Thursday, November 10, 2016

Tough nut to crack: brand strategy, sugar, and the global obesity crisis

Dan Wasserman from Boston Globe mocking Coca-Cola strategy....
As a kid, my mom would occasionally bring me for a special treat, called rock candy. Beautiful like a clear quartz crystal, this candy was simply and elegantly large rocks of crystallized sugar - that we would buy at the pharmacy counter no less. Yes, I would suck and chew on pure sugar rocks, something that would be considered practically criminal today in some circles. Three-ish decades on, many in food policy circles think of sugar much in the same way they think of tobacco: it’s bad for one's overall health, and it’s the driver of a global public health crisis with obesity now surpassing hunger worldwide. Such critics attribute responsibility for the obesity crisis to the brands that “push” these products, along with other entities such as manufacturing associations. They look to tobacco legislation as a model in their fight. Warnings about the health effects of sugar in soda are surely filtering through to the public as soda sales in the US at least have been dropping for a decade, and this trend is likely to spread to other global regions. And brands are strategizing against such a drop in sales. Hence comes the apparently scientific article produced recently by Coca-Cola funded scientists(see cartoon above) which concludes that exercise counts more than calorie consumption for reducing obesity. Hmmmm - interesting. Critics respond with the point that industry funded research is biased, almost invariably favoring the product researched. It is hard to keep track of the back and forth. There is vitriol.

While both tobacco use and sugar consumption share that people have an almost sensual physical relationship to these products that is hard to ignore, they’re actually quite different in their distribution and consumption so applying the model of “big tobacco” to "big food" isn’t clear cut. Tobacco isn’t contained within practically everything you find on a shelf in the supermarket, whereas some form of sugar is. Sugar is an ingredient not only in a serious majority of processed food products, but it is also very much present in both fruits and vegetables, meaning that in some way, sugar in whole foods can be part of a healthy diet. So dealing with tobacco meant something much more direct; with sugar, the target isn't as clear.

Creative approaches came into play: New York's soda tax against drinks 16 oz and larger meant to deal with the sugar problem is one, but it was hard sell and there was much debate. Now it is being copied in other places and considered on the federal level as US policy. At the same time, there are a number of nutrition scientists trying to build the evidence base for sugar addiction. Results are pointing in favor of it, but evidence isn't clear yet either.


There are complicated ideas that have developed around sugar as a product. Sugar is a stubborn nugget of intertwined cultural associations - some are very positive. Sugar is part of fruit - fruit is good for you - positive association. What about dessert? Too much dessert bad, but does anyone really think that apple pie, the iconic American dessert is making anyone fat? Americans remain warm and fuzzy on this point. I know I do. Then there are the issues of portion sizes and general changes in our lifestyles as a contributing factor. Herein lies the problem with good legislation targeting sugar.

My oven burnt my pie but it was still yummy
The cherry on top is that there are also many other forms that sugar takes, including high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fructose, xylitol and all of the sugar substitutes, stevia, raw sugar, demerara, muscovado (love the names...), not to mention honey and so on. Ideas around many of these products aren’t as developed as they are around sugar itself- pure white, soft, clean- versus HFCS - sugar’s liquid form - distilled, processed, gooey, sticky, unclean, practically sugar's evil twin at this stage of the public discussion.

Questions: How do we separate out all of these pieces to come up with a brand strategy? 

Answer: The response is actually a series of many smaller and (longer-term) moves based on teasing out the variety of associations. 

Teasing out the culture/s of sugar...

The "natural": Ironically, the idea of sugar has become associated with being more natural because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has had much bad press. Sugar in Europe mostly comes not from cane but from beets which is a highly processed sugar, but it is the cultural associations that count most. Pepsi deciding to move to sugar from HFCS in 2010 was an obvious sign. What we consider "natural" is hard to predict: it will be different in different countries of course, but sugar, refined may it be, is still perceived as more natural than other sweeteners. (Honey, considered yet more natural, remains for home use rather than industrial use). There is a continuum for where a product can be placed as far as how natural it is perceived. And being more natural -having more natural foods and ingredients- is valuable in a world where there is increasing desire for keeping food "clean" and "wholesome" is certainly part of this dynamic.

Brand Response:

1. USE MORE "NATURAL" SUGARS: the brand Rigoni di Asiago has had unbelievable success with their delicious jams created using concentrated apple juice as a sweetener. Concentrated apple juice is of course a processed sweetener but it IS part of a food we actually eat, apples, so it certainly has some more whole food properties than the white, powdery stuff. The jam is sweet without being overly so and it retains the texture and taste of the actual fruit. As their tag says "Rigoni of Asiago: Nature at heart". The associations with nature are very strategic. They transport us to a time before all our food was highly processed. They make us forget that our food is made by giant machines that process other foods beside our cookie dough (nuts and soybeans). They evoke the Proustian moment - when we might have picked and cooked our own food. Nostalgia for an idyllic past is well represented by landscapes of nature, projecting earthy wisdom and simplicity. And it makes me want to roll around in a pile of hay...

