No company can afford to ignore the momentum evident in the success of products with a 'natural' or 'healthy' aura. Julian Mellentin highlights the power of consumers' growing awareness of the connection between health and foods
The message that a food or food component is naturally and intrinsically healthy is one of the most persuasive in food marketing. Moreover, to a small but significant swathe of consumers in most countries the use of the single word 'natural' means 'healthy.'
Some of the main beneficiaries of consumers' desire for 'natural foods' have been fruit-based foods and drinks. In consumers' minds fruit has a powerful naturally healthy halo. It is constantly in the news for one or other claimed health benefit, and fruit scientists and celebrity nutritionists support a wealth of 'all-natural' health benefits for fruit, which is a credible carrier of health messages.
Juice makers have been particularly successful in combining convenience, health, taste and naturally healthy in consumers' minds.
Best-known examples include the pomegranate juice brand Pom Wonderful, and cranberry processor Ocean Spray, which since 1995, has communicated through public relations the scientifically validated benefits of its cranberry juice in eliminating urinary-tract infections — a problem that afflicts 30 per cent of women. Nothing is added to Ocean Spray juice; nothing is taken away. Ocean Spray simply communicates the intrinsic health benefits of cranberries that have been uncovered by science. The company has been rewarded with steady growth and widened access to new distribution channels and markets.
Today the company is building sales further by taking cranberries into new fast-growing formats, such as healthy snack products.
Oat cereals, naturally
It's not just fruit that is seeing sales growth on the back of a 'naturally healthy' message. In 2005, in the UK, oats were a mega-success. Sales of porridge oats grew 34 per cent that year, and have maintained momentum in 2006 to $206 million in retail sales.
Quaker (part of PepsiCo) and most other oat brands had carried a claim about oats' heart healthfulness prominently on their labels since 1998, but this had only limited effects on sales. What changed everything in 2005 was the confluence of increased marketing spent for oats' natural health benefits with the rising tide of consumer interest in foods that are naturally healthy, and increased media attention on oats as an 'all-natural superfood.'
Due to their image, oats now appear in almost every list of 'Top 10 Superfoods' in the UK media.
Cleverly, the labels of all Quaker porridge products refer not only to their cholesterol-lowering ability, but also to the fact that oats provide slow release of energy. Because so many people in the UK now follow a 'low-glycaemic index' diet, oats have benefited both from being natural as well as a natural route to weight management.
The example of Quaker Oats, which uses 'naturalness' as a key to underpin much of its strategy, is just one of the ways that PepsiCo has entered the healthy-foods arena. This is a bold move for a company not historically associated with naturally healthy foods.
No one should ignore PepsiCo's signals. It's especially important to note that despite being a company with huge resources in consumer research and plenty of industry insight, PepsiCo has chosen to eschew the use of expensive bioactives — in the process indicating that it believes that future growth lies in such a strategy.
PepsiCo seems to have clearly identified that the juncture between the 'all natural' trend and other key trends is where the best opportunities for success in functional foods and beverages will lie. In particular, PepsiCo sees the most opportunity at the intersections of healthy snacking.
The recent launch of its Flat Earth line of fruit and vegetable chips — which carries the message 'Naturally Baked' prominently on the front of each pack — is a perfect example of this intersection. And PepsiCo has now acquired the Naked smoothie company — the second-biggest smoothie brand in the US market and the world — which has built a market-leading position on exactly this intersection.
This isn't just a strategy for major corporations. What's brilliant is that 'natural' allows any innovative company to play in health. For example, at the opposite end of the spectrum from PepsiCo and Flat Earth is Bellamy's Organic Farms, a family-owned apple-growing company in Australia, which in mid-2004, launched a range of kid-oriented, freeze-dried apple chips, sold in regular laminated foil bags just like any other chip. With such minimal processing, a naturally healthy message and only slices of organic apple as the ingredient — presented in a convenient way — sales have taken off far exceeding the company's expectations.
Other organic food companies also are benefiting from consumer desire for naturalness. Canadian organic breakfast-cereal maker Nature's Path markets a wide range of grain-based products, using kamut, whole-oat flour, oat bran, millet, barley flour, quinoa, barley-malt extract and sea salt, flaxseeds, and blueberries, and has seen sales grow more than 30 per cent a year on average.
Today Nature's Path has more than $100 million in sales and can be found in four countries. In dairy, too, 'natural and organic' has a place. Danone-owned Stonyfield Farm, America's biggest organic yoghurt company — with more than $200 million in annual retail sales — has launched a dairy energy drink.
Using açai, the latest superfuit, as well as B vitamins and ginseng as its active ingredients, Shift, as the brand is known, is positioned as a healthy snack with the following messages:
- 100 per cent natural, nothing artificial to get in the way of great taste
- No starches, gelatin, preservatives, artificial flavours or colours
- Certified organic
- Organic milk and other ingredients from organic farms that pledge not to use antibiotics, hormones, or toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers
- Live active cultures
- Plus inulin, a natural dietary fibre that helps boost calcium absorption
A red-hot strategy
The strategy of marketing the intrinsic healthfulness of a food or food component, or incorporating a natural ingredient with a claimed natural health benefit into a food, continues to be the most popular functional-foods strategy in the industry. And, it's gaining further ground with what seems to be unstoppable momentum.
The rapid evolution of nutrition science over the last decade has revealed the intrinsic health benefits of many components of the diet, and these have been turned into marketing messages. As science advances, the evidence underpinning many of these 'all-natural' health benefits can only grow.
Having said that, for companies drawn to work with this trend — and most should be, we believe — success will still be driven by the way you translate your natural-health benefit into a convenient format, how your product connects to other key trends, and the marketing skills you apply when the product or brand goes to market.
Julian Mellentin is editor of New Nutrition Business. This article is excerpted from the report 'Ten Key Trends in Food, Nutrition & Health 2007,' published by New Nutrition Business. For more information: www.new-nutrition.com. He will present 'The Future of Functional Foods and Beverages' at Nutracon, at 9:30 am, Wednesday, March 7.