Editorial: Is Carb Options an invite to top table?

It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Ogilvy & Mather is passed the opportunity to launch Unilever's low-carb food range into the UK but fumbles the ball. FCB London picks it up and scores.

While O&M may curse its misfortune, the win may prove a defining moment for FCB, so long inhibited by a low profile and an unremarkable creative reputation but determined to reinvent itself under new management. However, the FCB team, having won a place on the Unilever roster, knows the hard work is about to begin.

Carb Options is a big investment for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate and much is riding on its success. The Atkins diet has precipitated one of the swiftest changes in eating habits among US consumers that has ever been seen. The mass switch to high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets not only sent the line on Unilever's Slimfast sales graph rapidly southwards, but also provided an anti-climactic end to Niall FitzGerald's reign as Unilever's chairman. Indeed, Slimfast's declining fortunes have been a major factor in the company's disappointing half-year results and disrupted its Path to Growth strategy.

The spectacular success of Atkins has clearly caught food and drink manufacturers on the hop. Nestle, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch have all gone on the counter-offensive with low-carb brand extensions. Now Unilever is stepping up the pressure on Atkins by introducing Carb Options into the UK from the US, where it was launched earlier this year.

FCB's task is tough. What makes the Atkins offering so appealing to dieters is that its regime is neither punitive nor about deprivation, allowing people to eat a lot of what they fancy as long as they watch the carbs. And there's little doubt that Atkins , irrespective of whether it remains a permanent fixture, will influence eating habits for many years to come.

By launching under the well-established Hellmann's and Knorr brand names, however, Carb Options plays Atkins at its own game, offering consumers healthy eating without sacrificing taste. The worst that could happen is for FCB and Unilever to assume that the product-led advertising promoting Carb Options in the US will work equally well in the UK. While 17 per cent of Americans say they've tried Atkins, Britons are less inclined to slavishly follow fads and will need powerful reasons to buy.

The right kind of advertising could play a big part in helping to get Unilever back on track. And with the company showing a willingness to look beyond its core agencies for creative solutions, it will be fascinating to see if FCB's foot in the door leads to an invitation to dine.

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