While consumers struggle to sort through what one industry observer calls the "clutter of competing claims" among various food products, marketers are grappling with how to capitalize on baby boomers' increasing health interests while not running afoul of federal regulators.
At stake is the $8.67 billion market for foods and beverages that perform a positive health function, as measured by the Nutrition Business Journal. That market will only get bigger as the health-conscious over-45 demographic grows from today's 99 million to 144 million by 2030, a 45% hike.
Just how to reach that demographic effectively with nutrition-based messages, let alone spark sales of new or existing products, is the question, and marketers are coming up with a variety of different approaches.
Take soy, for example. In October, the Food & Drug Administration approved a health claim for food labeling drawing a link between soy protein and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Since then, Kellogg Co. has purchased meat-alternative marketer Worthington Foods and introduced a new soy protein cereal for its Smart Start line; General Mills has announced a partnership with Protein Technologies, a soy ingredient manufacturer that filed the FDA claim petition, to develop soy products; and Kraft Foods has purchased Boca Burger, a marketer of soy-based meatless burgers.
But of all the companies angling for position in the hot, new soy market, Gardenburger probably has made the biggest strides in consumer marketing: Since October, the meatless burger marketer has reached 35 million consumers through major media outlets that pictured its packaging and production lines in their coverage of the soy story.
In the 17 months it took the FDA to approve the soy claim petition, Gardenburger -- a leader in the meat-alternatives category with $46 million in sales in 1999 -- was busy capitalizing on the pre-approval buzz on soy and readying a public relations plan to put its brand front and center should the FDA approve the claim.
"We were poised to respond without committing undue resources," said Wendy Preiser, director of product offerings at Gardenburger, which spent $13.8 million in advertising in the first 10 months of 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Still, she added, "The buzz is far more important than the specifics of the claim itself."
During the approval process, Gardenburger used interim packaging touting its soy burgers as "great-tasting and packed with soy protein" to spark interest among those who were hearing about soy's health attributes. At the same time, the company prepared for claim approval by developing packaging featuring the American Heart Association's heart symbol to convey soy's benefits in preventing heart disease.
Gardenburger also introduced Garlic and Sauteed Onion varieties to its grocery store line to broaden its appeal.
Even with the FDA's approval of the soy health claim, the company's advertising efforts, from Rubin Postaer & Associates, Chicago, remain focused on the taste benefit of the product, still the most important thing even to health-conscious consumers.
But what paid off for the marketer was its work during the claim-approval period. The heart-label packaging and footage Gardenburger provided of its factory lines proved to be a boon for gaining PR hits: 75 newspapers and 100 TV stations picked up the Gardenburger-branded visuals.
Results show that sales of its soy burgers during the two-month period following the claim grew 25% vs, the previous year, and retail placements rose 44%, Ms. Preiser said, adding that Gardenburger expects "a slow build over the course of the year."
Public relations strategies such as Gardenburger's become especially effective when, like H.J. Heinz Co., a company is trying to market its product based on a health claim that has not been approved the FDA.
"Rules govern what you can say on your package and what you can say in your advertising, but PR has a foot in each camp," said Jeff Nedelman, president of Strategic Communications, Vienna, Va., a boutique specializing in public relations for health product manufacturers.
Heinz has entered the emerging area of health benefits armed with research from a Harvard Medical School study showing that lycopene, an anti-oxidant found in tomatoes and in higher levels in heat-processed tomato products, such as Heinz ketchup, may help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer. The claim has not been submitted to the FDA for approval.
"We want to share the information with consumers, who are less concerned with the FDA health claim than they are with what they see on TV, in magazines or on the Internet," said Kevin Krail, general manager of functional foods business development for Heinz.
Without any mention of lycopene on its ketchup labels, which would require FDA approval, Heinz set out to associate the lycopene claim with its flagship brand, first with a $400,000 tactical print campaign depicting a pouring bottle of ketchup along with the headline, "Lycopene may help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer," and the Cancer Research Foundation logo. The ad ran just once, reaching 8 million consumers through January 1999 issues of Health, The New York Times Magazine, Prevention and USA Today, but that was enough to spark an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which looks into advertising claims.
"We were concerned that the advertising represented that eating ketchup would reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer," said Ann Maher, assistant director of advertising practices for the FTC.
