Spice Maker McCormick Sprinkles Health Messages Into Marketing

Market Leader Plays up Antioxidants; Critics Say Claims Could Cross Line

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For most of McCormick & Co.'s 123-year history, the spice and herb giant's marketing has been full of flavor. Or as their executives like to say: "Our mission is to save the world from boring food." But lately, the company seems intent on saving people from bad health.

McCormick is spending aggressively on TV and print ads that tout the antioxidant prowess of cinnamon, pepper, oregano and others. On the website, it suggests that its products can do everything from reduce inflammation to curb hunger and boost metabolism.

The health messaging, which some nutrition advocates say goes too far, is aimed at adding more casual cooks to the marketer's core base of recipe fanatics.

The goal is to reach "people who maybe weren't superinvolved cooks … but were still interested in healthy eating," said Jill Pratt, VP-marketing for consumer products. The company looked at some common meals "and found a way to make them a little bit healthier by amping up the antioxidants in them," she said.

For example, Ms. Pratt said, one spot encourages people to "add antioxidants to your morning scramble" by sprinkling pepper on scrambled eggs. Another "invites antioxidants to dinner," plugging oregano for grilled cheese.

But why should McCormick advertise at all? It already dominates the spice and seasonings category, controlling at least half of the North American market, according to Morningstar. It has 49% share of the $169 million U.S. pepper market, for instance, compared with private-label brands at 35% and ACH Food Cos. at about 3%, according to SymphonyIRI, which tracks grocery sales, excluding Walmart Stores.

The health-centric campaign appears more about growing the category with new users than stealing market share. For instance, while McCormick has long targeted men with its Grill Mates collection, the new ads seek to lure more men by plugging spices for everyday use.

The health-focused marketing, which began with a print and digital campaign in 2008, is backed by a growing ad budget. McCormick's measured-media spending jumped to nearly $70 million in 2010 from $49 million in 2009, according to Kantar Media.

The latest TV spots, from longtime agency Sawtooth Group of New Jersey, direct viewers to a section on McCormick's website "Spices for Health," which touts the health benefits of 12 "super spices." A section on turmeric says it contains curcumin, which "emerging evidence suggests … may help inhibit the growth of cancer cells, reduce inflammation and safeguard our brain."

McCormick sources various studies, including one by University of Texas researchers that states curcumin "has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and anticancer activities."

Still, some health advocates contacted by Ad Age are skeptical. "Even though some studies may show some benefit with certain herbs, it is usually not in typical dietary amounts nor in humans, which makes shaking a spice bottle over your dinner not a realistic path to disease prevention," said Susan Levin, a dietitian and director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Stephen Gardner, litigation director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, indicated that McCormick is violating federal laws that prevent food items from being promoted like drugs. It is illegal to claim that "food products can be used to prevent, cure, treat or mitigate disease," Mr. Gardner said. "That is precisely what they are saying on the website."

In a statement, McCormick said it is "very careful not to make any health claims in our communications. We provide information on the amount of antioxidants in specific spices and herbs and the benefits of antioxidants."

Linda Goldstein, an ad-industry lawyer with Manatt Phelps & Phillips who is not affiliated with McCormick, said that the tactics are legal and "pretty mild stuff. "They are not saying 'If you eat this, you will avoid this or have this medical result,'" Ms. Goldstein said.

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