HFSS and FMCG – it’s time to eat your greens

We held a real-life event for the first time in two years this week. On an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning we brought together an animated group of FMCG marketers to talk about HFSS, particularly how to tackle the impending changes.

Oct 22, 2021

By Neil Davidson

Discussion and debate between practitioners, industry bodies and HeyHuman ended with one conclusion, that the final HFSS restrictions still aren’t clear but now is the time to act. We also agreed that there will be benefits in acting now, in being a brand acting responsibly and creating first-mover advantage. 

Now is the time to grasp the nettle on HFSS 

HFSS is a tricky issue, but lots of the challenges should be familiar ones, thanks to the pandemic. Marketers naturally want clarity and certainty before acting on HFSS but can’t get it, and it doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon (there is also a delicate line to tread in pushing the government for this clarity versus potentially triggering unnecessary further restrictions).   

Marketers want to make a difference in tackling child obesity but as part of a holistic approach that recognises that advertising and marketing is one of many influences, and arguably a limited one itself. There are considerations in the areas of brand portfolios, consumer and retailer insight, shopper and retailer strategies and communications from broadcast to in-store. It’s a heady mix of challenges, areas and stakeholders, probably starting with understanding what your consumers expect of your specific brand and products in your specific area of HFSS, never mind what the restrictions will or won’t be. 

Get the basics right for HFSS 

HeyHuman has been fortunate in having experienced working in restricted categories around the world, before, during and after restrictions were applied. There’s no substitute for experience and we shared five recommendations based on these which our audience were enthusiastic about, along with our belief in a mindset that focuses on the opportunities to do best-in-class marketing in response to the restrictions. 

1. Return to your roots 

Brands often become overly complex over time and fail the real-world test when judged against how clear and connective they are with their target audiences. HFSS is an opportunity to step back and check whether your brands are clear on what they really stand for and objectively know what their brand assets are and aren’t (we’re into the world of Byron Sharp and KBAs here). 

2. Embrace new insight approaches 

The world of insight and research has moved on and it’s hard to ignore the limits of qualitative research, particularly self-reporting and giving views on subjects such as HFSS. Neuroscience research has transformed in recent years and can give you reliable answers to the gap between what people tell you and what’s really going on in their brains, what they say will do and what they will do (Most HFSS research tells you that the general population is totally behind HFSS restrictions and healthier eating but meantime most of us do little or nothing currently to improve our diets in the ways we say we want to). 

3. Simplify your portfolio 

Portfolios that have grown organically over time through new sub-brands and NPD are often confused, overly complicated, cannibalise within the portfolio and harm the core. HFSS is also a strong trigger for looking at your portfolio again with cold, hard eyes. Because if you don’t simplify and rationalise your portfolio you can be sure that retailers will eventually do it for you, thanks to both the pandemic and HFSS. 

4. Re-think Shopper 

It’s certain that there will be changes in store layouts and the nature of promotions due to HFSS restrictions, just with uncertainty around what responses retailers are planning as a result, in HFSS and non-HFSS categories. It’s worth considering at least four proactive tactics: equity building promotions tailored to retailer agendas, partnerships with non HFSS brands for secondary siting, retailer own experiences in-aisle and re-thinking your independents strategy. 

5. Adopt new packaging conversations 

FMCG brands generally change packaging designs when there’s a promotion or the brand is starting to feel outdated, while non-FMCG categories see packaging as an ongoing conversation that can trigger different designs on an ongoing basis. Other sectors have seen this trigger switching, move brand measures and help their brands connect in culture.  It’s an approach that FMCG marketers can easily adopt, just with a shift in mindset in what the roles of packaging can be and what levers it can pull. 

HFSS demands marketing with clarity and connection at its heart 

A change in mindset is needed for HFSS that sees beyond the restrictions, but also realising that restrictions will force FMCG marketers to raise the bar and focus on clarity and connection in all their marketing. That’s what we all aspire to anyway. Isn’t it?