Functional Foods and the Consumer’s Perception of Health Claims
Originally published in New Nutrition Business Journal. Issue: August 2000
In this article, first published in The Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition*, Peter Wennstrom, Scandinavia’s leading brand consultant, explains how consumers have very clear perceptions of what is food and what is a drug and discusses two models being used in marketing strategies for functional foods – the Science Push and the Consumer Pull models. These models present two alternative means of communicating medical-type claims, including “reduced risk” claims, and uncomplicated positive health messages. If the aim of functional foods is to improve the health of the mainstream consumer, functional food producers and the nutritional community must learn to communicate on the consumer’s terms. For functional foods to be successful in the future, Wennstrom argues, industry must accept the consumer’s perception of food and health, and in doing so it is not more clinical studies that are needed – it is more consumer studies!
In a recently published article about consumers and nutritional information, Anita Laser Reutersward and Eva Svedberg drew the following conclusions:
- If consumers do not understand the information on the packaging they will not buy the product.
- If we want the information on the product to motivate the consumer into better eating habits we must understand what motivates the consumer (Scand J Nutr/Naringsforskning 1999;43:163 – 8). I totally agree. And I would like to add the following conclusions, based on 15 years of experience of consumers and health within the areas of food, functional foods and pharmaceuticals:
- Not even if the consumer understands the information on the packaging will she buy it, unless the total product adds value to her lifestyle (Consumer Pull).
- If functional food products are communicated with “medical” claims, they will be perceived as medical products and will not establish themselves in mainstream food products (Science Push).
CONSUMER LOGIC – THE MODELS
The words “push” and “pull” are traditionally used in consumer marketing to describe whether a product must be pushed in to the market or if there is a strong consumer demand that will pull the product on to the market. “Push” and “Pull” describe two different marketing strategies. They also describe where the motivation lies.
“Push”, then, describes a situation where the producer wants to introduce yet another product to the market – the producer needs to fill the production lines. But since there’s no demand for “another product” he has to create motivation for the retailer to accept the product and for the consumer to buy it in preference to existing products.
“Pull” is the situation where the motivation starts with the consumer. We know what she needs – adds value to her lifestyle, health, etc.. Therefore we develop our product to meet her demand. Then we inform the retailer and the consumer that we have developed a product that meets her demand.
“Science “Push” in this article, simply means that we are pushing arguments from “science” on to the consumer to make her understand that she needs our product. The consumer thus must understand science. “Consumer Pull” means that we are pulling arguments from the consumer to make science understand what the consumer needs (see Figure 1).
FUNCTIONAL FOOD – DRUG OR FOOD?
As experienced from consumer research, “Consumer Logic” is defined as follows:
- The concept of food products is that they have a good taste, a low price and a food format, such as a loaf of bread or a litre of yoghurt (high volume/low efficacy). It is a benefit if food products also are healthy.
- The concept of drugs is that they will cure our illnesses, have a high price, and look like drugs, e.g. a pill (low volume/high efficacy). It is a benefit if they also are tasty.
- Healthy people eat food, people with illnesses take drugs. From a consumer’s point of view – are functional foods drugs or food? Or can they be both? Or do we need a functional foods category in between? Well, the answer is, throughout Europe, that the consumer’s perception of the continuum of health in food products is only now becoming clear (see Figure 2).
The studies of the French Consumer Research Institute GIRA indicate that “healthy” can mean both “fear” and “hope”, depending on how we communicate. GIRA’s studies in the European market have shown that “functional” heads the list on the fear-of-death/ love-of-life continuum as a life-enhancing “positive health” functionality.
THE BUSINESS OF HEALTHY EATING
With food manufacturers around the world struggling to keep their profits and share prices up, the business of healthy eating is all about adding value to stagnating food categories. The motivation is to add healthy profitability to food, and functional foods seem to offer the magic formula: add a scientifically documented healthy ingredient to a traditional food product, double the price and increase sales! The model of the Functional Foods formula seems to be: Science Push, and the Swedish product ProViva appears to he a good example:
ProViva keeps Skanemejerier’s result up… Skanemejerier’s sales of consumption milk decreased by 1.6%… During 1999 the sales of ProViva have increased by an average 14%. With the latter half of 1999 showing a growth rate of 30%. And the opening of the new millennium has demonstrated an even higher growth rate.” (Salt Newsletter, no 9, 2000)
SCIENCE PUSH MODEL
The Science Push model has so far been the industry-preferred model to create added value in food. It is founded on the belief that the value chain starts in the laboratory where we isolate a healthy ingredient. The value is then increased by clinical studies, and in order to add this value to a food product we must be able to communicate the results of the clinical studies to the consumer. Therefore, we need a “medical” claim for our advertising; otherwise the consumer will not understand the value of the ingredient! This is the message of the “Claim-Lobby” who firmly believes that success comes automatically if you can market a food product with a “medical” claim, i.e. claims of “reduced risk”, which seems to be in demand.
