In October 2022, legislation aimed at lowering the national obesity rates will take full effect in the UK and EU. Specifically, targeting junk food ads. Years in the works, the restrictions will apply to the sale and promotion of high fat, sugar, or salt (HFSS) foods and beverages. And as it turns out, the UK’s attempt to fight obesity is of particular interest to e-commerce managers.
Google has been enacting parallel restrictions for advertising on its platform. This is significant because while Google’s junk food ads restrictions are still focused on UK consumers, they impact food & beverage (F&B) brands around the world.
And since it’s safe to assume health-related restrictions will only grow online, it’s wise to focus on how some brands are already adapting. As opposed to racing to figure things out in the near future.
How the junk food ads bans began
The rate of obesity, especially childhood obesity, is a national concern in the United Kingdom. As of 2020, 67% of adult men and 60% of adult women were above what is considered a healthy weight. What’s more, data shows that obesity rates for reception-aged and year 6 school children grew by 4.5% between the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 school years.
Leaders in government and healthcare had already been citing easy access to junk food (and its excessive promotion) as a major contributor to obesity levels in the UK. In 2015, the UK government had already asked local businesses to self-regulate the sale and promotion of HFSS products. But four years later, this effort was described as a “failed experiment.”
Reflecting on these efforts in an editorial for the British Medical Journal, Dr. Anthony Laverty concluded, “[the] research clearly shows that a robust independent regulatory system is required, with targets set by government and progress publicly monitored.”
Note: The following is not intended as legal advice, and businesses with questions on legal compliance should consult their attorneys.
The regulations apply to businesses in the UK that employ 50 or more people. This includes online retailers and retailers who don’t primarily sell food or beverages. The regulations also apply to stores that are part of a franchise or symbol groups.
Specialist retailers and small and micro businesses (49 or fewer employees) are not affected.
Restricted HFSS product categories
- Breakfast cereals and morning goods (e.g., croissants, scones)
- Sweet biscuits and bars
- Savory snacks
- Crisps and chips
- Sweetened yogurt
- Ready-to-heat meals
- Pastry products and battered or breaded seafood and meat products
- Cakes and cupcakes
- Desserts and puddings
- Confectionary items (e.g., ice cream)
- Soft drinks
In-store promotional restrictions
HFSS products can no longer be promoted around checkout areas, the ends of store aisles, and in the vicinity of store entrances. In addition, free refills of sugar-sweetened beverages and volume-based (e.g., buy one, get one free/BOGO) promotions within affected UK businesses are now restricted.
It’s worth noting that while the promotion and sale of these products is restricted, promotion of the brands that represent them isn’t. Meaning, a business couldn’t place a sign promoting Coke or Pepsi products near its front door. But a Coke or Pepsi sign featuring only a brand logo would be allowed.
Online promotional restrictions
For UK consumers browsing and shopping for F&B products online, the restrictions on junk food ads are meant to broadly mimic businesses’ brick-and-mortar counterparts.
The UK government has mandated that affected businesses cannot promote HFSS products on their website entry (i.e., landing) page. Affected businesses also can’t promote HFSS products to UK customers who are browsing other categories of food, when customers view their shopping basket, or on a “proceed to payment” page.
It’s here, with some fairly modest regulations, where the UK’s HFSS restrictions end. But, non-coincidentally, this is where Google’s new rules begin. In turn, expanding the front lines in the war on “junk food ads” and setting a new digital marketing precedent in the process.
Google brings the anti-obesity battle into the cloud
Google’s junk food ads restrictions started much the same way those in the UK had, with self-regulation.
Starting in October 2020, food & beverage marketers gained access to a self-declaration option for their accounts. By allowing marketers to flag their own content as HFSS related, Google could ensure the way it served ads to UK consumers was compliant well before the UK’s regulations took effect.
In doing so, junk food officially joined Google’s list of other regulated content, including alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling. But this was only the first step for the ubiquitous search and advertising giant.
In 2021, Google announced additional HFSS-related restrictions, and these weren’t voluntary. Marketers could no longer target minors in the UK or EU with Shopping ads containing HFSS content. Google stated these new restrictions applied to any Shopping ad featuring at least one HFSS food item, beverage, or meal in the ad itself. Or at the destination site of the ad. Thus, closing the loophole for brands that tried to display a logo but not a specific product.
For F&B brands, Google’s new rules seemed like the start of a trend to regulate how HFSS products can be marketed across the web. Fortunately, F&B marketers can learn from brands already in the process of embracing healthier products and marketing strategies.
