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It is understandable that, when it comes to food and drink, consumers are perplexed by just what constitutes a balanced diet. They are bombarded with so much information - from front-of-pack nutritional labelling to terms such as 'fat free', 'low carb' and 'superfood' - that understanding what really is good for them can be difficult.
The issue for marketers is how to ensure cut-through in this crowded environment. While it is not feasible for some brands to claim any health benefits, leading them to position their products as 'indulgent', this raises a secondary question about whether consumers are clear on what constitutes healthy in moderation. Alternatively, are they simply cutting out all the foods that are considered to be 'bad'?
The way people are rethinking what constitutes healthy food and drink is an innovation challenge for brands such as PepsiCo. Fiona McAnena, the company's vice-president, innovation, believes these concerns are not just linked to recent obesity worries, but probably go back to BSE concerns formed 15 years ago and the industrialisation of food production. Consumers are asking: who and what can we trust?
'I think that is why we see healthy equating to natural,' McAnena says. 'We need to understand what the cues and signals are that tell consumers it is OK.'
Established brands are launching additional variants (such as Pepsi Raw, made with cane sugar) and tinkering with old favourites (Walkers Crisps fried in Sunseed oil). But perhaps the biggest challenge is ensuring that taste is never compromised. 'A lot of the time people will assume there's a trade-off between taste and health,' admits McAnena. 'If you make something healthier, they can't believe it tastes as good.'
Vitamin water brand V Water is on a mission to improve education on what goes into drinks. 'When you deal with health benefits to the consumer, you have to involve them as much as you can,' says Walter Faulstroh, co-founder and joint managing director.
'The development of drinks all starts with the consumer in mind - what are their needs? How do we target these needs?' he adds. For example, ginseng has energising properties, so can be used to create an energising drink. 'Ginger, meanwhile, has an uplifting element to it, and mango juice works well with the ginger to create an uplifting colour,' he says. 'That's our philosophy. Anything that goes into the drink has to be natural, and it starts with the selection of the ingredients.'
To help consumers, brands are making greater use of food labelling to signpost what products contain. However, even here there is confusion. On one hand, there is the guideline daily amounts (GDA) labelling scheme, backed by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). This illustrates the fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content of the product in percentages of a consumer's recommended daily intake. On the other, there is the Food Standards Agency's traffic lights system, which uses red, amber or green on-pack labels to denote whether the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Waitrose was the first grocer to roll out the traffic light scheme, in 2005, first on sandwiches and then across all FSA recommended categories, although cereal is excluded, due to continued debate. It has also shown GDA information on the back of packs for a number of years, and Moira Howie, the supermarket's nutrition manager, believes this is helpful.
'We felt that at this point in time to put GDAs on front of pack would have been too much information. We're not anti-GDAs, we just feel they are best placed on the back with the other nutritional information,' she explains.
Customer feedback on the traffic light scheme has been favourable. 'When they are pressed for time, usually during the week, customers often use the code as a shorthand,' adds Howie. 'They look predominantly for ambers and greens, and then, as we move toward the weekend, people are choosing more indulgent products with reds.'
Howie is adamant that customers are not scared of buying products that carry the red labelling. 'We're fortunate in that Waitrose consumers are able to work out when they are consuming an indulgent product, and when they need to consume a more everyday type of product. It's the credit-and-debit style approach to healthy eating,' she says.
The question remains, however, about how far supermarkets should go in advising shoppers on their diets. The key, it seems, is balance. 'I'm not sure how appropriate it is for retailers to be preaching about what is healthy,' admits Jim Coates, brand manager for Great Stuff at Asda. 'I don't think it is credible - supermarkets sell everything from cigarettes to vodka to apples. What is appropriate is that the industry thinks about making the choices clear, simple and affordable. It should be within everybody's reach to be able to make positive steps toward being healthier.'
DATA FILE - CONFERENCE
Consumer demands around 'healthy' food and drink
Date: 29 January 2008
Venue: Le Meridien Piccadilly, London
Speakers include: Claire Hughes, company nutritionist, Marks & Spencer; David Faulkner, head of group market research, Dairy Crest; Fiona McAnena, vice-president innovation, PepsiCo UK; Johnny Stern, director, mySupermarket.co.uk; Julian Hunt, director of communications, Food and Drink Federation; Klaske de Jonge, director corporate communications Europe and CIS, Mars Europe; Moira Howie, nutrition manager, Waitrose; Simon Eyles, marketing director, McCain Foods; Walter Faulstroh, co-founder and joint managing director, V Water; Paul Reynish, marketing director, Subway
Children's food and drink and 'healthy' eating workshop
Date: 30 January 2008
Venue: Le Meridien Piccadilly, London
Workshop facilitator: Jim Coates, brand manager for Great Stuff, Asda
Contact: Telephone Haymarket Conferences on 020 8267 4011; email firstname.lastname@example.org.