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Opinion and Insight

Why Food & Drink Brands Need to Lead the Health Movement

Brand Union London, Fri, Dec 19, 2014

Brand Union's Saga Blane on how food brands need to be a driver in creating a healthier nation

Why Food & Drink Brands Need to Lead the Health Movement

We live in a world where you can pour neon yellow ribbons from an aerosol can and call it ‘Easy Cheese’. Is there an image more emblematic of the chemical, industrial – plain-old nasty food culture we live in? Easy Cheese is complicated: repulsive and nostalgic in one fluorescent squirt. It reminds us of a more innocent time, a time when we were less burdened by our compulsive googling and vast consumer choice.

Mass brands bring out a raging internal debate among consumers: “I should, I shouldn’t, who cares? I care, I will, I won’t, I did, I feel guilty, I am bad, I resent you”. When faced with a McDonald’s burger, consumers become stigmatised as either “Naughty Skinnies”, indulgently betraying green juice mantras; or “Lazy Fatties”, barricaded from health by poverty, punitive public messaging, and the shaming eyes of society. Mass psychological turmoil aside, this is an unstable position to be in as a brand.

The health-food movement is about reclaiming power over our bodies. Health brands promise transparency, and in that transparency we regain our self-control. Digital technologies have blown any supposed brand neutrality out of the water; a company must assume that every action is witnessed by the public.

It’s now a brand’s job to help us take care of ourselves. An uncaring brand will face the fate of tobacco brands not so long ago: vilified until the only fuel behind them is the dark impulse of addiction. Let’s do some brand alchemy on mass food brands. Let’s transform ‘lazy’ into ‘effort’; ‘criminality’ into ‘citizenship’; ‘confusing and untrustworthy’ into ‘clear and principled’. 

Here’s a “How-to”:

1) Look deep into your brand soul and find the kernel of truth that motors your brand. Eliminate everything else. For Unilever, this truth was ‘Vitality’: brands that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.

2) Tweak, adapt, evolve along the lines of your brand DNA. The tweaking of existing offerings, such as the option to substitute salads for French fries at McDonald’s, can help temper the negative image of a brand whose core products are perceived as unhealthy.

3) Give the gift of permission to indulge. Indulgence can be a motivating factor for consumers and there are healthy ways to indulge. Through education of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’, indulgence can be framed in the context of healthy living.

4) Use your access to deliver health through the vehicle of a sub-brand. Established brands are uniquely positioned to deliver nutrition education, inform consumer choices and thereby position themselves among the ‘good guys’.

5) Teach health through experimentation with healthy alternatives to existing brands. How about a Quaker Oats porridge made from fonio (a gluten-free West African millet)? While it would take investment, the results would carry that brand forward as consumption patterns change.

6) Buy with integrity. While buying healthy brands is an effective way to diversify a portfolio, acquisitions need to bear the brand truth in mind so as not to devalue both brands in the act.

7) Create a ‘clean slate’ through a new brand that shapes the market rather than reacting to it. 


To do it right, brands must be prepared to break with the past, step outside their comfort zone and fail. All brands are now lifestyle brands, and mass brands are lifestyle leaders. They must trust that as leaders, bold ideas will lead to a healthier bodies and healthier brands. In the war against obesity, we believe brands are best positioned to re-draw the map, helping to realise the best possible future for us all.


Saga Blane is a consultant at Brand Union

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