What marketers can do about the sugar shake-up
A view from Maxine Fox

What marketers can do about the sugar shake-up

Brands must now choose between focusing on new, healthier products or winning over parents rather than marketing directly to children, Giraffe Insight's managing director explains.

Under new rules proposed this month, 90% of fruit juices currently on the market will be unable to advertise to children due to their high sugar content. This is just one measure that Public Health England is planning to introduce in a bid to control the "exploding nightmare" that is childhood obesity in the UK.

With the new regulations in mind, brands whose products were previously perceived as healthy will have a task on their hands to radically rethink their strategy to appeal to their target markets of kids and families. Part of their thinking needs to take into account that in recent years there has been a seismic shift in parents towards making more responsible, healthy choices in the home.

Looking back at some of the most popular food and drink brands of the past 20 years or so, like Sunny Delight, Capri Sun and Fruit Shoot from Robinsons, these brands have had to adapt to changing consumer perceptions around healthy eating. The products that were staples of school lunches a decade ago have now been re-pitched to consumers with different propositions, or have disappeared altogether.

Up until recently, fruit juice products were viewed as a healthy alternative to fizzy drinks in lunch boxes. But in fact, the shift in advertising regulation is just a reflection of the changes in consumer behaviour, as health warnings and extensive press coverage have made parents aware of the impact of these products on their children’s health.

What marketers can do

With the new regulations prohibiting advertising to kids, marketers now have to make a choice whether to pivot towards focusing on new, healthier products that fall within the guidelines, or to choose to focus on winning over parents, rather than marketing directly to kids – or a combination of both.

Various industry giants have had to rethink their product strategies in line with regulation many times, like PepsiCo, which has started to shift its focus away from fizzy drinks and unhealthy snacks, noticeably shifting towards a more organic and low fat ranges. Even brands that are historically associated with unhealthy options are starting to distance themselves from high-fat, high-sugar content products, with fast-food behemoth McDonald’s recently introducing a healthier Happy Meal range in the US, reducing the fries and offering a low-sugar chocolate milk.

When it comes to the decision-makers at home though, marketers very much need to consider the parent first and foremost, as they are more often than not the gatekeepers for their kids’ activities and food choices.

One study found that mothers in particular control 85% of household purchases in the US. Research we conducted at Giraffe Insights helped us identify patterns around parental behaviour – giving insight into new consumer demands. The "Organic Mum', for example – mothers who are driven by the desire to surround their toddlers with natural and recyclable products – are now an increasingly common audience group. These consumers are looking for products that are only made with natural and organic materials and products, including toiletries, toys and food.

In order to reach this target, businesses are going to have to respond to the changing social conscience that these parents have, and start offering products which are healthy, but also which go further by having a sustainable aspect to the product or packaging. And for those households where the "organic" bug hasn’t hit, it’s clear that brands need to take part in a re-education process to help halt the further advance of childhood obesity.

The medium is the message

We know that impactful media has the power to change and influence consumer perceptions and behaviours – also that children in particular are very susceptible to certain types of advertising messages. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the kind of effects social media ads have on them, for instance.

If marketers are to really take on board what these proposed regulations are advising, we would be using this as an opportunity to really rethink the ways in which the ad industry is engaging with kids, full stop. While some will see the shift towards mobile and tablet usage as an opportunity to reach a much younger group that is un-measurable through say, TV advertising, the onus is on marketers to make sure this young age group isn’t bombarded with ads and offered incentives.

In the wake of the Facebook data-targeting scandal, it’s important to recognise that even though we have a wealth of data on our hands to help us understand our target audiences online, we should be using it to market responsibly, encouraging healthy device usage, and that is sending messages in a way that is joined up across the various platforms.

The ban on fruit juice advertising is a reflection of modern consumer purchasing behaviour and the societal shift that has gone on towards needing to provide more healthy options, coupled with effective awareness campaigns, have increased concerns over the quality of products able to be advertised to children.

It was not that long ago that very few restrictions were in place, and unhealthy food as well as other high risk products like cigarettes and alcohol were openly promoted to all age groups. We’ve come a long way in figuring out how best to market to kids, and we’re still trying find the best balance to encourage healthy behaviours.

However, a move towards more a conscious and responsible advertising approach to children should be embraced by all, including those choosing to market to kids across platforms.

Maxine Fox is managing director of youth and family research company Giraffe Insights