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Doctors open second line of attack on fast-foods with call for punitive “fat taxes”

April 19, 2012

It may of course be a coincidence. But I suspect not, given the close timing. No sooner has Professor Terence Stephenson, speaking on behalf of 200,000 doctors, called for a ban on “junk food” brands sponsoring sports events than up pops another prominent medic, advocating blanket “fat taxes” on soft drinks and chocolates.

Will the next step, you might wonder sardonically, be for the medical profession to emulate Oliver Cromwell and call for the banning of mince pies?

The eminent health evangelist in question is Dr Mike Rayner, of Oxford University department of health. His argument follows a well-worn formula.

It starts with the unexceptionable premise. About one in four British adults is either overweight or obese. Something needs to be done about it because it’s costing the National Health Service £5bn, he tells us.

Then comes the health warning, coated in hysterical medi-rhetoric: “We are in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” (Remember the medical profession’s headless chicken performance over Bird Flu?)

And finally, the seemingly inescapable logic of a solution: “We use taxes to discourage drinking and smoking. It raises lots of money for the Treasury and prevents people from dying too early. There is now lots of evidence that manipulating food prices could promote healthy eating.”

What prescription could be more reasonable than that – for the already over-burdened British taxpayer?

As it happens, Dr Rayner – unlike Professor Stephenson – does not disclose his attitude towards advertising these noisome products. But we can infer it from past performance, and the fact that he appears to be offering flanking support to Stephenson’s earlier attack on Government policy.

The medical profession’s enthusiastic adoption of “fat taxes” seems to owe its immediate intellectual provenance to a British Journal of Nutrition study – one of whose co-authors is Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government’s main adviser on obesity since 2007. The study specifically called for a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives.

Like most of these things, the idea of “fat taxes” originated in the United States. But it has gained more traction over here following adoption, in limited measure and differing degrees, by Hungary, Denmark and France. The stringent French model is, it would seem, the one favoured by (for instance) the Royal College of Physicians: “Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007,” it said, late last year

The RCP, like Rayner and other obesity experts, is increasingly frustrated by the Government’s preferred strategy of  behavioural “nudge”, which it considers woefully ineffectual.

It must be confessed this self-same Government has done itself no favours by – first of all –  abolishing one of the principal instruments of nudge, the COI; and, secondly, by plunging itself into an entirely self-generated “heated pasty tax” crisis.

If hot pasties are to be more heavily taxed, then why should the principle not be extended to other fattening foods?

The problem with this argument, logical though it seems in its own right, is the old one of quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who, exactly, gets to decide what is harmful to our health, and therefore punitively taxable? A few pints of Coca-Cola a year is a very different matter to a systematic diet of junk-food. The medical profession thinks it knows the answer. But it does not. In cack-handedly dealing with one form of social evil it threatens to inflict on us another: bureaucratic authoritarianism. Officious red-tape, that is, to you and me; and of course to the business community, which ultimately pays all our wages. Even those of most doctors –  via the public exchequer.


Is Zipcar the Amazon of car ownership?

April 17, 2012

Our man on the spot Robert Dwek quizzes the car-sharing company’s UK boss Mark Walker about its future

It’s been years since I got rid of my car. As a resident of central London, I was tired of hitting traffic jams the minute I left my driveway or of having to go and sit in my parked car with the engine running just to prevent another flat battery. But waving goodbye to my “second home” was inevitably difficult. It’s one thing to embrace public transport in theory and quite another in practice. Still, I adapted soon enough.

And then along came Streetcar, the UK’s first car-sharing company. They owned the cars and, hopefully, left them parked near to your home. You paid only when you used them, for as little as an hour or two at a time. I was a so-called founding member of Streetcar – a great honour I’m sure but, more importantly, a perk that allowed me to be forever immune to the annual fee that was later introduced (still only £50).

After a few years, Streetcar was taken over by Zipcar, its larger and more established US rival. As a Founder Member of Streetcar I was offered a sort of sweetener to convert to Zipcar – about £150 of free rental. The only problem is, it’s going to expire in just over a month and I still haven’t got round to using it. Granted, I now have a toddler who requires a special car seat – something not offered by this kind of service. But even without a baby on board, I’m still not completely sold on this (r)evolutionary new market.

