Putting 'exercise symbols' on food packs will only confuse consumers

Should food packs have labels showing how much exercise is needed to burn off the calories they contain? No, says Louise de Ste Croix, client development director at BrandOpus - the idea is misguided for all sorts of reasons.

Yesterday the Royal Society for Public Health published its recommendation for introducing a symbols-based ‘activity equivalent’ labelling system on food products in the UK.

It’s not as simple as saying ‘this product contains 300 calories, therefore you need to run for 20 minutes to burn it off'.

The catalyst for this being that new research from Imperial College shows that nearly four in ten people in Britain will be obese by 2025, "driven by a lack of exercise and over-consumption of processed foods".

Also, further research suggests that 44% of people find all the current nutritional information on pack "confusing". This is hardly surprising.

Although it’s undeniably an honourable pursuit endeavouring to find ways in which to further protect us from ourselves, we can’t help but think that introducing yet another visual system on packaging only increases confusion rather than abates it.

The initial questions that this concept raises from the start mean it’s unlikely to provide the clarity of message they undoubtedly want it to.

For example, it’s not as simple as saying ‘this product contains 300 calories, therefore you need to run for 20 minutess to burn it off’. It’s implausible to think this would work as a ‘catch all’ approach. Without being a qualified nutritionist/biologist I’m aware that people burn calories at different rates based on their size/age/temperature etc., therefore it’s highly likely that someone 10 years my junior and a couple of stone lighter than me is likely to burn 300 calories far more effectively than I will, and that’s before you factor in what speed we assume we’re expected to run at.

Don't increase complexity

This approach also fails to consider the nutritional value associated with calories, unless the intention is only to provide this form of labelling on ‘bad foods’, which risks further demonising certain categories and potentially alienating giant swathes of consumers.

If a consumer is that interested in the calorie ‘trade-off’ of a particular product they’ll likely be motivated enough to check on the manufacturer’s website and/or calorie counting/fitness apps. 

There’s no need to take up valuable real estate on pack with information that could simply lead to more confusion for consumers – although we know symbols speak louder than words. By introducing yet another visual system we are in danger of increasing complexity rather than providing the simple shortcut they're intended to be.

Symbols are being used within branding with increasing popularity and, when utilised correctly, are designed specifically to elicit unconscious associations and trigger emotive reactions.

The RSPH is right that symbols are indeed easier for us to process, however overloading on descriptive symbols that necessitate us having to translate the information can make it more difficult to interpret – just think of the laundry icons you find on your clothing labels. I doubt anyone would be able to remember the meaning of all, if not more than two of the 40 plus symbols used in that system.

So what does this latest call for yet more visual elements on pack mean for brands?

Rationalised information will not influence shoppers

Plans such as these make it increasingly difficult to establish real distinction and differentiation on shelf as encroaching labelling makes packs uniform in appearance, stifling a brand’s ability to emphasise its uniqueness.

As we know, a brand’s challenge is to amplify its difference and elevate itself above the product in order to establish a connection with the consumer, and the best way to do this is through the use of intelligent symbolism.

Brands connect with consumers through relevance to their lives beyond that of the product.

There is also the highly important factor that what you’re asking people to do by presenting this information is to make a rational decision at point of purchase, when we know that almost all purchase decisions are entirely irrational. Consumers buy brands not products, and packaging is one of the most prominent spaces for brands to communicate their messages and proposition rather than product information.

Brands connect with consumers through relevance to their lives beyond that of the product, therefore putting rationalised product information on pack is hardly likely to influence a consumer’s decision as to whether they buy that particular brand or not. 

Given that this week the focus is back on calories (last week it was sugar, the week before salt, fat before that and so on, and so on), it’s evident that these dramatic calls for action from lobbyists targeting the food and drinks sectors are subject to tidal changes of momentum themselves.

This only leaves manufacturers and consumers in knots over which latest threat to wellbeing we need to be most concerned about.

What’s most important for brands at times like these however, is to work on how they can best build emotional connections with consumers, and rise above whatever moral crusade is being touted that week.

Focusing on what makes them unique within their competitor set, and engaging on a deeper level with consumers, enables them to maintain consistency whichever way the lobbyists are forcing the tides to flow.

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