ANALYSIS: Health PR - Spreading the word on medicinal foods. The support of the healthcare profession is proving to be a crucial factor in the bid to introduce consumers to the health benefits of the new breed of ’functional’ foods

Supermarket shelves are suddenly awash with medicine disguised as food: margarine to help you lose weight, bread to treat menopause and chocolate that’s good for your heart.

Supermarket shelves are suddenly awash with medicine disguised as

food: margarine to help you lose weight, bread to treat menopause and

chocolate that’s good for your heart.

The evidence is that manufacturers are increasingly turning to PR to

explain functional foods - loosely defined as foods containing nutrients

which help reduce the risk of disease. GCI was hired by pharmaceutical

giant Novartis this month on a budget of pounds 1 million to launch a

new range of products containing ingredients supposed to help ease

digestion and improve the heart.

PR, it seems, is well placed, compared to other marketing disciplines,

to deal with the complexity of these products, and to explain them to a

wide spectrum of audiences.

Dorothy MacKenzie, a director of brand market research firm Dragon, says

PR has a crucial role in ensuring the support of the healthcare

profession for products, which in turn can reassure consumers that it

works. ’The health food industry is an area where consumers are

confused,’ she says.

’The key to a product’s success is the attitude of the healthcare


Those promoting functional foods have to not only cut a path through the

regulatory minefield associated with making health claims about foods,

but they have to convince the medical profession and then consumers to

trust what is, in effect, a new breed of product.

Hill and Knowlton food division managing director Carolyn Grant is in

charge of the agency’s newly-formed, six-strong functional foods

division, which brings together experts from public affairs and consumer

and healthcare PR. She believes it is essential to include directors

from all three disciplines when thinking about how to launch a


Although functional foods are being launched to the mass consumer

market, healthcare and lobbying expertise is essential in ensuring their

success because of the need for endorsement from organisations such as

health promotion groups, the medical profession, disease experts and

patient groups .

According to Burson-Marsteller European brand marketing practice

managing director Jane Ferguson, lobbyists need to be on board up to two

years before a launch to ensure regulatory approval and third party


The experience of Danish firm MD Foods, which used advertising agency

FCA and its in-house PR team to launch its products to the consumer

market last September, showed what can go wrong.

MD’s products included a margarine spread with fish oil, yoghurt with

folic acid and orange juice containing calcium.

Independent consumer watchdog the Food Commission made several

complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority that MD overstated the

health benefits of its products in advertisements.

The most recent complaint was against MD’s claim that folic acid added

to its yoghurt ’may help reduce the risk of heart disease’.

Restrictions subsequently imposed on MD’s advertising were blamed for

poor sales and the product’s eventual withdrawal in January this


Observers claim the problems which hit MD highlight a grey area in the

promotion of functional foods, namely the extent to which manufacturers

can claim a product can prevent an illness.

Many hope this area will be resolved through the joint Government/

industry Health Claims Initiative, set up two years ago, which should

result in the establishment of a body to monitor health claims later

this year.

The launch of cholesterol-reducing margarine Benecol, which was handled

by Hill and Knowlton, is a happier story.

Despite being priced at pounds 2.49 per tub, instead of the average

margarine price of 60p, Benecol has scooped a five per cent share of the

dairy spread market since its launch just two months ago.

The campaign started around 12 months prior to the launch. Firstly the

medical community, including GPs and pharmacists, were targeted at the

pre-launch stage by the healthcare team.

Public affairs experts ensured key-opinion formers, including

organisations like the Food Commission, were alerted to the product’s

existence so that any problems they had with it could be addressed.

The media relations team then launched the consumer campaign, with the

help of the healthcare team, because their task involved not only

promoting a new product, but educating consumers about medical

conditions like indigestion and heart disease.

Making detailed information widely available is essential at the

consumer stage of the launch. Formerly a little known brand, Yakult

yoghurt, which eases digestion, went from zero UK sales three years ago

to selling 100,000 bottles a day thanks to a campaign designed to

disseminate information about the product as widely as possible.

Yakult PR director Jim Munday explains that prior to the brand’s launch,

experts went in to explain the products to journalists and leaflets

about its benefits are now available from information dispensers in most

shops which stock it.

Functional foods manufacturers are trying to make the leap from the

niche medical market to the larger lifestyle market, but the risks of

making health claims to a wide consumer audience are great.

This is why companies need to enlist behind-the-scenes, pre-launch PR

help, long before advertising comes into the marketing mix.

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