In fact, I have used it just a handful of times over the years. Yet despite not voting with my wallet, I’m convinced that the automotive times are a-changing: in the US, big car rental players like Hertz (Hertz on Demand) and Daimler (Car2Go) are moving into the market. And despite this heavyweight competition, I have a feeling that in Zipcar a brave new brand is being born – a sort of Amazon-ian first-mover.

With that in mind, I put a couple of questions to Zipcar’s UK general manager, Mark Walker:

I live in central London and have noticed numerous ZipVans in recent weeks but not so many Zipcars. How big could the van side could become ?

Mark: We heavily brand our Zipvans and I’m pleased you’ve noticed them! In London, Zipcars actually outnumber Zipvans by a factor of 8-to-1, but the cars are not branded, so our members travel around the city with rather more discretion. We’re working closely with the London Boroughs to see how we might make car club parking bays more readily visible, so local residents and businesses know just how close their local cars are.

The traditional van rental market is extremely large and we’re very happy with the progress Zipvan is making within that market. The combination of their convenient locations, together with the ability to use a van for just a few hours – and only pay for those few hours – is very appealing to our members, be they private individuals moving flat or businesses delivering goods.

We continue to grow the Zipvan business – it’s especially popular with small and medium sized businesses – and it could, indeed, grow to be a very substantial business in its own right. You can expect to see more and more Zipvans.

The US now has a so-called “point to point” player, Car2Go, which seems to operate like London’s Barclays Cycle Hire (“Boris Bikes”). I have to say, both as a Zipcar customer and a Boris Bikes user, that the ability to use a car one-way only does seem very appealing. What are your thoughts on the subject and do you foresee a time when you might offer this kind of service?

The car club/car-sharing category is growing fast and innovating rapidly. The Zipcar model is proven to be convenient and great value for money, especially when compared to car ownership. For the cities where we operate, the Zipcar model is proven to reduce congestion and pollution: every Zipcar takes at least 15 privately owned cars off the streets; Zipcar members drive less, use public transport more and walk/cycle more than car owners.

We are constantly analysing where and how to develop our service for the mutual benefit of members and cities alike. Recently in the US, we invested in Wheelz, a peer-to-peer car sharing company, which opens up some interesting complementary opportunities in that particular segment of the category.

The point-to-point model is also potentially interesting, as it could complement our existing model. Given the types of vehicles used and the per-minute pricing, it lends itself to very short trips, which would otherwise be taken in a taxi, on public transport, by foot or – in London – using a Boris bike. The issue we have yet to fully understand (and where more research is required), is the extent to which point-to-point car-sharing reduces the use of taxis, public transport, walking and shared bicycles; and increases car use in cities. If this is found to be the case, then the model might prove to be contrary to our objectives of reducing congestion and pollution in cities, while providing convenience and value for money for our members. So, while point-to-point might be something we add in the future, it needs to be based on a better understanding of the impact on member behaviour in relation to taxi use etc, congestion and pollution.


Admen watch out: health Bannism is back

April 16, 2012

It’s been a while since the medical profession got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast-food and soft-drinks brands.

But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the Coalition Government, it’s charging straight for the breach.

The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson, something of a zealot in these matters.

Specifically, Stephenson wants:

  • A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
  • Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting “unhealthy” food and drink to children;
  • A safe area around schools, free from fast-food outlets;
  • “Fat taxes”, as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
  • Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.

Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the “Bannist Tendency” making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called “responsibility deals”, which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often-ineffectual red-tape.

When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans might well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast-food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry “responsibility deals”, is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.

Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot-deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:

“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high-profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the “English Football League”. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.

Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?

And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?

Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.


Belligerent WPP builds up its stake in Chime

April 15, 2012

For those who – like me – have been following the buyout shenanigans at Chime with some bemusement (see my two posts here), the following item from Bob Willott’s Marketing Services Financial Intelligence will be of more than passing interest:

Chime Communications confirmed yesterday evening [Friday last] that long-term shareholder WPP has continued its recent buying of shares so that it now holds over 20% of Lord Bell’s group. By exceeding the 20% threshold, WPP is now entitled to increase its board representation at Chime from one to two nominees. Share buying activity by WPP was first reported by the industry research publication Marketing Services Financial Intelligence last December, noting that WPP’s holding had risen above the historic level of 15%. According to Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, the buying was attributed by Chime insiders to an attempt to restore WPP’s stake after it had been diluted by various share issues to vendors of companies Chime had acquired. “However, that explanation began to lack credibility as the share buying has continued”, commented editor Bob Willott. WPP is not under any obligation to make an outright bid for Chime unless its shareholding passes the 30% mark. Willott thinks that WPP’s share buying may have been influenced by the attempt being made by the two senior Chime board members Lord Bell and Piers Pottinger to buy out some of the group’s public relations business.