Science Push is so far also the preferred international model, since our health problems are international – at least in the Western world. And it is very simple to calculate the theoretical profitability of e.g. adding a cholesterol-lowering ingredient to an international food product, considering the enormous number of people who suffer from elevated cholesterol levels.
This corresponds to the “enhanced function” type of claims. However, many products considered as functional foods have communication and claims talking about “reduced risk”. These products are closer to a “fear-of-dying” and “negative health” functionality. Does this create value in a food product? Or will it fall into the consumer’s perception of a drug, and thus limit the potential market?
CONSUMERS AND HEALTH
The consumer interest in health and healthy products is growing rapidly. Thus the market for food with added health benefits is a reality: Health and Healthcare is the consumption area which has increased most in volume in Sweden over the years 1980 to 1998. During that period Swedes’ consumption of Healthcare and Healthcare products (pharmaceutical and self-medication) has increased by 79% in fixed prices; compare this to food, which demonstrated a growth rate of only 18% (Dagens Konsument/Delfi Marknadspartner).
These figures are just an illustration of the international health trend. Functional foods must be an automatic route to success!
But how has the health-demanding consumer rewarded the attempts of the food industry to give her healthier food produces? Well, the answer is – poorly.
“Yet functional food has so far been a flop. Campbell Soup dropped its Intelligent Cuisine frozen-food (for the heart and diabetes) after last year’s disappointing consumer trials, despite having spent more than $50 million on it. Kellogg this summer halted the American launch of its Ensemble brand, a cholesterol-reducing cereal based on the patented psyllium fibre, saying it wanted to improve its marketing. In January, Denmark’s MD Foods stopped the British sale of its Pact products, which include calcium-enriched orange juice and margarine with fish oil, after disputes over their supposed benefits” (The Economist, September 1999).
With this background the issue of functional foods becomes a bit more complicated. Let us take a closer look at two international examples: first Benecol, the most hyped functional food product, representing the Science Push model. Secondly, the Japanese Yakult, which probably is the internationally most successful functional food product, with a product format that is blurring the difference between food and drugs.
THE BENECOL EXAMPLE
Benecol is the role model of Science Push. The discovery of stanol ester and the clinical documentation of its cholesterol-lowering properties created the perfect “Magic Ingredient” for a mainstream food product, since elevated cholesterol levels and cardiovascular diseases are mainstream problems. Stanol ester in a spread with the promising name Benecol seemed to be the perfect functional food product.
The expectations on Benecol to deliver international sales were very high, especially after the initial success in Finland. The marketing of Benecol in the UK and USA had everything a Science Push campaign ever needed: a magic ingredient, clinical studies, a “medical” claim of cholesterol reduction (“Helps actually lower cholesterol as part of a healthy diet” ) advertising that underpinned the efficacy of the product with the tagline: “It actually works!”, and a large theoretical target audience. However, so far the introductions in England and the USA have failed to repeat the success in the Finnish market – which probably is the most cholesterol-aware market in the world. The conclusion seems to be that, despite the brand promise: “It actually works!”, it does not sell as a mainstream food product.
THE YAKULT EXAMPLE
Yakult is probably the most successful functional food product in the world. It is the leading product from the Japanese company Yakult Honsha. They are “committed to the promotion of health through microbiological research”.
Yakult is based on the probiotic strain L. casei Shirota and has been a commercial product since 1955. It has slowly but successfully conquered the world with what must be the ultimate goal for the Science Push model: exactly the same ingredient, product, packaging, name and communication in every country on every continent. So, Yakult must have a very strong claim…?
When we scrutinise what Yakult offers the consumer, the only claim we can find is that each little bottle contains “6.5 billion” bacteria and that Yakult is consumed by “23 million consumers every day”. Yakult’s message to the consumer is not about L. casei Shirota, it is about gut health and the importance of a balance between good and bad bacteria: “A healthy digestive system helps promote overall wellbeing.”
Yakult is then described as a guaranteed way of supplying good bacteria. Hence it is important to communicate about the number of bacteria in the bottle. This is simple consumer logic. And the marketing message is “A healthy start to every day!”, which is supported by the fact that each package of Yakult contains seven little bottles.
From a medical point of view, Yakult’s communication to the consumer is virtually claim-free. What looked like “Science Push” is actually “Consumer Pull”, with a strong focus on the consumer’s perception of health. Yakult is simply educating consumers about the importance of good bacteria for maintaining good health and by doing this they are demonstrating a concern for the consumer’s well-being that consumers all over the world have rewarded them with their money. The conclusion is that, although Yakult looks like a drug, and although the product might be perceived by the consumer as a dietary supplement, Yakult’s soft approach makes it an example of the “Consumer Pull” model. Yakult is Consumer Pull, disguised as Science Push.
