Marketers’ New Tactics in the Food Label Wars

Health takes a backseat

You’ll need a strong stomach to serve in this war, no matter which side you’re on.

Few consumer conflicts have been more bitterly fought than the battle between the food and beverage industry and advocates who blame the marketers of snacks and fast food for making Americans fat. Each side seems perpetually poised to stick knives and forks in the other’s hide—and eager to spoon-feed the public and federal regulators its point of view.

Analysts say the food industry would be wise to focus less on specific products and emphasize brand identity and experience. And indeed, that’s been the advertising trend.

Beauty shots of plump burgers and golden fries remain, but marketers are also attempting to align their corporate images with the cultural landscape and provide value-added entertainment wherever possible. (FIFA World Cup campaigns from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are prime examples. McDonald’s fries packaging lets smartphones unlock exclusive content, while Coke shares 32 local versions of its tournament anthem, “The World Is Ours.”) Analysts say it’s a smart strategy, allowing food and beverage marketers to skirt criticism about calories, sugar and fat, and, perhaps, tip the scales of public opinion in their favor.

For its part, Big Food says its practices, including advertising, are unfairly maligned. “Our industry, without getting adequate credit, has really stepped up to the plate,” says Dan Jaffe, group evp, government relations at the Association of National Advertisers.

Food and beverage companies tout several initiatives to demonstrate the success of self-regulation, among them:

● Expanded menus at QSR chains with healthier choices—fruits, vegetables and reduced-calorie items taking their place beside burgers, fries, hot dogs, milkshakes and sodas. Diet-conscious beverages and snack cakes have also popped up with increasing frequency in grocery aisles.

● Pledges made by Burger King, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Mars, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and others through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, to adhere to CFBAI’s standards for marketing to kids. (Companies either refrain altogether from kid-directed advertising or tout only items that meet certain nutritional criteria to children ages 12 and under.)

● A recent Centers for Disease Control study that says the obesity rate for young kids 2-5 dropped a surprising 43 percent in the past decade. (For the population as a whole, however, obesity rates remain unchanged.)

● The removal of 6.4 trillion calories from the marketplace between 2007 and 2012, far exceeding the industry’s promise to trim 1 trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by ’15.

“We were hopeful that some of that would lower the heat,” says Jaffe.

Fat chance. The food fight rages on, with pressure mounting on several fronts:

● The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks in Schools program, a new set of nutritional standards, could result in vending-machine items and cafeteria fare being modified or removed from many of the nation’s schools.

● Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to cap beverage sizes for sugary drinks in restaurants, theaters and other venues energized advocates and is now being considered by the state’s highest court.

● Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has vowed to introduce legislation to tax sugary beverages in the coming weeks.

● The documentary Fed Up, released in May, rallied the public with its scathing condemnation of Big Food’s marketing practices (see sidebar).

The latest incursion on marketing came in February, when the USDA proposed to ban foods that don’t meet certain nutritional standards from being advertised in public schools. “Classrooms should be healthy places where kids are not bombarded with ads for junk food,” said first lady Michelle Obama, the architect of the Let’s Move childhood obesity program, in announcing the rule changes.

“Demonizing—that is the proper term,” replies Jaffe of the opposition’s frequently fiery rhetoric. “The obesity issue is complex. It’s not an advertising problem.”

Per USDA figures, the industry spends about $150 million annually to advertise food and drinks in schools, relying mainly on vending-machine ads, corridor signage, posters, coupons, scoreboard messages and sponsorships of athletic fields.

The American Beverage Association, which represents companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, supports the USDA’s proposed in-school ad rules as the “logical next step.” Still, there’s concern that the initiative could trigger a slippery-slope effect, with the government ultimately regulating commercial messaging to an unacceptable degree. The Washington Legal Foundation maintains that the proposed rules would impose unconstitutional restrictions on lawful speech.

Big Food, Full Plate
The issue of advertising to kids stirs up the most passion, but marketing to consumers of all ages, in the U.S. and overseas, has begun to evolve. Selling product, of course, is still the goal—but campaigns are no longer exclusively about the products themselves.

Stephanie Soechtig, Director, Fed Up

“Our ‘Share the Fun’ advertisement, which featured our sharable M&Ms, is a good example of how we have promoted the role of our products as treats that should be consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” says Lee Andrews, vp, corporate affairs at Mars Chocolate N.A. “The message is carried through into our packaging, where we encourage consumers to share.”

