Confectionery giant Mars stole a march on its rivals last week when it announced that it would stop marketing its products – apart from a new range of healthy snacks – to children under the age of 12.
It says its self-imposed ban on all types of marketing will be lowered to nine-year-olds for "better for you" products. But a subsequent admission that the company does not yet have any of these products left many wondering whether this was a hollow promise from a food company facing more stringent regulations than ever before.
Masterfoods – whose brands include Mars Bar, Snickers, Twix and Starburst – says it is in the process of developing its "better for you" range (MW last week) but there are some who doubt whether it will – or even should – venture into "healthy" confectionery.
In November last year, consumer group Which? accused the major food manufacturers of "empty rhetoric" over promises to uphold self-imposed policies on marketing to children. Campaign team leader Miranda Watson says that while it is "encouraging" that Masterfoods recognises the need to address irresponsible marketing to children, it was "disappointing" that only children up to 12 will be covered by its new policy. "Obesity among older children is even higher and advertising plays a key part in the food choices they make," she says.
Mars stopped advertising – if not marketing – to children under 12 years old in Europe five years ago. Advertising, which is handled by the TBWA network, has been, and will continue to be, "almost entirely" directed at teens and adults.
And while a spokeswoman insists "better for you" products are "in the pipeline", no further information is forthcoming from the global food giant.
It says it intends to develop "better for you" products aimed at individual groups, including children and young adults. For each target group, Mars intends to develop products formulated to "meet specific nutritional needs".
Staying on familiar territory
Former Mars marketer Angus Porter, now chief executive of branding consultancy Added Value, questions whether Masterfoods needs to be in the space. He says: "It doesn’t seem to me that it needs to develop ‘better for you’ products."
Porter believes Mars’ focus should remain on its existing products but that it should continue its shift in marketing away from children to teens and adults and position them as treats.
He adds: "In reality, Mars and most others have to position their existing brands as being something which no sensible person would construct their diet around but which is fine as an occasional treat. We all need moments of pleasure."
However, The Value Engineers consultant Sally Moses believes Mars would be missing a trick if it failed to produce healthier alternatives. She says the sector needs a big multinational to "be creative" in the space and adds that initiatives largely centre around "low calorie" and "low diet" products. Moses believes Mars should follow the general grocery sector’s lead and provide more functional products.
In the US, Masterfoods has made tentative steps to tap into a "better for you" food and confectionery market. Two years ago, it launched Mars Nutrition for Health & Wellbeing and speculation is mounting that the UK will launch a similar division soon.
The confectionery giant is certainly high on rhetoric, if a little shy on detail. The industry will be watching closely to see just how committed it really is to "healthy" confectionery.