a year as part of a government-led overhaul that would also ban the advertising of sugary products to kids and stop 2-for-1 promotions on unhealthy snacks.

While a hard-hitting levy is bereft of support amongst advertisers, the prospect of shelling out more for fizzy drinks is apparently the spoonful of sugar to help ad land swallow the pleas from campaigners such as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. A tax on sugar could severely knock sales fizzy drinks nationwide as it has done in Mexico, where it was associated with a 12 per cent dip, presenting a sobering future for the industry if its renewed attempts to curb obesity rates fail.

Success means responsibility

These plans are already in motion in the guise of less sugary products, smaller sizes and clearer marketing. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kellogg’s have pledged to slash the sugar content in their products ahead of the government’s decision on sugar tax. They are joined by the similar calorie-reducing endeavours from Britvic, Lucozade and AG Barr as the sector moves to prove it understands the issue, and more importantly wants to tackle it.

One early sign of change is the language companies are using to justify their own efforts over strict regulation. Instead of making protracted statements about what they have done, the likes of Unilever, Coke and McDonald’s are making overtures that they’re ready to make healthier eating desirable.

Coca-Cola’s revamped marketing strategy aims to do achieve that goal by unifying its portfolio no matter the calorie count, a shift that could see the brand wave goodbye to its product colours. “We’ve long understood that people want delicious drinks sometimes with and without sugar, and while we’ve made that clear on our labels, it hasn’t been as clear in our marketing,” said Coke’s chief operating officer James Quincy at the launch of its revamped brand strategy earlier this month.

Where Coke (admittedly) went wrong was in trying to launch new brands instead of variants, a strategy it found distorted the master proposition and was fundamentally against its ethos of the drink being one to be enjoyed by everyone.

Until now, the reformulation and packaging responses from the industry have been piecemeal rather than wholesale and are consequently criticised by health groups and politicians for their perceived lack of commitment. These companies have the creativity and coffers to be agents of change, mused Oliver at an Advertising Association event earlier this week; the issue is whether they want to.

Oliver picked out two examples to demonstrate how some attempts to promote healthier lifestyles are misguided at best; a bottle of Ribena has the nutritional guidelines for an adult despite being marketed as a kids’ drink, while other brands have opted to invest in sport instead of changing their own products to prove their commitment.

Where companies would have once tried to meet that commitment by convincing people that sweet drinks are OK to drink, now they’re more willing to treat healthier lifestyles as a growth driver rather than a cost in light of the fact that people are no longer drinking fizzy drinks as much as they used to.

Better marketing

It’s no secret that consumption habits are shifting toward healthier alternatives, with PepsiCo’s chief executive Indra Nooyi going so far as to say last October that focusing solely on fizzy drinks was a “thing of the past” following flat sales in 2015. Coca-Cola is in a similar position, with the business now trying to convince people to pay more for less soda in smaller cans as it looks set to enter its sixth year in a row of low growth.

Such changes open the floor to marketing and the influence it can exert over peoples’ attitudes. There’s a belief from some stakeholders in the obesity debate that brands aren’t taking enough risks to show kids that a healthier diet is cool and that marketing isn’t being properly harnessed to convey that rhetoric.

“We recognise the impact that marketing can have, especially on young people, and last year launched our responsible marketing code across the business which commits us not to advertise to under-12s, use licensed characters in our advertising or associate our brands with online games,” said a Britvic spokesperson.

“We are determined to encourage active lifestyles through our marketing campaigns and brands and in the past year have inspired 2.6 million people to actively play together in support of our 2020 goal of inspiring and encouraging 20 million people to get active. In February 2015, we launched a global partnership between Robinsons Fruit Shoot and Tough Mudder to host a series of Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder events to inspire children to explore their adventurous sides whilst getting active and muddy.”

Whether it’s a sugar tax or a clampdown on marketing, the chance of a self-governed industry bound by tough rules could become a reality over the coming weeks. However, it shouldn’t be an either-or when it comes to education and regulation, as each can complement the other’s shortfalls.

“I think the British model of self-regulation is quite hard to explain to other countries who think it seems like a cosy cartel,” said Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, who argued that self-regulation isn’t in the interest of companies with the belief that “it can work where there’s a strong regulator ready to step in, where the market could drive the agenda”.

Caroline Nokes, a Conservative MP, argued that she wasn’t a huge fan of “clunky” regulation given that “the industry can be clever and creative” to “make us think about the role we have”. “The advertising industry in this country leads the world, but we’re not able to harness that creativity for the greater good,” she continued.

The need for marketing to be at the vanguard of the industry’s renewed push to tackle obesity belies its priority now on the agendas of the chief executives of the likes of McDonald’s, Unilever and Coca-Cola. Rather than be treated as a CSR cost, healthier variants are increasingly being used as a path to profits and while the investments are relatively small now, it’s clear that more holistic changes are on the horizon.

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