How assured are Flora’s health claims?

Unilever’s controversial tie-up with a French private healthcare insurer, whereby the finance company’s customers will be partially reimbursed for buying Flora Pro.activ anticholesterol products, has sparked debate about brand alliances in the health sector.

Maaf, the insurer, will offer a refund of up to E40 (£27) per year to people who buy Flora Pro.activ yogurt, margarine or milk. Danone is understood to be negotiating a similar deal with AGF, another health insurance company.

Unilever’s initiative, believed to be the first deal of this kind between a food manufacturer and an insurance company, has been slammed by critics as a cynical marketing ploy and likened to a number of ill-fated brand alliances of the past. One French consumer group claims the deal is a “scandalous exploitation of health for marketing reasons”.

In 2000, Nestlé was fined £7,500 by magistrates for illegal health claims on Shredded Wheat packs, urging consumers to join the British Heart Foundation’s (BHF) healthy heart campaign. Two years later, Tetley’s promotion of the health benefits of tea with the support of the BHF was censured by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Television Commission (MW October 24, 2002). A similar link-up between Cancer Research UK and Nivea also attracted criticism (MW January 9, 2003).

Unilever and Maaf claim the difference is that the Pro.activ range is proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. Eric Bruckert, a cardiologist at PitiÃSalpÃtri¨re Hospital in Paris, said at Maaf’s press conference last week that the products could cut cholesterol levels by between eight and 33 per cent in one year, and 16 and 52 per cent in six years. Maaf also claims the deal will help customers realise the importance of eating the right diet to reduce cholesterol.

Fiona Angus from global research and consultancy group Leatherhead Food International supports this view, saying the products tend to cut cholesterol by between 12 and 15 per cent. She adds: “There’s no doubt they work. Products containing innovative ingredients have to go through quite novel food applications.”

However, Food Commission spokesman Ian Tokelove offers a note of caution. “There’s some evidence that these things work, but long-term assessments still need to be made,” he says. “This is a way to shift products and get good publicity, but health is dependent on different factors. ‘Miracle’ cures are not the way to good health.”

Some marketing experts believe tie-ups show a lack of confidence in a brand. But Nick Cloke, a director at strategic marketing consultancy Catalyst, disagrees: “If Unilever linked up with Bupa in this country, for example, that wouldn’t show a lack of brand confidence.” However, Cloke stresses the company would find it a lot more difficult to strike a similar deal in the UK to the one it struck in France, a nation that is perceived to be obsessed with health.

The agreement in France follows a similar deal Unilever signed in the Netherlands earlier this year. A spokesman for Unilever says the company will “continue to explore opportunities” when asked about launching in other markets.

Unlike previous brand tie-ups that have fallen foul of the authorities, it seems Unilever can back up its claims about its Pro.activ range with some scientific proof. But that will not stop the critics should the company decide to do something similar on this side of the Channel.

Robert Lester

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