No kidding. As is well known, WPP is by far the largest stakeholder in Chime – and its boss, Sir Martin Sorrell, has been an outspoken critic of the Bell buyout.

I addressed this very issue of motive to WPP. Why was it stealthily upping its stake? “Good investment” came the cryptic reply. What, even if Tim Bell, Piers Pottinger and the best bits of the PR business were to leave? “Either way.”

Question: Does the inception of the Bell/Pottinger buyout plan predate or postdate knowledge of WPP’s share-buying activity?


Who will win Tesco’s £110m advertising account?

April 13, 2012

Stand by for the most hotly contested UK advertising pitch of the year – the £110m (Nielsen) Tesco account is up for grabs.

But don’t hold your breath for a result. This is going to be a long-drawn-out contest, meticulously referee’d at every stage by agency intermediary Oystercatchers. Not a cosy inside job, pushed through on a nod and a wink from Tesco’s C Suite, as has tended to be the case in the past.

The first stage, happening quite soon, will be the selection of 13 agencies for a credentials presentation. From these, 6 will be invited to pitch, 3 will be eliminated and the winner will emerge in, oh, July some time. If all goes according to plan. So, expect the air to be thick with speculation over the next 4 months.

Let’s be clear before going any further. What’s particularly interesting about this pitch is not the fact that it is taking place now. Few readers will have failed to notice a changing of the guard at Britain’s top retailer, starting with the departure of group chief executive Sir Terry Leahy about a year ago and his replacement by Phil Clarke. Clarke is clearly a man who knows what he wants, and has wasted little time letting his senior colleagues know it too. Out went one-time rival for the top job Richard Brasher, until very recently UK CEO, after some lacklustre performance in the core operation and in came (a little earlier, as it happened) David Wood, late of Tesco Hungary, as head of UK marketing to replace Carolyn Bradley; meantime micro-managing Clarke has seized the UK helm himself.

Equally evidently, Clarke has been under heavy pressure from shareholders to shake things up, pronto. Tesco is still the UK’s biggest grocer by a wide margin, but it is a declining one. Others – practically all its leading rivals in fact – are bettering it in today’s tough market. Earlier this year, Tesco had to do the unthinkable: issue its first profit warning in 20 years, which knocked about £4.5bn off its stock market valuation in one day.

Personal animosity certainly came into Brasher’s dismissal, but there is little doubt that he was a convenient scapegoat too. And maybe with good reason. Brasher’s Big Price Drop campaign was a prelude to a disastrous Tesco Christmas. Brasher also held some rather fixed views on long-term investment. Whereas, what shareholders actually want is profits now, not in some misty future. Clarke knows that a second profit warning will effectively be his corporate suicide note.

So no pressure, Phil, to review your strategy. Ordinarily, UK advertising might seem to bat fairly low in a retail group CEO’s priorities – way beneath, for example, such operational issues as how many and what sort of new stores to open. Not so here, however. In giving Brasher the heave-ho and replacing the muddled duarchy at the top of UK management with a more focused leadership – himself – Clarke is also implicitly challenging Tesco’s long-established marketing tradition. Note that Brasher – like Leahy – came up the marketing route; before being promoted to UK CEO in March 2011, he had been UK marketing supremo since 2006. Clarke, on the other hand, is grounded in operations and IT, not marketing.

That’s why the key word associated with this advertising review is “clarity”. Having brought more focus to UK leadership, Clarke also intends to bring more focus to Tesco’s UK marketing effort. And he’s going to do it by asking some fundamental questions about Tesco’s current positioning. Are the assumptions underlying ‘Every Little Helps’ still relevant in today’s market? How does Tesco’s current marketing strategy benchmark against that of its apparently more successful UK rivals? Has the Tesco brand become too arrogant and impersonal – through servicing the requirements of the City rather than its customers? Clarke wants ideas from his agency pitch list, not just a new colour chart.

