In response to the growing self-care movement, more manufacturers are launching condition-specific foods. But it is critical to market the health message in a positive way so as not to scare off the consumer. Arran Stephens explains.
The growing global functional foods industry is now estimated at approximately $56.58 billion (NBJ, 2002) and was actually the most media-covered health topic of the year, bumping out even women's health as the top media preoccupation. But what about other market segments that are being stimulated by this prolific functional trend? Enter 'do-it-yourself' health care and condition-specific functional foods.
Increasingly, studies and polls indicate that consumers are looking to take greater control of their health. This self-care trend involves a greater consumer awareness of the diet and disease connection, that diet has a positive role in lowering the risk of some diseases including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. At the very least, a balanced, whole-foods diet helps alleviate many unpleasant symptoms.
In one self-report study, 75 per cent of consumers felt that healthy eating was a better way to treat illness than medication, and 57 per cent believed that foods could potentially replace some drugs (HealthFocus, 2001).
I'm not sure if it's frustration with the health care system or scepticism about conventional medicine—or any combination of factors—but there seems to be a general and increasing awareness that specific foods and nutrients deliver health-promoting benefits. Many consumers are no longer relying solely on conventional medicine or outside supplementation.
According to a joint Food Marketing Institution (FMI) and Prevention study conducted in 2001, actual US sales of functional foods as a result of health maintenance or preventive positioning have increased 58 per cent since 1998.
The Marketing Science Institute (MSI) found that consumers are interested in trying fortified foods to help with a variety of conditions. This includes, according to self reports, products to promote coronary health (75 per cent); stimulate energy (72 per cent); treat/prevent joint pain and arthritis (71 per cent); improve mental health/attention (69 per cent); and promote intestinal health (66 per cent). Another study found consumers wanting more food products and information addressing conditions such as high cholesterol (53 per cent), cancer (53 per cent), high blood pressure (52 per cent), weight control (49 per cent), diabetes (49 per cent) and osteoporosis (41 per cent) (FMI/Prevention, 2001).
Don't Alienate The Consumer
While this condition-specific usage is nothing new to those relatively few well versed in herb lore and natural supplementation—specifically products used to treat conditions such as colds/flu, allergies, bone-density loss, immunity and energy decline—this trend continues to expand amongst the traditional core of users, bridging to the mainstream of society.
One of the more significant challenges manufacturers face is promoting foods related to specific conditions without drawing attention to the condition itself. As was found, many consumers strongly prefer to keep the focus on health, wellness, prevention and exercise rather than on calling attention to health conditions they may have or to lowering risk for getting them.
In several recent cases, complicated marketing schemes and overpricing have led to high-profile failures. For example, Novartis' heart and bone benefit brand Aviva failed in the UK, Austria and Switzerland when consumers didn't respond to its science-based marketing approach. Striking the balance of providing consumers with useful and important information about possible health and wellness functionality without alienating them is vital for the success of any condition-specific functional food.
The lag time between the publication of health nutrition research and if/when it becomes available to the general public also is fairly significant. Often the onus of consumer education falls to companies. Cultivating a relationship of educational trust between a business and the consumer is the penultimate step to successfully marketing a condition-specific product. Education needs to be founded on a relationship of trust and information-sharing that uses language which is not overly scientific or alienating, simplistic or condescending.
There are caveats, of course. Educational efforts should be stated in language appropriate to the target audience. Language that is overly simplistic, for instance, may seem irritating to well-read and better educated consumers. Second, marketing presentations for condition-specific products should aim as high as possible without being so narrow in viewpoint as to risk alienation. That is, prose that's appropriate for the lab technician may be alienating to the lay person.
The Case Of Energy Bars
The relaxing of regulations regarding dietary supplements has led to the creation of functional foods, one of which—cereal bars—has played a fairly significant role. According to Health Products Business (April 2002), in the nine years between 1991 and 2000, the percentage of foods and beverages that had functional claims attached to them increased from 12 to 14 per cent. Given the size of the food products market, a two per cent rise is significant. However, by 2001 the percentage had levelled down to 13 per cent. According to a Mintel study on the cereal bar market, by 2002, manufacturers had become cautious about creating functional products because consumers had apparently become displeased with the lack of verifiable or experienced health benefits. Most tellingly, in the subcategory of snack bars, snack mixes and energy bars, there was a peak of 27 functional cereal bar rollouts in 1999 in the US, two in 2000, seven in 2001, and only one before August 2002. Furthermore, most of the products from 1999 have disappeared or have had health benefit claims quietly removed from their labels.
The failure or total removal of health claims from some products illustrates the great difficulty that manufacturers face in producing tangible proof and winning consumer trust in health or functional claims. A significant challenge to deal with is that many of these product claims or benefits—general fitness or weight loss for instance—require a change in consumer behaviour or lifestyle in order to be fulfilled. And altering consumer behaviour or lifestyle choices is obviously very difficult, even in cases where they profess a desire for change.
Nevertheless, the possibilities for condition-specific health benefits are still tantalizing for both producers and consumers, and it therefore seems likely that producers will continue to invest in research and development and consumers will continue to give the products a try.
Communicating A Positive Message
As mentioned previously, researchers have found that consumers do want more food products and reliable information that address a variety of conditions they are concerned about. The way in which the information is presented and disseminated is, it seems, almost as important as the information itself. Thus, for example, when dealing with what are essentially personal issues, it's important to communicate in a personal manner without using scare tactics. The emphasis should be on the positive.
When marketing efforts are focused on specific conditions, the consumer response becomes limited. Genericising health benefits broadly and in ways that do not exclude consumers on the basis of gender, age and ethnic lines may seem counterproductive to some marketers of condition-specific products. Yet, for instance in presenting a low-carb food aimed at carbohydrate-restricted diets, there is no reason to exclude other users.
Mark Whitworth, writing in Food Product Design, noted that Yakult Honsha Company in Japan had created a drink with probiotic effect and had found marketing success by making soft health claims and capitalizing on what consumers already knew and trusted about its other products.
What has added to the success of products that have nutraceutical benefits is an emphasis on good taste. Today's consumer is savvy enough to know that functionality does not have to come at the expense of exceptional flavour and texture. To achieve the taste-factor goal, an ongoing commitment to extensive R&D and incorporation of focus group feedback is essential.
In addition to condition-specific functionality and taste, today's consumer is also appreciative of products that are grown by environmentally friendly organic methods and that bear a recognised third-party certification seal.
As manufacturers, our challenge is, and will be, to tap into what consumers want; to create products with visible and inherent health benefits; and create products that align with strict regulatory barriers—while still tasting good.