Rigoni of Asiago: Nature at its heart...

Having lived in Italy recently and with a foot in Italian culture for almost two decades, it has been funny for me to find that many mothers consider ice cream (well, it’s ethereal Italian counterpart, gelato) a relatively wholesome nutritious treat. Often with fruit, whole milk and of course there is ample sugar, it is more or less just blended, but we all know gelato is superior to any frozen dessert product on earth. And yet...there is an empire of fruit, milk, chocolate and nut production and their global supply chains behind the simple product. The point being that much of the ado about sugar is in part driven by the scientific nature of industrial food. No one is attacking apple pie or gelato itself. Grom, now an international brand that pushes its wholesomeness and sustainability to the limit, appeals to all of these points to the degree where no one would even dream of isolating the sugar as a problem.
Grom: Gelato like it once was...

Mulino Biano: The pleasure of healthy eating
2.  JUST USE LESS SUGAR IN THE PRODUCT.  Industrial food scientists - this must be their mission. Start doing testing to find the sweet spot, if you will ;-), where the product is just sweet enough to be delicious without going overboard. I *try* to eat highly processed food as little as possible but when I do taste some of the products out there, I find them sickeningly sweet - food science should find that edge to re-educate the public's palate over time and really get out there ahead of the game, promoting this forward thinking, more health-sustainable approach. Now's the time.

3. MOVE TOWARD INCREASING OTHER NATURAL INGREDIENTS to create a more wholesome product where possible. It is an important move that will respond to growing criticism for highly processed food (more on that point shortly). While it doesn't address sugar directly, it addresses the notion that food is just less natural today than it once was (hence, lots of amber waves of grain and other nostalgic agricultural images in current food branding). On the flip side, can we take out all the junk included just for aesthetic reasons, like dyes? Nestle is taking out artificial dyes for instance from candy bars. What is that about anyway? Chocolate is brown, eggs are yellow/orange, butter plus flour is beige! I don't want a blue candy bar, do you? Raspberry isn't blue either.


I've already mentioned this term several times. Processed is the flip side of natural when it comes to people's perceptions. People who think negatively about food processing are thinking of the "pink slime" scandal. They are thinking artificial dyes. People tend to lump all sorts of processing together, even when at times it is of great benefit to our lifestyle. To be fair on the topic of food processing, even health-foodies should all be exceedingly grateful for some food processing: I love my salad pre-washed, my flour pre-ground, my milk homogenized and my water treated. Food processing isn't all bad - what would working families do without frozen veggies? But it is quite difficult for people to recognize where the lines could reasonably be drawn so "processed food" writ large, comes off as against efforts to establish healthy diets when that doesn't always hold in reality.

Sugar then, likely because of its entanglement with HFCS, is now tied into concerns not only over health, but also general discontent with overly processed, industrialized food.

Industrialized food was initially a cause célèbre in the post-war period. Baby food and white bread made mom's life easier and exemplified how industry served working people well and made busy working livelihoods in new urban centers more convenient. Mass industrialization of the American food system allowed food to be produced more cheaply, offering food itself as a vehicle in which people took part in American industrial prowess and technological achievement - only through the purchase and and enjoyment of the new convenience foods. Many decades later however and after an increasing number of food processing scandals tied to food safety, people crave a demonstrative move toward the wholesome, unprocessed food from a (however idealized) past. People need reassurance that they are not consuming cancer-causing chemicals, pink slime, bacteria or prions. The growth of urban farming and bee-keeping, community supported agriculture, heritage grains and animals and locally grown movements that are spreading across cities in the West is a way that people address these concerns, bringing in a distant market to a local space where people can understand and create a deeper connection to food sources. These are good developments. It doesn't mean we can't have a laugh at the emphasis on baby lettuces, Himalayan salt and charred bergamot lovingly smudged on my pasture-fed, heritage quail though.

There will be multiple pathways for food brands to deal with the issue of sugar but the biggest strategy of all: Connect to community concerns. Come to the table with food policy councils, universities and any food conscious stakeholders you can engage. Don’t be afraid to work with the very people that seem to be the rivals to find the desired ways into the problem. Understand their goals and contribute to efforts that help consumption of healthy foods overall. In many ways, sugar is just part of that much bigger package.

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