Chicago: Kraft Foods? recently announced initiatives on obesity have marked a new phase in how food companies will address Americans? concerns about food and nutrition.
Until now, critics have said that food companies have responded to Americans? ongoing battle of the bulge by pushing increased physical activity and balanced diets, but haven?t made substantial changes to their marketing or products.
?They have done a number of things to mostly deflect the blame,? contended Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. ?I think it?s disingenuous for food companies to be promoting physical activity. It?s to deflect attention away from food as the cause of obesity.?
But Kraft?s latest initiatives discuss changing product formulation and single-serve sizes to address obesity. More significantly, from anti-obesity critics? point of view, Kraft pledged to stop marketing in schools and to engage in more dialogue with key stakeholders on the issue.
While Kraft hasn?t elaborated on exactly what that will mean, food PR experts have said other food companies will be forced by public opinion to follow Kraft?s lead, talking more about how they?ll change their products and marketing.
?You can expect to see more companies more engaged with a louder point of view,? said Pam Talbot, US president and COO of Edelman. ?We think this is just the beginning.?
Jennifer English, founder of the Food & Wine Radio Network (FWRN), added, ?If I were a food company now, there?s nowhere to hide. Our consciousness is being raised. Once you?ve awakened from a 40-year sleep, you can?t go back.?
Critics like Wootan see Kraft and other food companies acting primarily out of fear of lawsuits that would rival or surpass those brought against the tobacco industry. ?The food companies are worried about public perception; they?re also worried about legislation and litigation,? Wootan said.
But industry backers have argued that it has simply taken time to formulate new products and ingredients that answer obesity concerns.
Said Gene Grabowski, VP of communications with the Grocery Manufacturers of America, ?Companies are going to be doing more of this because consumers ask for it, because we respond to consumers.
The companies that are making these moves are major global players, and it takes a long time to plan. They really do believe in doing the right thing.?
Lisa Kelly, newly named SVP and group management director of the food commodities group at Publicis Dialog, agreed. ?I think we?re going to see a number of initiatives,? she said. ?The food industry responds to the consumer and serves the consumer.?
Companies like Mott?s are coming out with lower-calorie alternatives to longstanding brands. Mott?s has a reduced-calorie Hawaiian Punch hitting store shelves next month, said Chris Curran, manager of corporate communications. ?This helps moms feel good about what they?re giving their kids,? said Curran, hinting that that may be a key message when marketing begins for the new Hawaiian Punch.
Mott?s also has long positioned its apple-sauce products as healthy snacks for kids, as it offers single-serve apple sauce in a variety of colors. ?We?ve made it cool to eat healthy,? Curran explained. Mott?s seeks to get across its health message in all its media relations efforts and promotional activities aimed at consumers.
But critics aren?t so sure food companies care about consumer health, however, and will be watching and waiting to pounce on any disconnects between food-company PR on obesity and action.
?I want to see action. I will reserve judgment until then,? said Marion Nestle, professor and chair of New York University?s department of nutrition and food studies, and a major voice on the obesity issue.
Nestle sees Kraft as having a major credibility issue because of its ownership by Altria Group, formerly Philip Morris. For example, Kraft has announced the formation of an expert advisory committee to assess the company?s response to the obesity problem. But, Nestle said, ?anybody who goes on that committee is flacking for [Altria]. No one who?s independent is going to go on that.?
Getting hard-line critics like Nestle to admit that food companies are serious about addressing the obesity issue is a major PR challenge.
Some food companies prefer to talk directly to consumers and bypass the anti-obesity advocates. But Edelman?s Talbot said, ?I think the activists are sophisticated, and many of them have to be dealt with. The activist groups are influencing the government.?
The food industry needs to speak with one voice and talk about wanting to help America reduce unhealthy eating and lifestyles, said Jill McDonough, GM and EVP at Edelman?s Chicago office.
A unified industry voice is ?the best chance and opportunity to bring some of those critics and cynics along,? she contended.
FWRN?s English said food companies need to get all their messaging aligned. One part of a company can?t push larger-size or high-sugar-content products while another talks about health and nutrition. ?You can?t have any divergent messages anywhere,? English said.
Wootan and Nestle are both quick to criticize McDonald?s for announcing it would switch to healthier oil for French-fry cooking, but not following through on that promise. They will be watching to see what Kraft actually does after its announcement.
As it reformulates or downsizes products, Kraft will need to figure out successful marketing strategies for healthier products, a challenge the industry as a whole faces as well.
?I think a lot of food companies are already talking about new products,? said Steve Bryant, chief creative officer with Publicis Dialog. ?Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of communications around this topic. Some of them will be defensive in nature, but food companies will also try to find the magic formula of healthy products that become blockbusters.?
PR will help food companies tell the public they?re concerned about obesity. But the ultimate proof will be in what they sell and how they communicate the benefits of products that are healthier than much of the junk food that is such a large part of many American?s diets.