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  The Whole Package: Setting Healthy Standards   The Whole Package: Setting Healthy Standards  Dale Buss  
         
 
The Whole Package: Setting Healthy Standards That leaves big food and beverage companies—including PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and Unilever—with an important dilemma: Do they continue to promote the proprietary better-for-you package-branding schemes that they've hatched—and in which they've invested millions of dollars—over the last few years? Or do they bow to what seems to be the will of the American consumer and come up with some better way to brand the nutritional superiority of foods?

The answer seems to be the latter. Already, brandchannel.com has learned, PepsiCo stands ready to junk its two-year-old Smart Spot program altogether if the industry succeeds in creating a single, better-for-you icon that provides clarity to consumers. At least Kraft Foods and Unilever also have signaled their interest in creating and uniting behind such a standard.

"We're getting [support] and are committed to making this happen," says Antonio Lucio, chief innovations officer for health and wellness for PepsiCo. "If we're successful in this endeavor to consolidate iconography, we'll give up our Smart Spot."

 
"[Similarly,] we're interested in discussing a positive, at-a-glance approach [to package iconography], assuming it is helpful," says Elisabeth Wenner, a spokeswoman for Kraft, whose own proprietary symbol is called Sensible Solutions.

Adds Doug Balentine, director of nutrition and health for Unilever North America, his company believes "it's possible that an industry-wide standard would be beneficial—that we could harmonize around one set of principles and icons."

Ironically, when it comes to the issue of better-for-you icons, industry executives find themselves in far more agreement than usual with the "food police." In November the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington, D.C.–based advocacy organization, formally petitioned the US Food & Drug Administration to design a national set of symbols to help consumers quickly identify healthier foods, alleging that "consumers can easily be confused or misled" by programs such as Smart Spot and Sensible Solutions "since the various programs have different aims and use inconsistent nutrition criteria."

Besides the comprehensive big-company brand marks, there are segment logos such as the Five A Day sticker that the Produce for Better Health Foundation has member companies slapping on fruits and vegetables, and limited-engagement icons such as the Get Apple Healthy tags that Mott's put on most of its products, such as applesauce, a couple of years ago.

Add to that the fact that perhaps the ultimate icon of healthier food choices—the US government's new food pyramid—is finally headed to supermarkets after two years of being confined largely to the Internet. The triangle-shaped, rainbow-colored guide for healthy eating will be promoted in 2,000 stores in 17 states initially.

Meanwhile, food shoppers in the UK are trying to avoid confusion over two rival, voluntary labeling schemes. One is a simplified, iconic "traffic-light" system devised by the government's Food Standards Agency, using red, amber, and green to show at a glance if a product contains high, medium, or low amounts of salt, fats, and sugar. (The other system, concocted mainly by large food and beverage companies, is less graphically oriented and more data-dense.)

It wasn't supposed to be this complicated. Many consumers conscientiously scour nutrition labels and other information on packaging for every tidbit of help in determining whether a product meets their standards. But many also are looking for brand-like devices that slash through the complexity and deliver a reliable, easy-to-understand verdict.

Plus, everyone says they want to help American shoppers make more healthful choices in the supermarket—more easily. That impulse would seem to dovetail nicely with the fact that mainstream food and beverage companies are shifting their entire portfolios toward better-for-you products and marketing because they sense that's the long-term direction of the American populace—despite the fact that obesity and poor nutrition still reign nationwide.

PepsiCo, for instance, has put the Smart Spot symbol—"Smart Choices Made Easy" in a green circle with a check mark—on more than 250 products across brand lines including Tropicana Pure Premium orange juices, Aquafina bottled waters, Gatorade, Baked! Lay's chips, Quaker Oats cereals, and Diet Pepsi. Each of the products meets nutritional criteria based on US Food & Drug Administration and National Academy of Sciences standards, including limits on the amounts of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugar in the products.

 
Smart Spot has been an effective internal tool for PepsiCo divisions to measure progress against the company's intensifying shift to better-for-you products, Lucio says. And it actually works better as a focus of one-time in-store promotions than do sports tie-ins and other tactics.

Kraft has marked more than 500 of its better-for-you products with its Sensible Solutions logo and notes that these items accounted for 30 percent of US revenues in 2005. Wenner, the Kraft spokeswoman, says that the company plans to keep deploying the mini-brand on more products.