The FTC also suggested that the Web site Heinz set up to provide information on lycopene (lycopene.org) did not specifically disclose that it was sponsored by Heinz.
One of the challenges for the FTC, which closed its investigation of Heinz in part because of the advertising's short run, is that "there is a lot of information about emerging science because new studies come out and a company wants to tout it, but you can't tell from the ad that the study was limited," Ms. Maher said.
However, she noted, the FTC has no control over media reporting, another source that can "contribute to consumer misunderstanding."
Heinz planned the brief ad run to ignite some interest in lycopene and support its ongoing "Lycopene Education Project," which includes a public relations effort that garnered 352 million impressions in 1999, booklets for dietitians and teaching guides for middle schools.
Those efforts, Mr. Krail said, have helped Heinz increase its share of the ketchup category by 4 percentage points, although new advertising and promotion efforts from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, have probably contributed as well to that growth.
The nutrition platform also has been a huge growth driver for Tropicana Products, which has focused an integrated mix of advertising, PR and health professional education on its calcium-fortified Pure Premium orange juice. Since reformulating Pure Premium juice in 1997 with Fruitcal, a proprietary calcium source from Procter & Gamble Co., the calcium-fortified offering has grown 173%, results that were cited as significant in parent PepsiCo's recent earnings results, said Carla McGill, nutrition scientist at Tropicana.
The company spent $3.3 million to advertise its calcium entries in the first 10 months of 1999, according to CMR.
While Tropicana is allowed to put an FDA-approved health claim linking calcium to the prevention of osteoporosis on its packaging, the company prefers to emphasize the positive nutrition benefits of calcium, including building strong bones.
"What is driving the sale of Pure Premium with calcium is not the FDA claim but rather that the word has gotten out about osteoporosis, and orange juice is a great delivery system for calcium," said Strategic Communications' Mr. Nedelman.
Tropicana plays on the convenience of orange juice as a powerful nutrition vehicle in its new "9.3 Seconds" campaign from FCB Worldwide, New York, launched during the Super Bowl.
Next up for Tropicana in the nutrition arena is capitalizing on a pending ruling from the National Academy of Sciences, yet another group involved in offering nutritional information, regarding increasing the daily value of vitamin C and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants, among them vitamin E.
"This will give us an opportunity to educate consumers in the future," said Ms. McGill.
The company plans to use the new information to promote its Double Vitamin C juice, which is formulated with 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E. Upon the release of the new recommendation, expected shortly, Tropicana will run free-standing inserts on the news and likely will add other media including TV and print down the road.
Although mainstream media have proven effective in persuading consumers to reach for calcium-fortified orange juice rather than their usual plain variety, the same cannot be said for McNeil Consumer Products' Benecol products.
The stanol esters contained in the Benecol line of spreads, salad dressings and nutrition bars are said to help lower high cholesterol, which statistics show affects 96 million Americans and contributes to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. Yet, despite spending $16.4 million in advertising for Benecol in the first 10 months of 1999, according to CMR, McNeil saw no boost in sales.
As a result, McNeil last November pulled its large-scale TV campaign, handled by Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare, New York, and is focusing the bulk of its efforts on reaching doctors.
"When physicians recommend something, consumers listen," said a spokesman for McNeil. "Every year, 32 million Americans are directed by their doctors to lower their cholesterol, and we know that they are recommending Benecol to help them do that," he said.
PATIENT STARTER KITS
To encourage that recommendation, McNeil offers physicians patient starter kits that include coupons for Benecol and information on the product's role in lowering cholesterol.
Although new consumer advertising, in the form of print and radio, will break this winter from direct-to-doctor agency NCI Advertising, New York, the bulk of the marketing for the brand will be focused on reaching doctors directly through advertising in medical journals and public relations efforts focused around raising awareness of clinical studies on stanol esters.
Benecol has gone back and forth with the FDA on the definition for its products, which McNeil hoped it could market as a supplement to gain the greater regulatory flexibility afforded the category. Products defined as food draw greater government scrutiny on labeling.
The FDA ruled instead that Benecol is a food and, because there is no claim for stanol esters, the product line cannot be linked directly to the prevention of heart disease.
Packaging for the products currently pronounces that Benecol, "Helps promote healthy cholesterol levels," while labeling in the U.K. can say it "helps actually lower cholesterol as part of a healthy diet."