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The HFSS ad ban: how brands can find the 'sweet' spot
August 18, 2021
It’s true that you soon forget people or things that are no longer visible or present. For the HFSS ban, out of sight is out of mind and brands and manufacturers now have a huge (almost ‘unprecedented’ to use the most used term of the year) task to respond to the incoming legislation.
At a human understanding level, there are important facts to consider - one being that our attention is drawn to images of fat and high-calorie foods.
We work with Professor Charles Spence, experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. He explains how research has found that our brains pay more attention to cues for unhealthy foods — those which are high in sugar and fat rather than healthy foods when we are hungry. The studies showing pictures of high-calorie foods to participants found that the cues elicited anticipatory appetite responses, such as salivation, cravings and a reported desire to eat.
Spence stated that there is clearly a positive correlation between % hrs watched of ‘food porn’ compared to obesity rates. Concluding that people exposed to more calorie-related food images made people’s food choices worse.
So, if you believe that ads work, what do Brits think about the HFSS ban and what are its implications on people’s diets?
As part of a nationally representative omnibus survey in partnership with our Human Understanding Lab, we captured real-life snippets about the experiences of the nation. We found that over a third of Brits are concerned about sugar and fat consumption. Our study also found that sugar generates more concern for Gen Z consumers (18-24's) as opposed to salt (source Walnut Unlimited)
With this in mind, the FMCG industry now faces the new HFSS legislation, and now is the time for brands to play their roles in helping people make better food choices, without damaging their P&L.
From a marketing perspective, the legislation presents a great opportunity because brands are more likely to grow if they have both mental and physical availability (and now the legislation affects both).
It is also true, however, that other categories have been building strong brands within highly restricted industries too and yes, spending a big amount on other media where they were not banned or where restrictions are more relaxed.
I won’t say it will be easy to navigate, but it is doable…
What is next? Brands need to be carefully assessing what their brand assets are, how they can be present without showing their banned products ATL or in preferent spaces in retail. But more importantly, they will need to start thinking about what they can do to have a presence in people’s lives, to have a purpose, to know how they can provide meaning and add real value content beyond their product-led communications (and not solely through cheap discounts). They will need to build this world beyond the typical mass media channels like TV on primetime to reach their audiences.
As usual, they need to re-gear their comms, their strategy (particularly their media strategy) and re-evaluate their whole brand planning: which current products can be advertised, which ones are worth being reformulated (although, this takes time and money) and how their innovation plan is moving forward.
Brands will need to cleverly optimise their product range and think about how to nudge people to take these healthier options. They will need to work on how they evaluate the health and taste of a product, rather than simply flavour, as obviously people’s expectations on healthier options do not offer an immediately great product performance. Can we revert that? Probably yes.
So, here is the challenge, how can you change this? How can you change people’s perceptions around taste?
This is an important challenge that the whole industry needs to work on together. How can we nudge people to make better food choices, how can we educate them to have a more balanced diet? I believe there is still a role for indulgence, but this requires brands to have a role in people’s education around nutrition. This is not only about banning products! Brands should see this as an opportunity, rather than as a threat…
Another important point to make is that not all categories within these ‘unhealthy/HFSS’ labels are the same. Some are by nature more impulsive, sometimes not thought of until you do not see them (now they will be less visible). But some are already firmly embedded in people’s shopping habits, which will be altogether more difficult to change. This is a change more likely to happen over time.
So, we think that the nature of these categories will also lead to different strategies over time, and it will require a new understanding of implicit and explicit motivations to defeat our barriers altogether. New occasions, news contexts, new needs, new channels… will need to be reconsidered to keep the relevance of some of these manufacturers alive.
I guess there is no way we can say that this is not an important move, but it forces us, insight, and the marketing industry to find the new 'sweet' spot. Using more sophisticated research tools to make people switch to healthier food choices, helping clients with good sensory research and translating these outputs into better designs and messages that motivate people to buy. And yes, some of these changes will go against what our brains love seeing and consuming, but we can rewire these brains over time and make these new healthier options as rewarding and pleasurable as the old ones…
Dr. Cristina de Balanzo Ph.D., Walnut Unlimited