Education campaigns mitigate fallout from product changes

An article in 'The Wall Street Journal' this week noted that food companies have quietly reduced sodium in their products for years, seeking to balance the consumer preference for taste and a corporate responsibility to improve nutrition.

An article in The Wall Street Journal this week noted that food companies have quietly reduced sodium in their products for years, seeking to balance the consumer preference for taste and a corporate responsibility to improve nutrition.

But its lack of communication diminishes the industry's bargaining ability in the face of proposals like the New York health department's suggestion to reduce sodium in packaged and restaurant food by 25% in five years. Meanwhile, companies that are communicating about sodium reduction get to engage with their consumers, while also assuring shareholders and employees on their future viability given the issue is gaining traction in the national dialogue on health.

“The companies that have talked about reducing sodium have talked about their commitment as a corporation,” says Ilene Smith, SVP and associate director of Ketchum's North American food and nutrition practice at Ketchum.

Teresa Paulsen, VP of corporate communication for ConAgra Foods, says the company has promoted reduced sodium for its Orville Redenbacher brand and initiated a CSR effort to reduce sodium by 20% for all of its products by 2015. 

The company's communications strategy for the CSR announcement focused on outreach to the media, shareholders, retail customers, consumers, and employees. Yet, it has not followed that plan with every product.

“We think it's important the people we supply and the people who choose to invest in us really get a good feel for our commitment to being progressive in nutrition improvement,” she says. “It depends on the product. There are some brands and some products where it has been reduction that we haven't communicated on shelf or in advertising.”

But as the public and private sectors become more focused on health issues like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, companies can evolve their communications strategies to better educate consumers on why these recipe changes are taking place.

“This is a key learning that companies need to be ahead of what's coming down the pike in terms of dietary recommendations,” says Smith. “Companies are doing a better job about learning how to navigate that area.”

This past summer, Campbell's widely announced that it was rolling out its iconic tomato soup with one-third less sodium.

“We've found that there really is a benefit to communicating it,” says Juli Mandel Sloves, senior manager of nutrition and wellness communications for the company. “When you're communicating to people that you're making a product that's better for them and you're assuring them of the taste, we think those are critical messages to get across.”

The availability of traditional and online media outlets and social networks has created a new environment where food companies can directly reassure consumers through online discussions on science, tasting, and research.

Campbell's tested the soup in 50 states before inviting bloggers and media outlets to taste the products side by side and meet the chefs involved, says Sloves. The company also used its Facebook, Twitter, and Web site to tell the story.

“If you feel like there's a reason you're using something [in a product] that's being attacked, defending that in a very transparent and positive manner can only help,” notes Bill Evans, SVP and digital practice group lead for Fleishman-Hillard.

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