Similarly, Unilever is set to launch "Eat Smart" and "Drink Smart" logos in the US in the spring in part because a similar program, under its global My Choice initiative, already has proven effective in Europe. For its US launch, Unilever has been trying not only to learn from its six-month European experience with My Choice but also to adapt its better-for-you brand to the peculiarities of American consumers.

In Dutch, for instance, the My Choice symbol is translated, "I Choose Smart." Balentine says the wording reflects the fact that "the Dutch feel it's very important that it's 'my' choice, and it's how 'I' choose," Balentine explains. In the US, on the other hand, "Eat Smart" attracted consumers, according to research studies.

Also for the US market, Unilever added cholesterol levels as an important criterion for the icon. company also took into account American consumers' great trust in their own regulatory bodies and their unfamiliarity with—or even disdain for—international regulators; Balentine says, products qualifying for Eat Smart or Drink Smart logos will mention that the designation is based on "US dietary guidelines" instead of "international" guidelines.

Even some supermarkets are creating their own health-and-wellness brands. Hannaford Bros. has rolled out its Guiding Stars logo program through its 158 supermarkets in the Eastern United States. The Scarborough, Maine–based chain awards one to three stars to items throughout the store that range from a "good nutritional value" to a "best," depending on a variety of criteria.

Yet so far, all of these efforts have led only to a dizzying array of new "brands" that, while trying to inform consumers, mainly have served only to confuse them, despite the brands' best intentions. Smart Spot, Lucio admits, "hasn't been as successful creating a level of clarity with the consumer to help them understand and navigate through their purchase decisions. And now, everyone and their mother have created their own symbols."

"Our research—including more than 3,000 Hannaford customers—shows that our customers want to eat better, but are confused by the volume and complexity of nutrition information," adds Caren Epstein, a Hannaford spokeswoman.

The food police obviously agree. "The supermarket is teeming with competing 'healthy food' symbols that run the gamut from highly helpful to fatally flawed," says Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Not everyone has the time or knowledge to scrutinize the nutrition facts labels or to decode the symbols Kraft, PepsiCo, General Mills, or other companies happen to be using."

And so do independent actors in the food business. "Consumers just don't trust large companies," says Gus Valen, chief executive officer of the Valen Group, an industry-consulting firm in Atlanta. " 'Healthier' is one thing, but these logos connote 'healthy.' The product choices aren't necessarily 'smart,' but they are 'smarter than an Oreo cookie.' That's breaking a promise to consumers, and they know that."

So what does everyone do now? Lucio's comments suggest that an industry consensus may be forming to create a universal better-for-you brand. Balentine says that Unilever would offer its own Eat Smart/Drink Smart logos for such an "open system," as the company did in Europe. Jacobson wants government involvement, he says, in creating "a prominent and reliable symbol on the fronts of packages [that] would be a tremendous help to those harried shoppers racing through the supermarket."

In any event, the industry should learn from the few examples of standard better-for-you icons that seem to be working so far. They include the US Department of Agriculture's organic certification mark, a circle that simply says "USDA Organic" and can be applied to any food or beverage that has passed federal-government standards for organic production.

"The organic icon works because there is consistency across categories and it's relatively universal," says Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Washington–based industry-consulting firm.

Another successful icon is a "Whole Grains" logo that was originated by a Boston-based trade group and now appears on more than 1,000 products made by about 150 different companies. It seems to resonate with consumers because they are "eternally skeptical of anything that comes from the company itself," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for Oldways, a Boston-based market-research and consulting firm that established the Whole Grains Council. "Any company's symbols are going to be self-serving, though they may be sincere."

On the other hand, Harriman says, surveys such as those recently undertaken by Council members Masterfoods USA (on behalf of its Uncle Ben's rice line) and bread maker Aunt Millie's show that the whole-grains stamp is more likely to make consumers purchase a product bearing it. "One reason the whole-grains stamp has been successful [is] because it's seen as a third-party standard," she says.

And if he's going to give up Smart Spot for an even broader "healthy" brand that would cover thousands of food and beverage products on American supermarket shelves, PepsiCo's Lucio wants to make sure that it hits the bull's-eye as well.

"We want it to be consistent," he says, "so that it doesn't create confusion, credible—both science- and government-endorsed—and consumer-friendly, to avoid any possible confusion and misunderstanding. It will be a major undertaking…but I fundamentally believe that consumers deserve better."     

[22-Jan-2007]

 
  
  

Dale Buss is a journalist and editorial consultant in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He's a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and writes about marketing and branding for a variety of publications.

     
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