ASA ban undermines Danone’s health positioning

DanoneAnother week, another food and drink company rebuked by the Advertising Standards Authority for running an advertising campaign that made unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits derived from its products.

The Glaceau Vitamin Water ‘More muscles than brussels’ campaign banned last week was, above all, silly in its health pretensions. Coca-Cola, which owns the brand, fell below its usual high standards in this area, but the outcome is hardly going to do significant damage to the soft drink giant’s image.

Not so for Danone. The ban imposed on its Actimel health drink campaign is altogether more serious. Health and ‘wellness’ are at the very core of the European food manufacturer’s positioning. Indeed, chief executive Franck Riboud underlined this very point a couple of years ago when he sold off the “unhealthy” bits of Danone, such as the LU biscuit business, to Kraft; precisely to concentrate on health-enhancing neutraceutical products such as probiotics Actimel, Activia and Yakult (which Danone now part owns).

Up to now, this strategy has paid dividends. The fat margins (the only fat you’ll find in a lean business) that accrue to probiotics has allowed Danone to wage a successful recession. A fading celebrity like Nell McAndrew will have been able to relaunch her career on near-ubiquitous presence in Activia commercials, at at time when much of the rest of the industry was scaling back its ad spend. It’s paid off handsomely for Danone, too. Sales of Activia rose 38% in the year to the end of February, according to Nielsen. Similar large spends have been put behind Actimel, starring Sir Bobby Charlton and Felicity Kendal, with similarly gratifying results.

But this ban on the latest ad puts a spanner in the works. The advertisement shows a bottle of Actimel jumping over a skipping rope while a voiceover makes the claim: “Scientifically proven to help support your kids’ defences.”

As far as the ASA is concerned the claim is far from “scientifically proven”, despite the  wealth of clinical data Danone has adduced in its defence. This is a finding, and a ban, which undermines Danone’s core positioning.

Naturally, Danone can water down the language it uses and hope to blur the health-giving benefits a little. But that course is ultimately suicidal for probiotics products, which justify their handsome price premium over ‘ordinary’ yogurts precisely on the fact that they have “scientifically proven” credentials.

The ASA is by no means Danone’s only worry in this respect. The regulators in Brussels are also gunning for it. Empowered by a new raft of more punitive legislation, the EU-backed European Food Safety Authority is going through all food health claims with a fine tooth comb. Of the 70 it had surveyed at last count, 66 failed to pass muster. Danone, so far as I know, has had to redraft all significant health claims underpinning the promotion of Activia and Actimel and is awaiting their approval. Whether it will get that approval, I have no idea.

It’s conceivable, the way things are going, that any kind of health claim attached to food or drink promotion will in a few years time become as quaint as “Guinness is Good For You.”

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