Marketing World Food & Drink

What happens to brands when chocolate advertising goes dark?

By Liz Richardson | managing partner

July 20, 2018 | 6 min read

Cadbury, Chewits and Swizzels recently became the first brands to be penalised under new rules introduced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on how products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) can be marketed to under 16s.


Online and social media ads for Cadbury eggs, Chewits and Squashies were found to breach the new code following a rigourous ‘crackdown’ by the ASA to draw a line through the marketing of sugary and salty products to children – a quantum leap for the industry.

Confectionery brands are looking on nervously, and rightly so. It’s not just the ASA they need to be worried about. Since the introduction of the soft drinks sugar tax earlier this year, sugary drinks have been hit with a tax of up to 24p a litre as part of the government campaign to combat obesity and tooth decay.

Now that the drinks tax is in place, the government is looking at other areas and confectionery is being painted as the next ‘villain’. Campaigners have called for a 20% tax on sugary foods that would raise the cost of a Mars bar by 12p and a bag of Haribo sweets by 20p.

Unless the food industry manages to reduce sugar by 20% over the next two years, ministers are prepared to resort to new taxes. As the industry failed to reduce sugar in food by 5% over the past year, the outlook is uncertain, and at a time when chocolate sales plummeted by £78m last year (IRI) with consumers increasingly concerned about health issues.

It is probably of limited consolation, but confectionery brands are not alone in being targeted. Around the world, and in many different sectors, marketers are facing operating in ever tougher restricted and regulated (R&R) environments. Tobacco, alcohol, fast food and HFSS products are all seeing greater restraints on what were once considered perfectly acceptable marketing techniques.

In some cases, a market becomes so restrictive as to ‘go dark’, meaning that brands have to exist without commonplace marketing tools. The rolling back of advertising opportunities for brands, including bans on advertising in children’s programming, and increasingly restrictive policies on online activity indicate the direction of travel.

Shrinking your product and educating the public on portion size is an obvious response that some brands are taking. The tabloids may bemoan the ever-shrinking chocolate bar, but smaller sizes deliver on the requirement to reduce sugar levels, as well as fitting in with modern notions of more restrained permissible snacking.

Product innovation can also help. Milky Bar has recently launched its Wowsomes which boast 30% reduced sugar through a new process involving mixing sugar with milk powder and water. Finnish chocolatier Goodio has developed a line of oat flakes-added chocolate bars, ChocOat, that contains 60% less sugar than traditional milk chocolate.

Playing the game by being good brands will only get you so far though. Far-sighted brands need to look beyond the latest knee-jerk action by government to prepare for the worst. Rather than despairing about what they can no longer do, they should look to the options that are still open to them.

The good news is that there is more that brands can do than they may realise even with an advertising and promotion clampdown. Here it is important to remember that great brands are built over years, even decades, and they have an afterglow that will keep the dark at bay even when communication is stymied.

Slogans like ‘the sweet you can eat between meals’, ‘the taste of paradise’, and ‘have a break’ remain part of popular culture years after they were last used in anger and demonstrate the lasting power of strong brand assets.

But it’s not always a slogan that stays in the consumer’s mind. Design elements, colours, and brand characters can all be powerful. Faced with a virtual clampdown on marketing in some markets, businesses such as Diageo have invested in understanding what brand assets people actually connect with and then focused on those, changing their communication strategies to enable more effective campaigns that bolster brand awareness and protect against future advertising restrictions.

Brands can also reconsider who they are targeting. Cereal brands that attract flak for targeting young consumers with indulgent, high sugar products face less censure when the focus switches to adults. Researcher NPD Group found that, not only did Baby Boomers in the US eat more breakfast cereal than millennials, they were also more likely to eat it at other times in the day. It’s little surprise then that brands have refocused on these groups.

New product development and limited edition strategies can also maintain the heartbeat of brands starved of the oxygen of advertising. Kit Kat may be more than 80 years old, but a stream of new variants and flavours keeps it one of the biggest selling chocolate bars in the UK. But when it comes to NPD, brands need to invest now, or not at all. Products need at least three years to become embedded in the brand portfolio, so build the pipeline now.

The chocolate tax may or may not happen, but ASA’s tightening of the screw should serve as an added incentive for brands to invest ahead of such existential market changes. Putting an insurance policy in place allows you to undertake a branding health check and examine potential scenarios, as well as your response. It is what progressive brands should be doing as best practice anyway, but the present environment provides an added impetus.

Liz Richardson is managing partner at HeyHuman

Marketing World Food & Drink

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