Extending its attempts to reduce children’s exposure to advertising for food & beverage, one of the reasons behind growing child obesity levels across geographies, Unilever has instructed its brands in the category to stop marketing their products to kids under-16. With a January 2023 deadline, the British multinational consumer goods company will ensure that its F&B range, which includes brands like Boost, Hellman’s, Horlicks, Kissan, Knorr, Kwality Walls, Magnum etc, is not communicating directly with kids under the age of 16 across media channels and would neither use kid influencers or influencers who have following amongst kids to promote their products on digital platforms.
Since 2020, Unilever has had additional safeguards in place which banned the promotion of food and drinks to kids under 12 in traditional media and to under-13s in social media. But is the Indian market ready for this change in brand vision? e4m talks to industry insiders to understand.
The multinational along with members of the Food & Beverage Alliance of India (FBAI), repeated the pledge in 2016.
A senior branding expert says, “Consumers today are much more aware and health-conscious. They are seriously willing to spend more on healthier alternatives and want brands to follow their purpose stringently.”
Additionally, the authorities are taking a note of what children are consuming more seriously. Recently, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) wrote to the National Council of Educational Research (NCERT) asking it to provide more information related to food safety, nutrition, and healthy diets in the school curriculum.
Must go beyond just marketing initiatives
Apart from this decision of not advertising to kids, HUL is extending its focus on facilitating nutritious plant-based eating and driving more diverse nutrient-dense plant foods. While all these initiatives are a positive start, industry experts believe that more transparency is needed in other processes too, especially production and packaging.
Kidsstoppress.com Founder Mansi Zaveri, who has earlier worked on Unilever businesses like Ponds and Femina Miss India in her capacity as client servicing and planning executive at O&M, agrees, “We can perhaps expect a positive outcome in the eating habits of kids if the biggest advertiser in India stops communicating with kids to buy sweets, ice-creams etc. But another aspect that has to be looked at apart from the stopping of advertising is the promotion of eating healthy. You see, once a child doesn’t have sweets, biscuits and the like easily accessible at home, it is only logical that there should be more healthful alternatives offered to the child that is equally appealing. Brands must also be breaking down the ingredients and preservatives very clearly on the packaging.”
Prachi Bali, national head of client partnerships at FoxyMoron (Zoo Media), agrees. She adds, “Educating the consumer and spreading awareness is great but brands must also focus on increasing transparency on their packets. You cannot change the taste for kids but could definitely help parents make more informed choices on what the ingredients in a certain product are. The brands should also be focussing on ethical sourcing of products and bring more transparency in production and supply chains too,”
Impact on brand value
While there are some products in HUL’s F&B stable that could easily make a shift to no-kid advertising, but for products like Boost, Horlicks, Knorr, Kissan etc, which have created a whole brand persona on the back of their communication to kids, might find it a little challenging. But experts feel there isn’t going to be an impact on their brand value.
Rahul Vengalil, Managing Partner of Isobar, a dentsu group company, feels that there would be no immediate impact on the brand value of Unilever with the move. “To see the possible outcomes in the eating habits of children, all brands, agencies, marketing and creative teams will have to work hard to create awareness in this regard,” says Vengalil, who hopes that the food brands that are sensitive enough about children and the entire future generation will consider following Unilever.”
However, he is worried if the move will completely black out such communication from kids, “From an advertising point of view, digital marketing provides enough checks and balances to target the consumers according to their age group. However, I am concerned about the children who watch cartoon channels and consume YouTube content from their parents' accounts. They might still remain unguarded.”
Bali makes a similar point, “We are already seeing brands like Kissan making the shift and talking about how they source their tomatoes in their advertising and more brands will follow suit, I am sure. There are always ways around marketing even when you are not using kids directly in the communication. I have earlier worked with McCain wherein it was a clear mandate to not use any kids in advertising but we communicated to the mother.”
Will more companies follow suit
The experts feel that it’s inevitable for brands in the modern scenario to follow suit, either in marketing communications or generally making their portfolios healthier.
Bali notes, “More brands will definitely have to follow the example and it's great that a big advertiser like HUL is taking the first step. Consumers today want the brands to take such a stand.”
Zaveri adds that apart from big brands, smaller brands that have healthier alternatives in place will have to focus on improving their distribution channels for a long-term impact.
However, Sandeep Goyal, MD Rediffusion quips, “It is good that the likes of HUL are setting high standards. What is right and what is wrong is very personal. Whether others will emulate HUL or not is not easy to say. Also, HUL does a lot of things in India that would be frowned upon in more evolved geographies. So a lot of pronouncements and posturing have many layers below the surface.”