Testing times for ‘new foods’

Over the past few years, the concept of healthy eating has been moving away from what has been taken out of food, to the intrinsic properties of specific foods or to the special nutrients or vitamins added to food -“functional foods”.

The first few months of 1999 have seen the launch of several major functional brands, including Benecol, which promises to lower cholesterol. And a dramatic rise in sales of organic foods, due in part to a defensive reaction against GM foods. Functional and organic foods offer different approaches to positive health from different starting points. They are both, in many ways “new food”.

Consumers are not prepared to accept “new foods” without question. The concern over GM products extends to the organic and functional areas as well.

Dragon, a consultancy which specialises in managing corporate and brand reputation, has worked on a range of functional foods over the years,covering everything from new product development and positioning through to brand identity.

It wanted to assess how consumers respond to “new foods” and understand the communication challenges involved in presenting brands effectively.

Communication was seen to be extremely important for products with positive health messages. And many products were criticised for poor or misleading communication through visuals or copy.

With healthy products moving into mainstream supermarkets, where specialist advice and support is not available, packaging and other support materials have to work hard to convey useful information.

Functional products have no common language, which makes it difficult to communicate quickly and concisely. Other health trends such as low calorie, vegetarian or low fat have had instantly effective verbal or visual cues. There is, as yet, no generic for functional products. And because of the wide variety of claims that would be encompassed, perhaps no one term could be appropriate. Each product therefore has to start afresh, without the benefit of awareness built up by others.

In contrast to functional foods, organic products are regarded as having a coherent philosophy and an established set of values which adds emotional appeal to each product offer and ensures that “organic” is a term which communicates immediately and effectively on its own. It seems the image of organic products has changed dramatically over the past few years. Previously, they were regarded as unattractive products for the “sandals” brigade. They are now highly aspirational products that are preferred on the basis of taste and health.

Organic is a trusted word. Its use is believed to be patrolled vigilantly by the Soil Association.

Consumers believe that strong communication of “organic” on pack is extremely important – particularly as research participants wanted the products to be integrated throughout the store, rather than occupying an organic “ghetto”. Products which communicate “organic” strongly – such as Jordan’s muesli and Hartleys jam are effective. Successful organic packs draw on well-established category cues.

Comparing the presentation of functional products with organic products, the organic goods are clear favourites for their aesthetic appeal, better communication of appetite appeal and apparently greater integrity. In the longer term, however, organic will become a generic term and it will be essential for brands to build distinctive propositions and identities.

The way in which consumers respond to organic products may suggest a way forward for functional products. There is a need for functional foods to present a bigger picture – a philosophy about positive health management rather than a series of product/ingredient based propositions.

This needs to be grounded on real information and education about the role of nutrition in health, and based on the ideas of natural materials working gently with the body. The imagery should be different from the diet/low-fat model. It should be rewarding and enjoyable – not punitive or self-denying.

Most importantly, however, successful brands in both organic and functional sectors will represent an attitude – an approach to managing health and engaging with the customer is influenced by the company behind the products as well as the product itself. This must embrace the way people see these products, and their priorities for food companies. Which means placing the greatest importance on food quality, safety and integrity.

What should be the most important priorities for food manufacturers and retailers now?

Attitudes to food are being influenced by a wide variety of issues. Participants believed that manufacturers’ priorities did not necessarily reflect consumer priorities

1 Making organic foods cheaper and more available

2 Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture

3 Improving animal welfare in farming

4 Ensuring that the producers of crops in developing countries have good wages and conditions

5 Introducing higher standards of hygiene to reduce the risk of food poisoning

6 Keeping the cost as low as possible

7 Using naturally occurring therapeutic materials to provide foods which can reduce the risk of certain diseases

8 Developing ways of keeping food fresher for longer

9 Developing foods which taste better

10 Using techniques of genetic modification to develop crops which can reduce the risk of certain diseases

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