Find a healthy balance

Brands are caught between health needs and consumers' taste for indulgence.

Hardly a week goes by without a food brand announcing a health initiative as they seek to position themselves as a force for good in the fight against obesity.

Last week, for example, PepsiCo UK unveiled its inaugural Health Report, a 10-year strategy intended to make its brands, which include Pepsi and Walkers crisps, healthier. This followed the multinational's pledge to cut fat, salt and sugar across its global portfolio by up to 25% by 2015, a target it has already achieved in the UK.

Yet while health is clearly a big part of food brands' sustainability drives - a substantial proportion of Marks & Spencer's 'Plan A', for example, is taken up by health commitments - their efforts to build this into their marketing can leave them open to criticism.

Richard Watts, campaigns director for the Children's Food Campaign, applauds the PepsiCo strategy, but says it is 'disingenuous when brands dress up marketing initiatives as CSR'.

He highlights brands' involvement in Change4Life, claiming that they saw the anti-obesity plan as a 'marketing wheeze' but were left disappointed when the government decided not to allow the on-pack use of Change4Life branding by the partners. 'If companies want to be taken seriously, we need more action and fewer words,' he adds.

Jane Asscher, chief executive of brand communications agency 23red, hopes food and drink businesses are not deterred from sticking their heads above the parapet as they are in the best position to effect change. 'Brands can credibly get involved in communicating health messages,' she maintains.

Asscher, who also manages the partnership programme for the government's Change4Life scheme, takes an opposing view to Watts. She argues that the initiative provides a good framework for brands wishing to use their influence and reach positively.

Commercial tensions

Another danger for brands is the emergence of a climate that frowns upon food companies' freedom to sell products not perceived as 'healthy'.

Kellogg has found itself under fire for launching Krave, a breakfast cereal with a chocolate filling, aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds. The reaction has at times been almost hysterical, with The Independent columnist Tom Sutcliffe last week denouncing Kellogg as 'disgusting' for 'peddling such nutritional trash'. Earlier this year Kellogg also drew criticism for advertising Coco Pops as an after-school treat. Kellogg's marketing director, Kevin Brennan, gives a stout defence of his company's record, below.

David Goudge, managing director of branding agency Brand Development, says there can be some 'terrific tensions' between pursuing health goals and satisfying shareholders, pointing to the rejection of traffic-light labelling by the food industry as an example. While companies may wish to be good corporate citizens, the idea of having 'red lights' on their products was seen as too commercially harmful to countenance.

Similarly, he adds that brands are also grappling with the fact that products containing more sugar do better in taste tests. In addition, natural ingredients tend to be more expensive than their artificial counterparts.

However, Goudge says it is not inconceivable that products that are high in fat, salt or sugar could be made to carry health warnings, so companies must future-proof themselves. 'Shareholders who are in it for the long term recognise that a company that is taking this seriously is a good investment,' he adds.

Food brands have a key role to play in the fight against obesity, but finding the balance between their commercial interests, acting responsibly and communicating this to consumers is bound to become more difficult.

PEPSICO TARGETS

- Reduced the amount of packaging used for own-brand products by 7%.

- Achieved a 5% reduction in energy use; more than 110,000 staff trained in energy-awareness.

- Cut carrier bag use by more than 110m.

To be met by 2015

- 50% of savoury snack range either to be baked or include 'positive nutrition', such as fruit and vegetables.

- Cap of 160 calories on all single-serve savoury snacks that lack 'positive nutrition'.

- 65% of its carbonated soft-drinks sales to be accounted for by sugar-free variants.

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