Superficially, this looks like bad news for the incumbent agency of 6 years, The Red Brick Road (or Ruby, or whatever the new digitally-enhanced business is going to be called). Although asked to repitch, it is indissolubly linked to the very marketing tradition that Clarke seems hell-bent on changing. Lineally, TRBR is descended from Lowe Howard-Spink; and the strong historic relationship forged between Lowe founder Sir Frank Lowe and Tesco top brass Leahy and his chief marketer Tim Mason. When Sir Frank split from Lowe & Partners (as it was by then called), Tesco backed his breakaway TRBR, but only on condition that Lowe creative chief Paul Weinberger was an integral part of the deal. To this day Weinberger, now chairman of TRBR, is the key mediating figure on the Tesco account (Lowe himself having retired).

That said, there are plenty of good reasons why Tesco might choose to retain TRBR’s services.

First, alone among competing agencies, TRBR will be the one tailored specifically to Tesco’s requirements. (Indeed, many would say this is its primary problem as a diversified advertising agency: despite doing good work for the likes of Magners cider and Thinkbox, it has failed to shake off the image of being Tesco’s house agency.)

Second, notice that Tesco has been careful not to pull the rug entirely from under TRBR. Up for grabs is all the consumer-facing digital and traditional (ie television, press, radio and outdoor) advertising. But not, you’ll observe, trade advertising, which is a substantial part of the overall TRBR fee package. One explanation for this, no doubt, is the sheer complexity of trade marketing; but Tesco also seems to be sending a mildly positive signal to its agency of longstanding.

Third, since this review is really about positioning rather than a creative makeover or a new catchline, don’t underestimate the skills of David Hackworthy and his TRBR planning department.

Fourth, don’t forget that Tim Mason is part of the review team. It’s surely only a matter of time before shareholders get their way and have Clarke cauterise the eye-watering losses at US venture Fresh & Easy, on which Mason currently spends two-thirds of his executive time. That will free more time for Mason’s other two roles as group deputy chief executive and, more pertinently here, group CMO. (It’s also possible that he might choose at that point to bow out; but no one should bank on it.)

Who else will compete for the account? Many prime candidates with suitable retail experience – BBH, DLKW/Lowe, Fallon, AMV BBDO, Rainey Kelly Campbell Rolfe/Y&R – are excluded precisely because they have conflicting supermarket accounts. However, Tesco has made it clear it will look tolerantly upon other kinds of agency conflict: for instance, a clash in financial services or telecoms.

That leaves plenty of possible contenders. As my associate Stephen Foster at MAA has pointed out, Publicis London is surely one of them. Historically, it was keeper of the Asda account and is now captained by former TRBR managing director and Tesco account director Karen Buchanan.

But the hot money will be on WPP. There’s some unsettled business here. Those with keen memories for this sort of thing will recall that, 7 years ago, WPP agency JWT came close to winning a big supermarket account after hiring two key Tesco agency players, Mark Cadman and Russell Lidstone, from a clearly flagging Lowe.

From what I hear, WPP is putting every resource possible behind winning the Tesco trophy. Not only is JWT throwing its hat into the ring; so are Grey, Ogilvy, 24/7 Media and CHI. Though whether individually or as part of a WPP “Team” effort I don’t yet know.

However, WPP agencies should tread with care.

Tesco will surely be aware, or have been made aware, that there is a certain amount of bad blood between Britain’s best-known agency intermediary Oystercatchers (founded by Suki Thompson and ex-JWT new biz director Peter Cowie) and Britain’s best-known and biggest marketing services company, WPP. Namely, the Everystone breakaway affair and its litigious sequel, which came to an unhappy conclusion about a year ago.

The formality of Tesco’s pitch procedure and its choice of intermediary suggests that there is no easy inside-track here for WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell. I suspect his best course will be to keep an uncharacteristically low profile for the duration of this pitch.


Orangina lets Miss O là là put men in their place

April 11, 2012

Women in control, or controlling women? After a cursorary examination of the latest Orangina ‘Miss O’ offering from the Fred & Farid team in Paris, the answer has to be the latter.

And here’s another execution featuring a female hyena:

Drink Orangina diet drinks, the ads seem to be saying, and far from “staying in control”, you turn into an uncontrollable monster. But maybe French women are so vain, they couldn’t care less anyway.

Of course, my Jekyll and Hyde interpretation of Miss O and her marketing cohort could be – well – a tad literal. What I’m failing to note here is the skilful inversion of gender stereotyping. Really, the new campaign is an ironically amusing way of reminding us that men are the ones who do all the cheating and lying in relationships. The ads raise a few knowing chuckles among the target female audience and sell a bit of product along the way.

Maybe. You decide.


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