Is it the Responsibility of Brands to Help People Make Healthy Choices?

Against a backdrop of provocative headlines such as ‘Jeremy Hunt embroiled in row over sugar tax report’ and ‘Fizzy drinks giant pays millions to diet experts’ Kaizo, in partnership with PR Moment, recently played host to the first public debate between Professor Graham MacGregor of Action on Sugar, representing the anti-sugar camp, and Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation, representing the industry. The event, titled ‘Is it the responsibility of brands to help people make healthy choices’, explored the opposing viewpoints to provide insights for brands and organisations wrestling with this issue. Kaizo Director Rachael Rees appeared on the panel alongside MacGregor and Wright representing the perspective of PR and marcomms professionals.

Kicking off the debate Professor MacGregor said that he thought the question was irrelevant as consumers don’t really have a choice, and this is especially true for the socially deprived. In the face of a public health crisis measures must be taken to make all food healthier, so called healthy options are not enough.

Despite acknowledging that helping people to make healthy choices is one of brands’ responsibilities, Ian Wright was keen to explain the many responsibilities of brands, including to their shareholders. Wright believes that it is also the responsibility of brands to provide choice, meet consumer demand, and argued that consumers themselves must take responsibility for their own choices. A regulation on sugar, Wright believes, will not provide a level playing field among competitors, as there will always be food producers – artisans, restaurants, small producers, who can avoid it.

Regulating food content in an unobtrusive way has already seen success, noted MacGregor, who suggests that everything now bought in supermarkets contains 30-40% less salt since regulation was implemented. In his experience, he has found that brands are willing to be involved.

According to Rachael Rees the consumer perspective is often neglected in this debate. She highlighted that consumers are confused as to what the enemy in their food is – fat, sugar salt? Research has shown that consumers aren’t sure who to trust but believe that brands do have a responsibility to help them, suggesting consumer demand not only for great tasting, healthy foods, but for clear information and guidance. There was a consensus across the panel that information and education could and should be improved. Rees believes that with transparency, practical tools and clear information, communicators can play a huge role in helping brands to step up and make a positive change.

“Brands alone taking responsibility just won’t help. Marketing, the food industry and portion sizes all need to be rectified”, said MacGregor. In MacGregor’s opinion, he is fighting for people who are unaware of what they are eating, and believes that reformulation is the true answer, though regulation and tax measures could be beneficial in the short term.

Contesting this claim, Wright said that brands do not create demand, rather they follow consumer demand. With two-thirds of products in the soft drinks sector containing low or no sugar, Wright believes this demonstrates that consumer tastes are changing and brands are meeting them. After all, “the requirements of the consumer are absolute”, he said.

The debate is not unique to the UK, with various steps being taken across Europe. “There is no doubt it will change, it’s just a case of which country is first,” said MacGregor, concluding that, “Like tobacco, it’s not easy to solve but you have to realise that the environment has changed.”

The lively debate, which included audience members from organisations such as Public Health England and brands such as Weetabix highlighted how polarised the arguments can be. However, there was broad agreement that improving the health of the nation is an urgent priority and that brands have their part to play. Industry and campaigners will need to work together to help consumers make healthier choices and it is clear that marketing and communications will play an important role.

Full report available here: Event report – Is it the responsibility of brands to help people make healthy choices

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