Charlie Cooke considers how and why advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods has been so successful and what can marketeers of healthy choices learn from industry practices.
Marketing is a fundamental component of any health enterprise.
In a free market of companies competing for customer cash and attention, the balance between what you want to say/sell with the integrity with which you wish to sell it, and the fluff claims and excitement that come with effective health marketing, will always be a teeter-totter-tip away from either complete grandiose nonsense health claims or the crumbling of your health enterprise due to insufficient customer demand for what you’re selling.
This is why I set out to understand what it is the big dogs have been doing for all these years to gain their marketplace success, and what promoters of good health and nutrition can do to beat them at their own game.
Before assessing the role of marketing and advertising in food selection, however, we must first understand consumer behaviour. Fortunately, a large review of all recent data assessing food consumption in the UK was published in 2020 by RAND,1 and the primary headline under consumption trends is: ’What people consume still falls short of dietary guidelines’. This was simply subdivided as:
- UK consumers are generally not meeting the standards recommended for a healthy diet.
- There have been reductions in salt, sugar, and red and processed meat consumption but consumption of fruit, vegetables and fibre has shown little or no change.
Hardly surprising for anyone who works with clients on a regular basis. However, it is promising to see some change in behaviour around processed foods. But why and how did this change take place? Of the top drivers of consumption, the highest quality and most consistent evidence demonstrates the importance of these three points:
- Availability and convenience, and
- Marketing and advertising
As the focus of this article is on food marketing, it is worth noting the following section from the RAND report:
‘Marketing has a significant effect on consumer choices, in particular increasing the consumption of unhealthy food, especially in children and young people. Emerging evidence suggests that social media is increasingly influencing younger segments of the population.’
This statement was a shame to read.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF MARKETING
When my first business, KnowHowNutrition, eventually and inevitably failed, leaving me thousands of pounds in debt and having to let go of three members of staff at the age of 19, I quickly came to the smarts that I failed at the most basic principle of marketing: putting the right product in front of the right person at the right price.
Having this realisation, I went on to study Nutrition with Food Marketing at Newcastle University – perhaps as relevant as you could possibly get for the subject of this article. I had learned that putting the right message out to the right person was fundamental to any success, and perhaps by learning more from those who have managed to successfully market and profit from their health claims, I could perhaps have a more substantive impact on my target market.
The above quote from consumer trend data was a shame to read because those who have come before, with their effective marketing, branding, messaging and advertising, have generated their success and profit at the cost of consumer health. Certainly their methods were successful, but marketeers of health nutrition and foods must consider which elements of the big-dog campaigns were the drivers of success in order to steal their tactics.
I went on to scan the whole consumer food trend report for the word ‘marketing’ and found the same result scattered throughout – that marketing was substantially and significantly evidenced as being a primary driver of unhealthy food choices, and, alarmingly, this is becoming more and more relevant in children and young populations.
‘Marketing and advertising increases the consumption of unhealthy foods in children, adolescents and young adults.’1
In a systematic review of persuasive marketing techniques to promote food to children on television published in 2014,2 the following methods were commonly reported as the most effective:
- Use of premium offers
- Use of promotional characters
- Nutrition and health-related claims
- The theme of taste
- The emotional appeal of fun
We can probably all recall many effective adverts we have seen with brightly coloured cartoon characters, multi-buy offers in the supermarket, how much ‘fun’ one can have by consuming this or that toffee – but in recent years such campaigns have become less and less frequent.
Since the RAND report, there have been multiple developments to curb efforts in these areas of effective food marketing, with current UK legislation imposing restrictions in the permitted practices of food marketing, and government proposals (now unfortunately on hold) on limiting the use of price promotions of specified food, restriction on the price promotion of certain drinks, and the restriction on the placement of specified food.3 The Advertising Standards Agency has also taken a clear stance on preventing food companies from marketing unhealthy habits or lifestyles to children, included in their statement: ‘Advertisers are not allowed to use licensed characters in food and drink ads targeted at children.’4
With regard to nutrition and health claims, it is cited on the UK Government website that ‘Nutrition and health claims are required to be based on scientific evidence and may only be used in commercial communications if they have been authorised following scientific assessment of substantiating evidence.’5 Certainly a step forward, and yet, still, unhealthy foods are outcompeting healthy recommendations in the ether of food advice and health habits. But what is it that’s so effective about this marketing? How do these findings and regulations relate to nutrition practitioners in the marketing of our advice/products to our consumers?
EFFECTIVE MARKETING OF HEALTHY FOOD PRODUCTS USING STANDARD FOOD INDUSTRY PRACTICE
Fortunately for granola-warriors like me, many of the food marketing restrictions are only in place against ‘specified food’. I went through the luxury of reading this list, and was not surprised to see that specified restricted foods generally consist of some form of potato- or flour-based confectionary with or without excessive amounts of fats/sugars in their formulation.3
This means that as long as foods fall outside of the 13 categories of specified foods, then the restrictions do not stand. Therefore, health-food marketeers are able to use the effective strategies of fun-association, science-backed health claims, great taste and healthy lifestyle promotion. This would even be permissible for advertising standards, as the promotion would not be categorised as promoting unhealthy behaviours or lifestyle. We could even have a catch-phrasing character if we wanted! The joys of being on the good-side!
I am not trying to advise a specific marketing campaign for bananas or to tell you what to tell your clients, but instead to bring attention to some very useful research demonstrating the effective marketing practices that have been used historically for unhealthy foods, the efforts made to prevent their success, and the open window for healthy lifestyle ambassadors to jump through by using their own methods against them – as long as the government obesity strategy legislation doesn’t stay on the back-burner for too long.
The free market is a competitive world, so I think it’s about time we start trying to beat the processed-food-conglomerates at their own game.
CGR Cooke, ANutr
Charlie has qualifications in nutrition
and a history in fitness, varying from coaching boxing
to international marketing.
1 Rand.org. 2020. Food consumption in the UK: Trends, attitudes and drivers. [online] Available at: <https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR4300/RR4379/RAND_RR4379.pdf> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
2 Jenkin, G., Madhvani, N., Signal, L. and Bowers, S., 2014. A systematic review of persuasive marketing techniques to promote food to children on television. Obesity Reviews, 15(4), pp.281-293.
3 Legislation.gov.uk. 2022. The Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2021/9780348226195> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
4 ASA. Practice, A., 2022. Food, drink and supplements. [online] Asa.org.uk. Available at: <https://www.asa.org.uk/topic/food_drink_and_supplements.html> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
5 GOV.UK. 2022. Nutrition and health claims: guidance to compliance with Regulation (EC) 1924/2006. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/nutrition-and-health-claims-guidance-to-compliance-with-regulation-ec-1924-2006-on-nutrition-and-health-claims-made-on-foods/nutrition-and-health-claims-guidance-to-compliance-with-regulation-ec-19242006#:~:text=Nutrition%20and%20health%20claims%20are,scientific%20assessment%20of%20substantiating%20evidence.> [Accessed 16 May 2022].