Byravee Iyer
Aug 20, 2014

Brands pushed to join battle of the bulge

As governments around Asia tackle rising obesity levels, food companies are under pressure to make their products healthier.

What’s the beef: Fast-food brand clean up their act regarding meals for children
What’s the beef: Fast-food brand clean up their act regarding meals for children

By 2015, Singapore will have regulations in place that will clamp down on marketing “unhealthy” food to children. Other Asian nations, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have taken steps that may lead them down the same path as they combat rising obesity levels.

These regulations place food and beverage companies in a marketing quandary. For years, after-school television has been bombarded with fast-food and junk-food ads for brands ranging from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to Apollo and Mamee. Brands use cartoon characters in campaigns that appeal to children and launch mass promotions in thousands of schools. 

Asia’s expanding waistline is a major concern for its governments. Singapore’s Health Promotion Board estimates about 11 per cent of the population is obese, significantly higher than the 7 per cent it reported in 2004. The figures vary across the region. One person in five in Hong Kong is considered obese. China and India together account for about 15 per cent of the world’s obese population. 

As governments and consumers rally for regulations, food companies are under increasing pressure to make products healthier. This is happening in a few ways: reformulating existing products to reduce fat, salt and sugar; changing the preparation method (baked over fried); and reducing package sizes to control intake. 

“Like alcoholic beverage producers, firms are taking a more preemptive, consultative approach, working with lobbyists and legislators to take action to reduce unhealthy content voluntarily,” says Graham Hitchmough, regional director, ASEAN, The Brand Union. 

The International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), a trade group of 10 major firms including Coca-Cola, Mondelez and Nestlé, has given global promises to reformulate products to improve diets, advertise food responsibly, and promote exercise and nutritional literacy. 

Unfortunately, it remains unclear how these brands will face up to the challenge of tighter regulations. This topic is so new and sensitive that requests for interviews or comments to most of these brands were declined. 

One company however that has had a policy of only showing responsible consumption of their products in their marketing across all markets is Nestlé. Management cut a scene from a recent TVC promoting Frutips in Hong Kong as it breached internal guidelines, says Tin-Tin Siapno, head of marketing and communications for Nestlé Hong Kong. “In the scene, the comedienne Lu Fen was eating the candy really fast and it was pointed out it was against our policy because we encourage responsible consumption.” 

More measures are being taken at national levels. In Singapore, 14 big food and drinks companies including Coca-Cola, Mars, Unilever, Ferrero, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, Nestlé and General Mills pledged not to advertise products to children under 12 unless they met “agreed nutritional criteria”. They further agreed not to promote products in primary schools.

The Advertising Standards Authority in Malaysia has warned companies against actively encouraging children to replace main meals with confectionery or snack foods. In India, seven food and beverage companies pledged to restrict and regulate the promotion of unhealthy foods. Thailand and Philippines also have local pledges in place. 

Thereis also a move to fight flab within companies. Will Gilroy, director of communications at World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), says it’s not simply a question of adding multivitamins.

“That’s not credible,” he says, noting that it is about balancing and taking out a number of ingredients such as salt, fats and sugar. 

The WFA is working closely with Food Industry Asia (FIA) and the Singapore Health Board to come up with a decisive set of regulations. 

Gilroy says brand owners have been progressive and many have adjusted their business strategy to comply with the regulators’ demands.

While the FMCG giants have started launching healthier products, it hasn’t resulted in sweeping change for most companies. Nestlé stands out with its decision to cut sugar and salt in children’s breakfast cereals outside North America. In Malaysia, it launched ‘Nestlé more goodness, more value’, a campaign that encourages consumers to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle. In India, the company’s flagship brand is working on launching an Oats Noodles variant to win back market share. 

Last year, Coca-Cola announced its first herbal drink, Habu, in Thailand. Kraft has developed the ‘Big fork, little fork’ app to give parents useful information about eating healthily. Even McDonald’s has said it will offer salads, fruits or vegetables instead of fries as part of its value meals.

Experts say the effort to offer healthier products is hampered by what is considered healthy. A chocolate bar or carbonated soda is not necessarily unhealthy if part of a balanced diet and the debate also needs to be balanced. 

“The consumer deserves and needs to be genuinely informed so that they can make their own informed choices rather than being told what to do,” says Dominic Twyford, client director at Landor Associates. As a first step, he recommends brands pro-actively build consumer communications around health, eating well and nutrition. 

Also, healthier products aren’t always profitable. McDonald’s salads, introduced a decade ago, account for just 3 per cent of its sales in the US. 

In Asia, the issue of unhealthy food ingredients is further complicated by the greater polarisation in standards of living and nutrition. While some markets, such as Singapore, Indonesia and Japan, may share the West’s concerns over obesity and its link to conditions such as diabetes, in other parts of the region cheap, high-sugar, high-fat foods might be a necessary part of achieving a sufficient calorie intake. 

It will be incumbent on food producers to combine short-term, preemptive measures with a more long-term societal role, Hitchmough notes. This means maintaining dialogue with government and campaigners, and investing in healthier alternatives and culturally relevant health education. 

“Driving lifetime customer value is, after all, ultimately about ensuring that those customers have the choice, information and products to ensure they stick around for the long term,” he added. 

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