Sugar may be bad for your brand's health

Sugar has overtaken fat and salt as the primary consumer concern, putting food and drink brands under the spotlight as the level of public scrutiny increases, writes Sara Spary.

SugerSugar. So long has the battle against the white stuff been raging that the very mention of it is almost fatigue-inducing.

Today, in response a "background" of consumer concern, CAP announced it will launch a public consultation on non-broadcast advertising, to children, of food and soft drinks high in fat, salt or sugar in early 2016. It is the first time it will explore whether to implement specific advertising rules around these products.

The finger of blame for obesity and tooth decay is increasingly being pointed at sugar, which has been referred to as "the new tobacco", "toxic" and even "the white devil". Will this hyperbole subside, or do brands need to wake up and respond?

Sugar is undoubtedly fast becoming a dirty word. Research from consultancy Agent indicates that 68% of people now claim they take note of sugar more than any other ingredient on food and drink labels. It has replaced salt and fat as the primary ingredient of concern.

If you’re a marketer and not engaging in the debate, you should be.

That there have been instances of brands asking Marketing to remove references to the sweet credentials of their products from our coverage highlights the PR tightrope that brands are facing in marketing them.

Some businesses are taking radical action. In August, Tesco ditched brands including Ribena, Capri-Sun and Rubicon from the ranges it stocks aimed at children, to help have a "positive impact" on health. This set a precedent. In the restaurant sector, Jamie Oliver slapped a 10p ‘tax’ on sugary drinks, with Leon and Abokado following the chef’s lead.

While this movement toward self-regulation shows only a handful of retailers are willing to take action, it nonetheless signifies a tide turning against brands.

Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator at health lobbying group the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC), contends that marketers on sugary brands should ask themselves: "Is it appropriate for us to be pushing this to children and parents?"

High Fat, Salt and Sugar

The debate surrounding the marketing of HFSS (high fat, salt and sugar) foods is not new, he points out. "It’s something [marketers] should have sat up and taken note about some while ago." CFC is pushing for action. It launched an official complaint to the ASA that recently forced Heinz to change the wording on its children’s Biscotti, which contains between 24g-28g of sugar per 100g and was marketed as a healthy snack for babies.

The complaint was settled "informally" when Heinz agreed to change the wording "ideal healthy snack" on the packaging, which, Clark claims, fell foul of EU rules. A spokesman for Heinz says it takes advertising rules "very seriously" and took "immediate action". Clark, though, claims the change is just lip service.

However, the wider industry says it is taking strides to be more responsible. The British Soft Drinks Association, which includes Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Britvic among its members, points out that brands raised their advertising spend on low- and no-calorie drinks by 49% in 2014, a 70% increase on 2012 – a sign, it says, that its members are taking action.

Exercise will not have much effect on your dental health

Not all rotten

Clark does congratulate some, including Tesco, which has reduced the sugar in its own-label soft drinks. "Tesco is the retailer probably doing the most, It understands which way the policy wind is blowing," he says. He also praises Robinsons, which has reformulated its squash range, but slams brands such as Coca-Cola for "creating a market for slightly-less-sugary products that are sugary nonetheless", with launches such as Coke Life.

Clark also criticises what he calls "obesity offsetting" in marketing, which aims to educate consumers about the importance of exercise, while positioning brands as "part of the solution, not the problem".

Not so sweet future

Exercise will not "have much effect on your dental health", notes Clark. "We need to go back to the rules on how these products are marketed."

The bad news for brands is that this focus on the marketing of HFSS products shows no sign of abating. The ASA’s chief exec­u­tive, Guy Parker, warns that political, societal and media scrutiny of this subject will increase, and brands should be "acutely aware of the concerns around sugar and… advertising, in particular with regards to children".

"This is no time to play fast and loose with ads of this nature," he adds. "I don’t believe advertising is the cause of obesity, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be part of the solution."

Even if brands don’t agree with the campaigners’ rhetoric, marketers should listen to their concerns and engage, he argues. "We’ve got a pretty big obesity problem that isn’t getting better, so I don’t see the problem going away."

The ASA is not standing idly by, warns Parker. "My colleagues are very carefully monitoring the arguments and evidence and considering whether the rules are in the right place," he says. "If you’re a marketer and not engaging in the debate, you should be. Think about how you can get on the front foot."

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