SCIENCE PUSH OR CONSUMER PULL?
The choice between Science Push and Consumer Pull is a question of communication language. If the Science Push model does not seem to deliver mainstream consumer demand, what is the problem? Is it lack of information or lack of motivation? The largest difference between Yakult and Benecol – apart from the fact that they are targeting different health areas – is that they communicate in two different ways.
Yakult – with the uncomplicated positive health message, “Eat this and stay healthy!”, supported by its demonstration of being a leading expert in the gut health area, make its product available to everyone interested in good health.
Benecol, with a medical cure message (negative health = eat this or die), has limited their target group to those who are motivated to treat their elevated cholesterol level with a very expensive spread. A tub of Benecol sells for £2.49 in Britain, compared with less than £0.52 for a normal margarine. With that price Benecol is competing with the expertise of real pharmaceutical products in the form of pills, etc.
“McNeil… recently withdrew the TV-advertising for Benecol, the cholesterol-lowering spread, in the US, deciding instead to concentrate on winning the support of physicians who in turn would recommend it to their patients for the dietary management of cholesterol” (New Nutrition Business, February 2000).
The experience so far is that one “magic” ingredient supported by a “medical” claim isn’t an automatic route to success for a mainstream functional food product. The consumer’s trust in the brand and acceptance of the total product seem to be just as important as the “magic ingredient” and its “medical” claim. And there is plenty of support for the fact that a “reduced risk” market communication can reduce rather than increase the potential volumes of a functional food product, since a medical positioning (like Benecol’s) seems to create the consumer perception of a drug. And if Benecol does not taste like a premium margarine, then we have violated the first rule of the food market: the first and most important quality of a food product is taste!
THE CONSUMER PULL MODEL
The Consumer Pull model builds on the belief that the value chain starts in the consumer’s mind. And if we can understand the consumer’s lifestyle, nutritional need and perception of health we can develop profiled products with functional ingredients that will address these needs and create value for the consumer, as well as for the food industry. By understanding the lifestyle needs of the consumer, we must also adopt a nutritional and health-oriented perspective (multiple ingredients) rather than a medical one (single ingredient). This sounds simple, but for the traditional food industry it might be a very tough model.
Far from the “Quick Fix” of the Science Push model, standing close to the consumer’s needs means being flexible in production, packaging, ingredients, etc. in order to deliver consumer value. It might mean that the initiative in the functional foods area will move away from a food industry not being able to reinvent itself to companies and retailers who can freely address the needs of the consumers, without being tied to a certain type of production or locked into a product category.
“Two out of three Swedes are tired or feel they are under stress. Many suffer from vague stress symptoms like chronic fatigue, problems with concentration, indigestion or paid.” (Dagens Industri, 4 March 2000) There is a strong and growing demand for health, so why push? As consumers grow richer, older and better educated they are becoming more health-conscious and taking more control of their medication. Thus, the problem is not motivation.
MOTIVATE THE CONSUMER TO LISTEN AND TO BUY
If we believe that the consumer’s health objective doesn’t coincide with the definition of “functional foods” and that she doesn’t understand – nor even wish to understand – scientific documentation and “medical” health claims or take an interest in specific ingredients, then we must learn to communicate in a way that will motivate the consumer to listen and to buy.
“In Europe and America too, consumers have become increasingly suspicious of exaggerated, often contradictory health Claims.” (The Economist, September 1999) For functional foods to be successful we must accept the consumer’s perception of food and health, and in doing so it is not more clinical studies that we need – it is more consumer studies!
“Today some 70% of all Swedish men and women are working away from home.” “Almost half of all Swedish women admit they often feel they are under stress. Half of all Swedes admit they have a shortage of time.” (Supermarket/SCB/Delphi) If the aim of functional foods is to improve the health of the mainstream consumer, functional foods producers and the nutritional community must learn to communicate on the consumer’s terms. And we must develop products that fulfil the lifestyle needs of the modern consumer.
“After years of attempting to eat our way to better health, with the only result being a heavier American, we are back at looking for the easiest and cheapest way to take care of feeding ourselves,” NPD Group Vice President Harry Baltzer comments on the 14th annual report on Eating Patterns in America. He believes consumers are more concerned with their time and money than they are with maintaining a balanced diet: “Looking forward, the focus on cost and convenience is likely to continue to affect the food industry and the American diet as retailers will find more ways to bring easier and cheaper meals into the home”.
For more information on Consumer Push and Science Pull, please email Peter or contact us on +44 (0)207 418 1144