Feature

Finding the sweet spot

The government’s forthcoming regulations on advertising HFSS products are a perfect opportunity for some creative thinking within the tightest of parameters. Can alcohol marketers provide a useful pointer or two?

Government regulations will restrict advertising HFSS products to a young audience (Getty Images)
Government regulations will restrict advertising HFSS products to a young audience (Getty Images)

In the face of the new rules on advertising of high fat salt and sugar (HFSS) products, advertisers are worried that they have become “a convenient and very public scapegoat, because advertising is something that government can tinker with rather than taking serious action,” in the words of Phil Smith, director general at ISBA. And, as Smith points out, more holistic solutions, such as a tax on sugar and salt for food manufacturers as recommended in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, have been “dismissed out of hand” by Boris Johnson. 

Existing HFSS codes have already been changed to reduce impacts to children by more than 70% in the past 10 years, according to Advertising Association research, Smith argues. “And the average youngster sees just over a minute of TV advertising for HFSS foods in a week, so it's not as though they’re being besieged.”

However, with 63% of adults above a healthy weight, half of whom are living with obesity, plus one in three children leaving primary school already overweight or obese, the Government must be seen to take action, even if it means putting an estimated £1.1bn of sales per year at risk, and jeopardising 50% of the total HFSS marketing spend in the UK, some £192m, according to IRI analysis. 

Smith contends restricting advertising is not the solution: “There have been big reductions in childhood exposure to [HFSS] advertising, and nothing's changed. In fact, the situation's got worse. Calorie consumption is going down, but at the same time, activity levels are going down faster. And they say advertising is to blame… Really?”

As Smith points out, it’s not that advertisers don’t support the government’s anti-obesity drive, but many believe the starting point is wrong. Especially since the government’s own impact assessment has shown that banning HFSS advertising will have a disproportionately small impact on children’s calorie intake – a reduction in just 1.7 calories a day (that’s about half a Smartie) as a result of the ban. 

Advertisers keen to play their part

Despite initial incredulity and disappointment at the new rules, which come into force at the end of 2022, and will be enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, most advertisers are keen to play their part, with 54% of senior marketers in support of stronger marketing regulation for HFSS, according to research released by the Chartered Institute of Marketing in June. 

Yelena Gaufman, strategy partner at Fold7, which works with alcohol brands including Carlsberg, wonders if, years from now, adland will look back on all this with incredulity: “Can you believe 10 years ago, you could get kids really excited about neon-coloured Cheetos?” Gaufman says that the new rules are a result of the government having to “course-correct” the HFSS sector with “draconian-style” regulation. 

“The fact that HFSS food has such a detrimental impact on health, not dissimilarly to cigarettes and excessive alcohol, makes you wonder how we've got this far without this regulation. How is it possible that we were able to write work that particularly targeted children for stuff that's as bad for them as cigarettes and alcohol?” Gaufman continues.

Liquid lessons

Of course, for the past 25 years, the alcohol industry has worked to codes set out by the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel, which has seen its own funders and supporters finding themselves on the wrong end of decisions. About 150 irresponsibly promoted products have been withdrawn from the market as a result of complaints to the panel, with 62% of complaints upheld, explains Matt Lambert, Portman Group CEO. 

As Smith points out, like alcohol advertisers, the vast majority of HFSS marketers and agencies are responsible and progressive advertisers who will be keen to ensure they don't skirt the spirit of the law, even if they don’t actively welcome restrictions. The challenge will be to simultaneously maintain creativity. 

Changes in governance can seem daunting, and the prospect of adapting may feel initially limiting, says Emma Sherwood-Smith, marketing director at Carlsberg Group: “To those concerned HFSS brands, I hope the alcohol industry can provide some reassurance – or indeed inspiration – when it comes to still bringing our brands to life in powerful ways for our consumers. Alcohol of course being one of the most highly governed categories; Carlsberg and many others have demonstrated, for many years, that regulation doesn’t have to restrict creativity.”

At Carlsberg, working authentically within regulations, not around them, has been key. “Responsibility runs through every single part of campaign ideation, production and execution. Responsible drinking is a ‘green’ thread through everything Carlsberg does, in line with the group’s global sustainability programme, Together Towards ZERO,” Sherwood-Smith says.

An opportunity to reinvent

The introduction of restrictions around alcohol advertising have helped gradually transform Carlsberg from “a ‘session lager’, trapped in a cliché of knocking back pints and watching football”, and propelled it towards fundamental changes, explains Gaufman. Restrictions made the category evolve and catch up to the world: witness Carlsberg’s partnership with WWF, as featured in its recent spot “The Seal”, created by Fold7. 