F&B brands embrace ways to pivot from junk food ads
Keeping ahead of evolving health-related regulations is just one aspect of F&B brands’ larger challenge: Learning how to thrive in an increasingly health-conscious world.
That’s why it’s beneficial to study how multiple brands are making this change.
1. Mondelez International: Setting the table with a more balanced portfolio
One option for companies that own multiple brands is to shift their acquisition strategy to focus on healthy products. Citing, in part, the obesity-related concerns touched on above, Mondelez International is investing billions in new and healthier offerings to a product portfolio that includes Oreo, Cadbury Chocolates, and Toblerone.
As CEO Dirk Van de Put explains, “If you talk about health and wellness … for sure we want to launch brands, but launching new brands is not easy and acquiring brands that already have the prestige and the client base, and are starting to develop, is easier.”
Part of this strategic shift included Mondelez reducing its stake in soft drinks and coffee maker Keurig, Dr Pepper, and JDE Peet’s in 2020. And in addition to the re-allocations to healthier products, Mondelez is also advocating for healthier approaches to eating more generally, including mindful snacking and portion control.
2. Coca-Cola: Working out healthier products (and ways to promote them)
Another option for brands is to develop and highlight healthier versions of their existing product line. The beverage industry has been at the forefront of this trend.
Diet or not, soft drinks aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think “wellness.” But soft drink brands specifically have been racing to keep up with increasingly health-conscious consumers. For example, in 2016, Coca-Cola was already working on launching a marketing strategy aimed at increasing awareness of its zero-sugar and reduced-sugar beverages.
According to a company representative, “We recognized an opportunity to give Coke Zero a boost and encourage more Coca-Cola fans to try a delicious zero-sugar product. Through in-house innovation, we developed an even better-tasting recipe that delivers real Coca-Cola taste with zero sugar and zero calories.”
While Coke’s pivot to a lite version of its flagship product is inspiring, anyone inside knows that improving well-established products and expanding to other offerings is challenging and complicated. Customers are finicky, and it’s hard to get them to step outside their comfort zone to try something new. That’s why many F&B brands leverage product sampling to test new products and reinvigorate old ones.
In 2021, Coca-Cola used product sampling to raise awareness of its very first energy drink. In-store sampling in the early months of COVID was a non-starter. So, Coke took advantage of the groundswell of online grocery pickup services by including a free sample in every order.
Soon, other big F&B brands like General Mills and major retailers like Walmart began to embrace this modern take on traditional product sampling, creating new revenue streams in the process.
3. Zevia: Harnessing the power of UGC and influencer marketing
While giant multinationals try to change their products and their images, the shift toward wellness has created an opening for smaller F&B brands. Zevia, a healthy upstart in the carbonated soft drink (CSD) category, is using modern marketing to build on its reputation as a healthy alternative to sugary sodas.
For Zevia, the key has been positioning a product with an unfamiliar ingredient (stevia) as something recognizable (flavors like cola and ginger ale).
Writing for HBR in 2013, CEO Paddy Spence explained, “a healthy alternative’s best chance for success lies in keeping the product familiar, which allows you to educate consumers quickly and cost-effectively. Most purchasing decisions in packaged goods are made at the shelf, so it’s critical for shoppers to easily identify how a new product fits into their diet.”
Now, nine years later, user-generated content (UGC) and influencer marketing are proving to be a perfect complement to Zevia’s “familiarity” approach to marketing.
In addition to celebrating fans of the brand on their own Instagram feeds, Zevia actively reaches out to partner with health-conscious influencers. Together, they create and feature unique drink recipes using Zevia, encouraging followers to share mini-reviews and their own recipe ideas.
What’s more, Zevia also partners with other influencers in fashion, mommy blogs, and lifestyle categories. By doing so, Zevia proves a healthy CSD brand can transcend its own category to play a more holistic role in the broader health and wellness market.
Healthy marketing works (you just need the right amount of influence)
As more health-related regulations converge with consumers in search of healthier living, and junk food ads are increasingly banned, the food and beverage industry will only get more interesting. And this is why it’s so important to learn from the F&B brands working on pivoting now.
But what brands are doing is only part of the puzzle e-commerce managers need to solve.
The other part is learning how modern tactics like UGC and influencer marketing pay off for brands who use them correctly. To learn everything you need to know, make sure to grab our complete guide to UGC content.