The emphasis is on providing a fun brand experience, rather than candy per se.

Similarly, Coca-Cola’s vaunted “happiness” factory has stepped up the production of new products like bottles that can only be opened when joined with other bottles, 16 special caps that turn empty bottles into useful objects (such as pencil sharpeners and baby rattles) and a vending machine that doesn’t need electricity or batteries to keep soda refreshingly cool in villages located far from power grids. In each case, the sugary beverage itself seems an afterthought.

Terrance Clarke, professor of marketing at Boston University, who earlier worked on food and beverage campaigns, applauds Coke’s tactics. “The effort not only catches attention in a positive light, and thereby reflects the energy of the modern Coca-Cola, it also broadens the definition of cause marketing, a factor becoming more important these days, because consumers are looking for a company to practice responsibility in their pursuits,” he says.

McDonald’s, analysts say, has even more deftly played its hand in this regard. The chain “is like a soul that’s managed to transcend its body,” says Angela Natividad, who blogs about marketing for AdVerve. “It stopped being about food a long time ago. Now, it’s pure brand.”

Indeed, the Golden Arches has launched many initiatives in the lifestyles/social-issues vein. The McCafé java extension targets anti-hipsters with a lifestyle pitch reminding consumers that McDonald’s is no snob. And many find its emphasis on transparency tasty. Such work includes “Farm to Fork,” focused on farmers who supply the chain’s ingredients, and another campaign explaining how menu items are made. “This demystification is a bold strategy that I think is really smart,” says Tom Megginson, who blogs about social-issues marketing at Osocio. “Aggressive myth-busting is an essential and timely exercise.”

Happy days?
Then there’s the chain’s new, anthropomorphic Happy Meal box. The character, dubbed “Happy,” has become the manic face of a multifaceted Happy Meal blitz, encompassing games, videos, toys, e-books and the McPlay smartphone app. The program’s homepage tells kids to “balance your fun with milk and apples.” Still, some question the ethics.

James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine and frequent critic of Big Food marketing, blasts the initiative as the “most egregious of all,” because some kids won’t understand it is primarily a sales tool. Megginson finds Happy “creepy as hell,” adding, “It’s back to targeting kids directly, and I think that’s a really bad idea.”

“Happy brings fun and energy to kids’ meals while serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating,” responds a McDonald’s rep. “Happy promotes consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and water or juices and an active play lifestyle, which reinforces our nutrition commitment.”

More palatable for some are McDonald’s efforts in Europe—also seen in the U.S.—in which the marketer does not even use its name, relying on photographs or simple, stylish illustrations of its burgers and fries to position itself as a cultural icon, literally. Such work scores, experts say, because it manages to cast even questionable menu selections in an extremely positive light.

Even brands that are not as intrinsically iconic as McDonald’s, M&Ms and Coke have found increasingly creative ways to plug into the zeitgeist, while keeping detractors at arm’s length.

Arby’s enjoyed a boost after it tweeted about Pharrell Williams’ outsized hat—which resembled its logo—during this year’s Grammy Awards. Arby’s even purchased the headwear after the pop star put it up on eBay. “That’s a great social-story arc,” says Natividad, who also applauds In-N-Out Burger for its savvy strategy that “lets people build discoverable mythologies around them—like their ‘secret menu’ [found on the chain’s website], which new employees must memorize.”

The darling among QSRs, meanwhile, is Chipotle, which has managed to fly above the obesity debate, winning kudos for the socially conscious ads “Back to the Start” and “Scarecrow” and its “Farmed and Dangerous” Web series. (The chain even did tie-ins around the film Fed Up.)

“Maybe we are the anti-McDonald’s,” jokes Chris Arnold, communications director for Chipotle (ironically, McD’s once held an ownership stake in the chain).

“If these efforts look good to consumers, it’s due in no small part to Chipotle’s commitment to be increasingly sustainable, locally grown, hormone-free and transparent,” says Natividad. “It’s also something that shows Chipotle’s in it for the long haul.”

Adversaries of Big Food also appear to be in the fight for the duration, meaning it may be wise for marketers to follow the charge of the likes of Chipotle when drawing up their future battle plans.

Photos: Vasava; Soechtig; Jason Merritt/Getty Images