Q&A Simon Litherland, Britvic CEO & ISBA President

Following his first few months as president of ISBA, Britvic CEO Simon Litherland spoke at ISBA’s Annual Conference today (11 March) to set out the main priorities and issues the advertising body will face this year. Marketing Week caught up with Litherland after he had delivered his opening address to talk about declining trust in advertising, the importance of building open conversations with consumers and how the outcome of the upcoming election could affect the industry.

You say the biggest issue and threat facing the industry is trust, which you believe is at an all-time low. What is that insight based on?

Various explanations have surfaced for this, including privacy concerns with regard to data, the rise of social media, and the relentless barrage of messaging that consumers receive daily.

Consumers generally are barraged with information. They’re much more knowledgeable. I think they’re expecting a lot more from brands, and I think there have been examples of dishonest advertising and dishonest claims that have eroded trust over time. As an advertiser, this is something we need to address and rebuild.

Is there any specific area of advertising that has perpetuated this decline in trust?

Certain health claims, product credentials and quality claims that aren’t necessarily true are basic examples. The truth is that consumers are much more in control than they used to be. They choose what they want to see, they’ve got opinions about it, and they can read other opinions about it. Therefore a brand sending out a single message explaining what young people think and feel and do is something of the past. People want to engage in a much broader, holistic fashion with the brands and advertising they’re interested in.

You mentioned today a shift to a transparent conversation on the “value exchange” between consumers and the community that serves them. How can brands bring that focus on the consumer to life?

It matters to people what’s behind a brand, and what’s behind corporate responsibility in a wider sense. It’s important to consumers, and again, people have positions and opinions on what that means. They’re looking for brands that that they can relate to. If they don’t find that, it’s part of the value equation and they’ll be disappointed.

In terms of the upcoming election, you said this morning that the outcome is likely to affect the industry both short and longer term. What challenges will be front and centre for advertisers?

It doesn’t appear any party is readying heavy guns on the ad industry. My big hope is that a period of collaboration continues. We have seen signs that collaboration and self-regulation are in the sights of the parties. Many have examples of the government, brands and industries working together to address issues and find resolutions as they arise, based on evidence and grounded in fact rather than rhetoric. I think there are good examples of industries that have absolutely sought to make a difference to address key issues or challenges that have arisen within that sort of influence.

The challenge is that with many of the issues you face there’s seldom a silver bullet as an answer.

In [Britvic’s] case, obviously we’re really focused on obesity and soft drinks, and by the fact that we have a role to play in working towards a resolution. But there’s a whole plethora of solutions, such as education, parenting, lifestyle choice and activity, and therefore you need to work together in collaboration on a much wider set to be able to make a difference and address some of the issues.

You mentioned it’s likely the new government will press for restrictions on TV and online advertising in relation to foods high in fat and sugar content. How would Britvic be affected if a 9PM watershed ban on this content was to come into place?

I haven’t got a specific answer to that, but I’m a believer that it’s not necessarily advertising that directly in itself creates issues. Most advertising is directed at building a brand with a category rather than increasing overall consumption, so it’s a competitive challenge rather than a category story.

I don’t like the idea of restrictions. What’s important is the type of messaging that goes on and ensuring that messaging is appropriate.

TV is only one medium, and there are other mediums that are important as well. It’s a combination of all of them. Freedom of advertising is really important.

What are the main ways Britvic is contributing to a resolution on the obesity issue?

We very much believe that providing choice is part of what we do, but at the same time we’ve reduced our average calories per serve by 37% since 2010 and are committed to further reducing our calories going forward. We just de-listed Robinson’s Full Sugar from our Robinson’s range, and a number of months ago we de-listed Fruit Shoot Full Sugar from our Fruit Shoot range.

Our innovation pipeline has very much focused on healthier-for-you products and brands, although in our core portfolio brands like Robinson’s on a per-serve basis are three to five calories, which we see as “healthy hydration” if you like. There’s lots we can do on liquid content quality and calorific intake.

At the same time, education is really important. For example, we were the first adopters of front of pack labelling. Working in collaboration with government and with other bodies are also examples of what we need to do.

The other side of it is looking at how you can encourage active lifestyles. We’ve just signed up with Tough Mudder to do Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder, which is a great example of encouraging an active outdoor lifestyle.

I think we’re absolutely intent on playing our part but we recognise that it’s not for us alone to address.

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