FOODSERVICE BUSINESSES can take a lesson from giants like Coke and Asda in encouraging consumers to make healthier choices.
In 2010 the top 10 UK food manufacturers spent just shy of £500m on advertising aimed at encouraging people to buy, among other things, chocolate, crisps, fried chicken and burgers. In the same year, the Department of Health scrapped the marketing budget for its Change4Life campaign aimed at encouraging people to make healthier food and drink choices.
It’s worth reflecting on this when considering the effectiveness of marketing campaigns such as Change4Life. While the government is attempting to nudge people towards healthier choices with scant or no resources, wealthy businesses are apparently pushing them that little bit harder towards products laden with fat, salt and sugar.
But what if food businesses used their vast budgets to promote healthier lifestyles and products? In recent years there’s been a growing trend towards social marketing campaigns, which see businesses try to reposition themselves as good citizens.
Coke’s anti-obesity “concerns all of us” advert, which aired in the US recently, was widely derided as a cynical PR stunt, but it’s worth remembering that this kind of “campaign with a conscience” would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The same can be said of an industry-backed Change4Life campaign launched in January which featured an ad takeover from the likes of Asda, Quorn and Uncle Ben’s imploring the public to think about the hidden nasties in their diets.
If this all seems too worthy to be true there is a clear business agenda behind social marketing. The food businesses involved in the Change4Life campaign were offering discounts on their own “healthier” products. But is this a problem if it leads to consumers making better choices?
Although foodservice businesses were conspicuous by their absence from the Change4Life ad takeover, there are signs that some players in the sector are beginning to appreciate the value of social marketing. In 2012 Subway launched an advertising campaign fronted by the elite athletes Louis Smith and Anthony Ogogo aimed at encouraging consumers to choose low-fat subs personalised with their favourite salad items. Low-fat sub sales are up by 11.1% as a result of the Train Hard.
Eat Fresh campaign, according to Manaaz Akhtar, the head of marketing at Subway, who says the company is “committed to encouraging a more active lifestyle and will continue to work with inspirational athletes to promote healthier living”. Subway’s campaign is a classic example of the nudge philosophy that informs social marketing campaigns. By reinforcing social norms, such as eating low-fat sandwiches, consumers are more likely to respond positively than if they were warned of the dangers of eating an unhealthy sandwich. In short, people don’t like being told what to do but they like following what others do. Throw in an Olympian or two and the social norm becomes that little bit more persuasive.
Campaigns such as Subway’s, which involved national TV advertising, are not cheap but social marketing can take many different forms. “At the simplest level it can mean promotion of healthy options or restaurants putting more healthy options on their menus,” says John Dyson, food and technical affairs adviser at the British Hospitality Association (BHA).
The corporate caterer Charlton House’s Veg Plot promotion is a classic example of a social marketing initiative that doesn’t break the bank. Customers make savings on multiple purchases of juices, fruits, salads and vegetables within one transaction, helping them towards their five a day with a financial incentive. “Most of us already know that upping the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat each day is a good step towards improving our health, but even so it can still be a challenge to achieve five portions,” says the Charlton House chief executive, Caroline Fry. “We recognise the role that innovative products, prominent promotions and competitive pricing play in encouraging more people to eat more fruit and vegetables.”
Whether this kind of social marketing is an effective way of changing consumption habits is open to debate. Malcolm Clark, the co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, worries that the Subway and Charlton House campaigns are short-term measures. “There seems no attempt to make the promotion of healthier items a permanent feature,” he says. “And once you are drawn into a Subway there’s nothing to stop you choosing a less healthy option ... or taking advantage of the cookies they have to tempt customers by the till and in the meal deal.”
Nudging people to change their behaviour will only work as part of a range of legislative and financial tools designed to make it easier for people to choose healthy options, says Clark. “Until the government takes a tougher stance on protecting children from junk food marketing, nudges are likely to have only a limited effect.”
Perhaps social marketing should be seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. However, if the food industry is to continue to invest in this type of campaign in the long term, the BHA’s Dyson believes the government needs to take a stronger lead. “It’s not just industry that has a role to play in social marketing; the government’s got a lot more it can do,” he says. “You can’t have one without the other.”
After the government axed Change4Life funding in 2010 the number of people joining the campaign fell by 80%, prompting a U-turn and £14m committed to Change4Life marketing in 2011/12. It’s still a drop in the ocean compared with that half-billion spent on marketing by top firms alone, but if businesses are willing to channel some of their resources into social campaigns their combined nudges could give consumers a big push in the right direction.
Social marketing campaigns have merit, but there are many ways foodservice businesses should be acting more directly to improve health. But are caterers pulling their weight? At the most recent meeting of the Public Health Responsibility Deal food network’s high-level steering group last December, action – or lack thereof – by the catering sector commanded its own section on the agenda. Discussions centred on how best to maximise sign-up to salt reduction pledges, particularly among caterers with more than 50 high street outlets.
While the large contract caterers have signed up to the majority of Responsibility Deal pledges, convincing small and medium-sized businesses has been far more challenging. “The whole Responsibility Deal agenda is quite some way off their radar,” admits John Dyson, the food and technical affairs adviser at the British Hospitality Association. “That’s because the energy has been put towards engaging the larger businesses because they sell the greater proportion of food.”
In order to engage more SMEs with the Responsibility Deal, the food steering group has proposed offering a stepped approach to new signatories; for example, allowing businesses to hit 2012 salt reduction targets and progressing onto the latest targets from there. Dyson also believes a mentoring scheme whereby large caterers advise smaller companies on how best to engage with the health agenda could be effective.
What's clear is that size is becoming irrelevant where the Responsibility Deal is concerned. Blissful ignorance is no longer a tenable position for any foodservice operator to hold, regardless of its structure.