MARKET FOCUS: The new health-food era

Food companies are including health benefits and claims in their products more than ever.

Food companies are including health benefits and claims in their products more than ever.

While nutrition-focused PR is well-traversed terrain for the food and beverage industry, the quality of nutrition communications has changed substantially in the past few years, drawing on the expertise of healthcare practices.

As consumers become more educated about their own health, they also become more discriminating shoppers. And even as health and medical PR has embraced consumer tactics, traditional consumer products have adopted a more sophisticated health strategy.

Edelman is one agency meeting the needs of nutrition campaigns by mixing its health and consumer practices. "It's so different than a few years ago," says Jill Adams McDonough, EVP and GM of the consumer practice. "We've really evolved to integrate the right people." She notes the National Dairy Council's "3-A-Day" campaign as a consumer effort that brought in health PR specialists "as a seamless part of the team."

Edelman also used the health practice's education partners, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, to add credibility.

Dome H&K is drawing on a network of registered dieticians and on the health experience of big sister Hill & Knowlton, says president Doug Dome.

Dome notes, however, that nutrition marketing is cyclical. He points to the low-fat diet craze of the '90s.

"Millions were spent. Consumers got fat-fatigue, then you saw companies putting the fat back into their products," Dome says. "I think to a large degree it's created by the media. They sort of jump on this trend and create the trend itself."

Barbara Cohen, SVP at Cohn & Wolfe, has also seen the "ebb and flow" of nutrition marketing. Twenty years ago, she says, it was the beef industry that was on the defensive.

"There will always be [products] that are in and out," she says.

But recent events have changed the dialogue on diet and health.

Cohen notes that low-carb dieters took a wider range of products to task, forcing a larger segment of the food industry to adjust to their new lifestyle.

Recent obesity statistics, meanwhile, have analyzed both the health and financial impact of the crisis.

On the policy side, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed some foods to make qualified health claims on labels - while requiring all items to list unhealthy trans-fatty acids.

Mounting successful campaigns

Jennifer Smith, director of communications and PR for the West division of McDonald's, acknowledges that the media has generated much of the recent interest in nutrition. But she says that the chain, nevertheless, has been "reacting quickly to what consumers need."

"We have to be incredibly observant of what our consumers are purchasing," she says, adding that healthy items have always been "very well-received."

"We're trying to translate knowledge into behavior," says Laura DuDell, president of DuDell & Associates, which represents McDonald's West division. "Our focus is to find a way to be a partner in this, as opposed to an adversary."

Amy Myrdal, director of nutrition marketing and education at Dole, notes that a successful nutrition campaign will relate to people on levels besides diet.

For Dole's "5-A-Day" campaign, which encourages five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, market research found that messages tended to stick with parents who followed other health guidelines, such as limiting television.

In the classroom, Dole's nutrition materials also fit into language arts and science curricula, Myrdal says.

Dome agrees. "Presumably, if your product has that nutritional value, so does your competitor's," he says. "Few companies can maintain that competitive advantage very long."

He adds that companies must be able to bridge lifestyle aspects - such as taste, convenience, or versatility - with health claims. He points to sugar substitute Splenda as a product that has positioned itself as a carb-free sweetener that tastes like the real thing.

At Teaology, a 3-month-old company that makes portable sachets of instant tea, the strategy is to be "delicious-functional, not functional-delicious," says Richard Principale, chief brands officer. "There's been enough independent research about tea. We don't need to educate the public on why they should be drinking tea."

Even though most iced teas contain high amounts of sugar, Principale notes that focusing on Teaology as a sugar-free cold drink might lead consumers to believe that it doesn't taste as good.

Bill Daddi, president of Demand, the consumer arm of medical PR agency Belsito & Co., also cautions against campaigns that are overly clinical.

Companies need to have an "inherent understanding of what the brand equity is," he says, in order to understand in which direction to take the campaign. "You can't ignore one side of the coin for the other."

Emphasizing education

But as consumers gain knowledge, education also has become a significant component of nutrition PR.

"A lot of times we've seen campaigns designed for nutritionists," says Deborah Lauricella, president of Torme Lauricella, which also has seen a crossover between health and consumer practices. "[Consumers] must understand choice and balance."

As the AOR for the California Walnut Commission, no small aspect of the agency's PR work involves educating the media on good versus bad fat.

Walnuts have the highest content of omega-3 fatty acids - the "good" fat that is linked to heart benefits - among nuts.

"We are very involved in consumer education and why [walnuts] are good for you," Lauricella says. "Not all media understands how [omega-3s] work."

The National Turkey Federation also chose to highlight its health facts in its "Perfect Protein" campaign. Turkey has 8% more protein than beef or chicken and no saturated fat.

Last year marked the first time the Turkey Federation, with Devine & Pearson, introduced a consumer PR effort after spending six years focusing on food-service industries.

"[You need] to do your homework," says Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director of marketing communications for the Turkey Federation. "[Individuals] are ultimately the purchasers of the product, and we live, eat, and breathe it."

Joel Curran, MD at CKPR, notes that the educational news articles hit their peak last year, when new scientific terms were first introduced to consumers. "A lot of media attention was to break it down and explain it."

Even now, Lauricella notes, more food editors are writing about health, and more health editors are receptive to including recipes.

But for food and beverage companies to effectively pitch stories to health reporters, they need more than the cursory knowledge of health benefits, Daddi says.

"You must effectively understand the science that's substantiating the health claims," he says. "If you don't understand the science, you will be called out."

Moreover, not all products lend themselves to nutrition-based campaigns. "Sometimes it's not a fit. There are food categories that people select not because they're nutritious," says McDonough. "We actually have to make sure that nutrition will develop a client's end goals."

At Au Bon Pain, Jim Fischer, VP of marketing, notes that the eatery intentionally stayed away from the low-carb fray. "We asked ourselves if we should be doing something about this," he recalls. "At the end of the day, that [trend] is going away, and we're still here."

The company even seemed to go in the opposite direction, launching its multigrain Artisan bread. "How do you talk about great-tasting bread [amid] a low-carb craze?" he asks. "You've got to have faith in your customers. I know we overcame that because our sales were strong. Our research [on the benefits of multigrain bread] was strong."

But Ilene Smith, Ketchum's director of nutrition strategy and communications, notes that nutrition campaigns are more likely to generate news interest in the current environment.

"Nutrition PR is not new but is now being used by the big brands, so more people are paying attention to it," she says, adding, "I think we're at the beginning [of the current nutrition push] because I don't think we'll be able to go back to where we were."

Winning approval from the FDA and consumers

The Food and Drug Administration last year introduced the concept of "qualified health claims," allowing food companies for the first time to include on their labels how a product reduces the risk of disease.

So far, only nuts and fish can tout the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, and these claims must be put in context for consumers. But PR pros suggest that these claims might not be as important as they seem.

Doug Dome, president of Dome H&K, points out that the benefit of making these claims depends largely on when the product enters the market. For instance, the first company to market a health claim also must invest in consumer education; the second mover enters a more knowledgeable market.

The fact that health claims must come with a disclaimer - along the lines of "research shows, but does not prove" - tends to confuse consumers, says Ilene Smith, director of nutrition strategy and communications at Ketchum.

"The government has generated a lot more press in terms of health messaging," says Deborah Lauricella, president of Torme Lauricella, the AOR for the California Walnut Commission. But in terms of the impact on marketing, "what I've experienced are shifts and changes, and not highs and lows," she says.

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