Rather than just “guess what? the beer tastes great”, beer brands are now talking about the environment, gender and sexual equality. Their work is about behaviours and attitudes, connecting with people on that level. “HFSS brands need to look outside themselves and tap into more modern and relevant trends like social and environmental responsibility and wellness, and a more diverse audience,” Gaufman says. 

So, is being forced into new ways of working an opportunity for HFSS brands to reinvent themselves? “Believe in the unstoppable power of creativity,” says Sherwood-Smith. “It’s about recognising that responsibility is a powerful trait for the brand, and for those who want to be associated with us. It is a strong driver in what we do, making extra governance seen as an enabler and a source of support, not a restraint.”

“Creativity loves a challenge”

“Show any creative a ‘no entry’ sign, and they’ll try to unpick that lock,” Walter Campbell, creative director and writer, wrote in Campaign during his recent description of the making of Guinness's "Surfer" ad, created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO in 1999. 

And this is where that famous old saying “the freedom of a tight brief” comes in. Because knowing the rules intimately, accepting them and abiding by them, means that ideas which contravene the code are not indulged. 

As Nick Hulley, executive creative director at AMV BBDO, says: “It acts as an original gatekeeper. It sharpens your focus. You can frustrate yourself trying to outsmart the rules… Or know where to put your energy within the rules and find the creativity there. Don't waste creativity on things that can't be done, because they will be against the spirit and the letter of the legislation.”

One solution Guinness leverages is its brand iconography; the deep history of the brand, which is instinctively known and understood. It’s recent “Welcome Back” #LooksLikeGuinness campaign used real-life situations and objects that look like a pint of Guinness, and is a standout example of what can be achieved with a brand that has a strong set of semiotics.

“Creativity loves a challenge and can respond to any restriction,” Hulley says. “It's about having a brand platform that allows you to tell emotional stories, which is great for creativity, and it also allows you to get a message out that is comfortably within the rules.”

For non-established brands, it’s important to think of new ways to catch attention, Hulley adds. He gives the example of Guinness’s campaign for its Six Nations 2019 sponsorship, which used a responsible-drinking message, encouraging rugby fans to swap a pint of the black stuff for water – a  pint of “Guinness Clear" – to “make it a night you’ll remember”.  

This kind of idea, as simple as rebranding tap water, could be done by an iconic brand or, indeed, any brand making a fun or eye-catching piece of communication, explains Hulley. Innovation, leaning into the purpose of coming up with new products that are within the rules, are routes that lesser-known brands could also take.

Brand advertising: a glimmer of light?

Alcohol advertisers still have the freedom to show their products in advertising, as long as ads do not feature, imply, condone, or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking, and anyone associated with drinking must be, and must look, at least 18 years old. Conversely, under the new HFSS rules, advertisers will not be allowed to show their products before the 9pm watershed. But one glimmer of light is that brand advertising will still be allowed, although the exact parameters of this exemption have yet to be confirmed. 

Speaking at the Mad//Fest London event in July, Benazir Barlet-Batada, marketing director at Cadbury, said: “Recently the legislation has just come out that we can still do brand stories, so without showing the chocolate, and we're working through exactly what that means. Otherwise, you know everything's after 9pm at the watershed mark, and we all know that's going to be really expensive in terms of media airtime. Huge unknowns at this stage.”

And here lies a further quandary for advertisers: because although brand campaigns look amazing and provide a platform for creativity, it seems they don’t always provide sales uplift. 

Cadbury’s Gorilla ad, produced by Fallon London in 2007, with just one chocolate bar shot in the closing seconds of the ad, “didn’t drive sales” said Barlet-Batada. “It was fantastic from an advertising point of view, and loads of people have applied to work at Cadbury based on the gorilla advert. It was fabulous, but in terms of sales, it didn’t work. But this campaign [“Generous Instincts”] has. It’s really gone through the line and driven sales as well as brand metric scores.”

Creative executions within VCCP’s product-focused “Generous Instincts” campaign, from 2018’s “Mum’s Birthday” to the recent “Dairy Milk Bus” ad, all feature purple-wrapped chocolate, front and centre. 

This is consistent with research from IRI, which found that ads featuring a product could drive 12% more sales than ads that only showed it in the final frame. Although it also found that ads “with prominent logos and colours” drove 23% more value to the brand portfolio. 

