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
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.