Food giants are licking their lips. A new ’functional food’ market
has emerged for such dietary staples as margarine and yoghurt, which can
be sold at inflated prices so long as they promise to confer health
Consumers have already taken to Benecol, the cholesterol-reducing
margarine, and Yakult, the yoghurt that helps boost the body’s
There’s also the barrage of everyday products making health claims due
to be launched. A particularly exotic example is a range of corn chips
which contain St John’s wort, a natural anti-depressant, and therefore
claim to enhance moods.
The European market for functional foods is already estimated to be
worth pounds 830m, with the UK’s share said to represent pounds 239m. By
2010, however, analysts predict, it will be worth around pounds
And as the ’functional foods’ market explodes, marketers are turning to
PR agencies for pre-launch, behind-the-scenes campaigns, which
communicate complex messages.
However, it’s not always an easy task. Not only is marketing foods with
health claims fraught with legal complications, but failure can prove
expensive, as several food firms have discovered. Earlier this year,
Danish firm MD Foods withdrew its Pact range, which included margarine
with fish oil, yoghurt with folic acid and orange juice with
The firm ran full-page advertisements in women’s magazines through
advertising agency FCA, but complaints that the firm exaggerated its
health claims were upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.
’It’s a regulatory minefield,’ says Jane Ferguson, formerly European
marketing director with Burson-Marsteller. Ferguson is now setting up
her own brand marketing consultancy which will launch in November,
targeting sectors including the functional foods market.
Using tactics more commonly employed in the pharmaceutical sector,
promoters have to be able to back health claims with scientific data and
Currently, companies either have to gain approval for their claims from
the European Union Novel Foods Committee, or adhere to the Joint Health
Claims Initiative, a set of standards drawn up by food firms, consumer
groups and health experts.
A veteran of eight years in pharmaceutical and City PR, Jean Garon of
Jean Garon PR oversaw the highly successful launch of the appetite
suppressant Maval onto the UK market. She says that as well as targeting
consumers, functional food brands have to reach third-party endorsers
such as dieticians, nurses and doctors - the people consumers turn to
for health advice. ’They don’t want hype, they want facts,’ she
The recent launch of Benecol by Hill & Knowlton underlines the market
potential. The product has scooped a 5% share of the spread/dairy
category in just three months, despite carrying a price tag of pounds
2.49, instead of the normal 60p.
Carolyn Grant, managing director of Hill & Knowlton’s food division,
says: ’It is absolutely critical that the environment remains positive,
avoiding any misconceptions.’ Grant is in charge of the company’s newly
formed six-strong functional foods division, which includes directors
from healthcare, public affairs and consumer divisions.
Other PR firms have also been quick to set up special divisions,
embracing regulatory experts, healthcare professionals and consumer
veterans. But the lack of knowledge about this sector is underlined by
food researcher and consultant Julian Mellentin, who has been approached
for information on the sector by scores of PR firms.
’Every PR company in the world is trying to build up a specialism in
that area, but very few people have got any real strengths,’ says
’Food firms already operating in the arena are concerned that poor
communication campaigns could produce consumer scepticism, and
ultimately discredit the whole field.’
That said, a strong in-house PR campaign helped unknown brand Yakult
yoghurt, which eases digestion, go from zero UK sales three years ago,
to its current sales figure of 100,000 bottles a day. ’The important
thing is that you need to talk to people at all levels,’ says PR
director Jim Munday.
He stresses the importance of communications, adding that prior to its
launch, experts went in to explain the products to journalists. Leaflets
about the product were also available from information dispensers in
most shops which stocked the product.
Pharmaceutical giant Novartis also looks set to be a major player in the
functional foods sector. It recently awarded a pounds 500,000 account to
GCI, together with pitching partner Grey Advertising, to launch a new
range of products under the name Aviva.
Consumer and healthcare experts were involved in developing the
programme, which will target the consumer and medical sectors, and trade
areas. The Aviva range includes cereal bars, juice drinks, breakfast
cereals and chocolate drinks covering three key areas: bone health,
digestive health and heart health.
According to Alastair Paton, marketing director of health and functional
foods at Novartis, the PR campaign aims to educate consumers, the
medical community and the trade sector about the products and their
’All of these people need to be told the full story,’ he says.
Another high-profile international launch is expected from Kellogg, for
its Ensemble range of products. Already available in the US, the range
includes frozen foods, cereals and pasta.
Finally, Unilever is poised to enter the fray with the launch of a rival
product to Benecol, Proactive, which is currently awaiting EU
Unilever spokesman Stephen Milton predicts that a brand battle similar
to the detergent wars is likely to emerge. ’The industry has to work
together in order to build consensus that functional foods can deliver a
benefit to consumers,’ he says. ’Then it is just a fight between
Milton is confident that competition will fuel consumer confidence and
lead to improved products. And this, in turn, is likely to lead to PR
agencies reaping a huge chunk of that marketing spend.
Simon Ellery is a reporter on PR Week
THE PR BEHIND THE PRODUCTS
Product: Benecol (a margarine that reduces cholesterol)
Manufacturer: McNeil Consumer Nutritionals
PR agency: Hill & Knowlton
PR strategy: To educate the medical community, including doctors,
nutritionists and consumer groups, by providing scientific reference
papers about the product and background information. The push also
targeted the trade and consumer media, including third parties such as
the British Nutrition Foundation, which was briefed on the product and
then acted as an independent voice.
Product: LC1 (a yoghurt that reduces the risk of infection and aids
Manufacturer: Nestle PR agency: Wearne Associates
PR strategy: Healthcare campaign based around the release of a
scientific dossier on research into the product, including the
sponsorship of a British Dietetic Association and a British Nutrition
Foundation conference. The consumer campaign involved running
advertorials in magazines such as Radio Times, Good Housekeeping and
Reader’s Digest, as well as press visits to key journalists at IPC,
National Magazines and Emap.
Product: Actimel (a yoghurt which helps strengthen the body’s natural
PR agency: Ketchum Life
PR strategy: Inform the trade and consumer press of the product, and
provide detailed releases for food and health editors, explaining the
health benefits, showing test details and giving full sourcing for the
product information provided. Organising information stands at nursing
conferences and health conferences. An awareness campaign targeting GPs,
a national consumer advertising campaign and a web site dedicated to
Product: Aviva Life Foods (range includes chocolate and juice drinks,
snacks and breakfast cereals claiming to benefit heart, bone and
PR agency: GCI
PR Strategy: Educate the healthcare and medical community through a GP
programme detailing the health benefits of the product, leading to a
wide consumer campaign. Part of the consumer push will see the firm set
up special ’nutrition shelves’ to dispense its range, a practice
borrowed from Novartis’ OTC drugs division.
Product: Olibra (a yoghurt which acts as an appetite suppressant)
Manufacturer: Scotia Pharmaceuticals
PR agency: Jean Garon PR
PR Strategy: Target both the medical and healthcare communities,
outlining the test results for the product and providing contact details
for the experts involved in its manufacture. Explain the science behind
the product to health correspondents in the City, as well as the