Molly Fleming: Brands must tackle obesity now or be seen as a straggler later

While a pre-9pm watershed on junk food ads may not be the answer to solving the obesity crisis, brands must make sure they are leading on the issue or risk the reputational damage of being forced to.

junk food

What do sex, swearing and junk food all have in common? If MPs have their way they will all be subject to a 9pm watershed.

The government is considering plans to ban high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) product ads from television before 9pm as part of a crackdown on junk food advertising. Charities, MPs and public figures such as Jamie Oliver argue that the watershed is essential to ending childhood obesity.

However, the advertising and food and drink industries have condemned the proposal as “headline-chasing” and warn it could lead to job cuts and a drop in investment for media platforms reliant on advertising. The broadcasters are also warning of the implications; just this week, Channel 4 said a ban could take £200m away from the commercial TV industry, calling the move “anachronistic” at a time when children watch on-demand at any time of the day.

The truth is both sides have a point. Research from Cancer Research UK shows that teenagers are more than twice as likely to be obese if they can remember seeing a junk food advert every day compared to those who couldn’t recall any over a month. But equally, banning the Coca-Cola Christmas ad during X Factor isn’t the best solution. People shouldn’t be fooled – this is an easy win for the government, which is seeking to appear dynamic without shelling out on targeted obesity education.

Nonetheless brands need to do more. Obesity kills. Four million people died from a disease related to their weight in 2015 and today 23% of children in reception year at school are overweight or obese. It’s a national crisis and brands need to tackle this with the same vigor as single-use plastics – before it’s too late and they are left out of the conversation all together.

Of course, it is a question of morality but it also comes down to being ahead of consumer trends rather than trailing behind. It is clear that there is a demand for healthier options and brands need to listen to consumers who want healthier choices for themselves and their children.

So, what can brands do? The first and easiest option is boosting low-calorie options already in their portfolio. Coca-Cola is a great example. It has been on a drive to push it’s no- and low-calorie products (investing £10m in its current Diet Coke campaign) spurred on by the sugar tax.

Coca-Cola Classic is still the brand’s most popular product but pushing Coke Zero Sugar and Diet Coke harder are necessary steps to open up its appeal and offset the waning demand for sugary drinks. McDonald’s is another example, with salads, fruit and water now long established on its menu, as it also aims to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content in its child Happy Meals.

Innovation is also key. Again Coca-Cola has launched Fuze tea, a fruity, ready-to-drink cold tea, and Pepsico has launched Drinkfinity. Both tap into the concerns of health-conscious millennials and diversify the companies’ portfolios. Interestingly, on the packaging both have chosen to not use their existing brands’ names, instead promoting them as new ones.

Packaging is crucial in the fight against obesity. In 2013 the UK introduced non-compulsory colour-coded nutritional information, making it easier for consumers to tell how they contribute to their overall calorie intake. This is still optional, but by joining the Department of Health scheme brands are showing willingness to help consumers make healthy choices.

Education is another way that brands can make an impact. Teaching people how to keep their weight down may seem simple at times but for many who are time- and cash-poor, finding quick and healthy recipes is not easy. There are a number of ways to do this – through videos on social media, or by investing in documentaries in the same way that Evian did with Vice on the plastics issue.

Retailers should look to Tesco, which launched its ‘Little Helps to Healthier Living’ campaign in 2017 and is continuing to build on it this year. The grocer has promoted healthier children’s snacks in partnership with the government’s Change4Life campaign, and at the front of all large stores a helpful basket comparison will highlight 10 ‘little swaps’ that are lower in saturated fat, salt and sugar. The grocery store has also partnered with Diabetes UK and Cancer Research UK to help its consumers.

Ultimately, the obesity issue isn’t going away for the food and drink sector – in the same way that cancer didn’t for the tobacco industry. Brands need to wake up and recognise that they need to take the lead.

If you look at the number of brands that shunned plastic earlier this year, it was those such as Evian and Iceland, which tackled this issue first, that were heralded, while others looked like followers. It can also boost brand loyalty, with consumers believing you’re a brand with a purpose that cares about those who buy its products.

You can either be the hero, protecting children from rising obesity, or the dinosaur that had to be asked to do it. The world is changing and brands need to decide which they want to be.

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