“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?”

Manufacturers and retailers of food and drink brands are negotiating an increasingly tricky and complex environment in the UK regarding the health credentials (or lack) of their products. According to the Department for Health, if current trends continue, 90 per cent of British adults will be overweight or obese by 2050 and 9 million Brits are currently drinking too much.

Recent years have seen an increased focus on the wider social responsibilities of business, a greater awareness of public health problems resulting from modern lifestyles and vocal criticisms of both Government and corporations for failing to address or lead on these issues. The question remains: “How much can brands lead on behaviour change? Are they capable of awaking the personal responsibility of consumers?” 

The problem for many in the food and drink sector is that it can seem whatever action is taken, there is little business or reputational pay off.

Take major fast food retailers as an example. In recent years most have engaged in a host of CSR activities, from adding healthier menu options, including fresh fruit and vegetables in kids meals and displaying clear nutritional labelling and controlled portion sizes. Yet major fast food brands are still front of mind in debates around obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.

Similarly much of the blame for Britain’s binge drinking culture is laid at the door of the drinks industry.  Alcohol manufacturers fund both the Portman Group, tasked with ensuring responsible marketing of alcohol, and Drinkaware, an independent charity with which encourages responsible drinking.

Despite the fact industry acts on many of the recommendations these bodies give, a powerful health lobby continues to urge Government intervention and regulation. And they have had some success, given the Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill before the Scottish Parliament and recent hints by David Cameron that there are similar plans south of the border.

However, the option for a brand to do nothing no longer truly exists. Ketchum’s Global Food & Nutrition Practice Food 2020 report highlights that 75% of consumers think companies should create foods that reduce the risk of major health issues. As UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley stated last year when launching the Responsibility Deal, “Public health is everyone’s responsibility and there is a role for all of us, working in partnership, to tackle these challenges.”

The Responsibility Deal in the UK has brought together a range of stakeholders. The initiative has seen major manufacturers and retailers commit themselves to a range of public health pledges including the marketing, labelling and formulation  on alcohol and food as part of the deal. Lansley’s anti-regulation approach “to tap into the potential for businesses and other influential organisations to make a significant contribution to improving public health” has by no means been uncontroversial. 

Shadow Public Health Minister Dianne Abbott, who has a not entirely unfair reputation as an avowedly anti-business left wing stalwart, has claimed the Government “has got fast food firms writing government policy for them with ‘responsibility deals’.”  Similarly the British Liver Trust and Alcohol Concern were among a group of Responsibility Deal partners who publicly abandoned the Alcohol section on the basis that there was no provision to hold industry to account for failure or even adequately measure progress on some of the pledges.

We however see the current environment as presenting real opportunities for savvy firms to enhance their reputation, social credentials and their bottom line. Working in an agency with a brand marketing, healthcare and public affairs practice we know that there is a chance to integrate these sometimes detached elements into breakthrough communications. So what is our communications advice to those firms seeking navigate the current environment? It is fourfold.

  • First every action a firm takes must be credible, genuine and substantive. This is the key to giving a firm permission to engage in the debate, to establishing a voice that is heard and respected and achieving communications objectives. Given the variety of viewpoints around public health, firms are increasingly having to enter into the debate but can no longer get away with simply broadcasting their core messages. Rather, they are increasingly entering into a two-way dialogue with a range of stakeholders. This is why taking credible, genuine and substantive action is so important in mitigating criticism and defending against opponents.  While some medics will not be satisfied until KFC are selling lettuce burgers, tangible changes that lessen the negative health impact of products can have real resonance with consumers and key stakeholders.
  •  Second in order to limit the threat of regulation or public policy with an adverse impact, firms must offer an alternative which addresses the issue. Essentially if a firm has a problem with the Government’s policy, they must offer a solution. This may well mean engaging now to see a payoff down the line. A good example of this type of action came when Sainsbury’s, Diageo, Heineken and Drinkaware ran a collaborative campaign this January encouraging consumers to switch to lower strength or smaller size drink options. The campaign featured giveaways of unit calculators, in store alcohol education stands and some special offers on lower strength drinks. The campaign received some predictable criticism on the basis that it was still promoting alcohol consumption. However it went above and beyond the pledges in the Public Health Responsibility Deal and received endorsement from the Department of Health. With the current budget constraints the Coalition Government is operating under, it is exactly this type of resource exchange, where the private sector actively leads on delivering the Government’s public policy goals that can stave off the bottom line impacting regulation that many of the food and drink sector’s opponents are actively calling for.
  • Third contemporary debates around public health create the potential for valuable synergies between a firms corporate, political and consumer communications. We advise firms to have a clear overarching strategy across the different communications disciplines, but to use their experience to utilise different tactics, different channels and tailored messages around public health for their different audiences.
  • Finally firms need to find the right balance between being active coalition builders, drawing on the collective strengths of their trade body and/or industry peers, and maintaining a distinctive brand presence within the market. Industry should bring its collective weight to bear where it makes sense. The near universal engagement with Responsibility Deal is a great example of this, where undoubtedly the scale of industry involvement will have helped to define realistic achievable commitments, rather than punitive pledges demanded by health stakeholders.  However we strongly advise that individual firms should not be afraid to be first movers, to show leadership.  While the reputational risks are higher; the rewards are also greater.  The firm which is bold and moves first, whether reducing the salt content of a product or lowering the alcohol content of a drink, will nearly always generate the greatest discussion, media coverage and reputational credit.