Katie Jackson, chief operating officer, TBWA\London, which counts Jaffa Cake-maker McVities among its clients, says: “Nothing sells a great product better than the product itself. But it doesn’t have to stop there. We all know the importance of creating strong emotional connections between brand and consumer. When you really understand your audience and how your brand resonates with what matters to them, that knowledge can clearly unlock new avenues to communicate compellingly non-traditional content. Experiential thinking, partnerships and events have proven to be effective channels for driving-up distinctiveness, equity and most importantly, sales.” 

A media minefield

It's not a level playing field in terms of media channels. With digital options closed except for a brand’s own websites, HFSS brands will need to be more creative about how they reach audiences. 

Zoe Novick, client partner at Zenith UK, says: “From a broadcast perspective, it may be that out-of-home and audio could deliver high reach to drive brand awareness in place of TV. This may be a very effective way of delivering clients’ objectives while working within the regulations. However, it is likely to place a greater pressure on the development of stand-out creative.”

Audio is not used widely by HFSS advertisers, but it’s a medium consumed close to point-of-purchase and may provide an opportunity to build reach as part of a multi-media campaign. Novick points out that cinema also provides a real opportunity to drive brand engagement, as does using innovative types of partnerships and sponsorships to address the full funnel, such as experiential focused on over-18s. 

Where the sponsorship route is still open to HFSS brands, Hulley believes this represents a perfect platform for creativity and “emotional storytelling”, just as it has been for Guinness with its Six Nations Rugby sponsorship. 

However, sports sponsorship, such as KP Snacks’ sponsorship of cricket tournament the Hundred, may prove an own-goal for HFSS brands. Speaking after the partnership was announced, Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator Barbara Crowther said: “Quite frankly we’re stumped as to how the English Cricket Board could choose a high fat, high salt snacking brand as an appropriate partner for the Hundred.”

Kevin McNair, marketing director at KP Snacks, which owns brands including McCoys, Butterkist, Hula Hoops, and Tyrrells, points out that the manufacturer has in excess of 100 product lines available which are already exempt from HFSS regulations. Unsalted nuts, for example, are a source of fibre and protein, of which the EAT-Lancet Commission recommends 50g a day.

“Though it’s not yet clear what [media] channels are in or out of scope, it should lead to an improved focus on the planning and buying teams at our media partners to explore what can be done. Radio and out-of-home are a couple of examples, but we are also looking at PR,” McNair says. 

“It requires our media and creative agency partners to think about how best to disrupt within the new regulations as well as our brand, shopper and sales colleagues finding other ways to disrupt while on the shopping journey. We also have to remember that these new regulations will lead to different innovation as well as renovation. It is up to us, as responsible businesses, to renovate and innovate so that we are doing the right thing,” McNair continues. 

As Jackson says: “Clients want to work with government on smarter strategies like product development, rather than witness seat-of-the-pants policy intervention just to prove a point.”

A new recipe for success

However, although alcohol brands such as Carlsberg have managed to diversify and grow with no- and low-alcohol ranges, reformulation and new product development may not be so simple – or palatable – for HFSS. 

KP Snacks is currently developing yet-to-be-unveiled reformulated products which will allow the manufacturer to continue to market, “offering consumers better-for-you products that don’t compromise on taste”. But the food manufacturer’s recently launched and healthy-sounding Tyrell’s Lentil Crisps “sadly do still count” as HFSS foods, McNair says. 

Some “better-for-you” versions of common products do make the grade, such as Heinz 50% Less Salt & Sugar tomato ketchup. At the same time, plenty of seemingly healthier products will still be subject to restrictions, such as Walkers Oven Baked crisps, Propercorn Lightly Salted popcorn, and Cadbury Dairy Milk 30% Less Sugar.

With the new restrictions in place, HFSS brands will have to understand how they plug this restricted gap and discover other ways to get their story across, evoke emotion and connection. This is an opportunity for packaging to play a greater role – and provide even clearer or more immediate links to the brand’s own websites – which do not currently fall under the digital advertising restrictions. 

Take the craft beer market, with brands such as BrewDog, which has made cans “super-appealing”, as highlighted by Mike Foster, founder and creative director at Straight Forward, who work with Mars brands including Skittles. 

“Packaging presents an opportunity, but it still should be regulated and developed in a way which is responsible and works harder so it’s more campaignable,” he says. Foster uses the example of Snoop Dogg’s 19 Crimes wine brand which, he explains, uses the packaging to bring the consumer “a whole new level of experience with an augmented-reality component”.

“TV spots can come to life in packaging, becoming expressive and conjuring an emotional response,” Foster adds. “The rule of thumb is that the closer to the point-of-purchase, the simpler it should be for the consumer to connect. Then see it, buy it.” 

Proving that creativity can be harnessed to solve almost any problem. And that the creativity of adland will rise to this challenge.