Last year, one of the world’s biggest brands was forced into an embarrassing climb down. Coca-Cola was told to withdraw three posters and a leaflet for its functional water brand Glacéau Vitaminwater because of misleading claims the company made about the drink’s health benefits. It was a reminder of how careful companies need to tread in this area. Similarly, Danone, producer of Actimel, was forced to pull ads claiming that the product would enhance a child’s immune system.
Even the world’s biggest businesses are prone to falling into the trap of making boastful claims about their brands and getting caught out when those claims cannot be fully substantiated.
It’s particularly pertinent to those brands in the business of claiming health benefits associated to consuming or using a product. Whether it’s running a marketing campaign on the benefits of yoghurt to the digestive system or running a public affairs programme about cholesterol-busting margarines, claiming your brand has any benefit to human health is fraught with risks for several reasons.
The first is regulatory. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), once seen as a rather toothless body, has had to respond markedly in recent years to a highly complex media and product environment, and be seen to respond to consumers’ concerns about wrongdoing.
As a result, it’s become much more aggressive and unforgiving. Take the case of Coca-Cola; the tagline on one poster sounded innocuous enough – “More muscles than Brussels” which the company claimed was a reference to Belgian action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme. But the ASA ruled that the product could not claim to help enhance muscle strength. It also disliked the ambiguity of comparing the health benefits of water with Brussels sprouts. The ASA received just three complaints about the product but it needed to be seen to take those complaints seriously and ruled accordingly. William Hill also had to pull a campaign recently after the ASA received just one complaint, on the basis of which an investigation was undertaken and the body ruled against the bookmaker. The regulator has now has bite.
The second is the ephemeral nature of science. Laying strong claim to the health benefits of a product supported by research in one branch of science, can easily unravel with another set of scientific results undermining health assertions and causing conflict. In the case of Danone, the ASA was not convinced that the scientific research on which the Actimel health claims were made provided sufficient absolute proof that it would improve a child’s immune system. In other words, the ASA was guided by the precautionary principle, and while the science was very strong, there remained a niggling doubt that Actimel wouldn’t benefit all children.
Another example is the tea and coffee industries, both of which have spent large sums of money in promoting the health benefits of both products. But there is also strong evidence to suggest that the apparent benefits are offset by negative consequences attributed in part to the caffeine content. As a result health claims have become so ambiguous that I question whether they add any real value from a marketing perspective.
Also, laying claim to certain nutritional or health advantages can equally expose your brand. And that can lead down the slippery path towards endless litigation – Tobacco Road being the big historical example of that.
But the matter of building and protecting your brand and its reputation extends way beyond the issue of claiming health benefits associated to consuming a product.
Another recent ruling by the ASA left the Stansted Express’s advertising campaign in tatters. The train operator running between London’s Liverpool Street and Stansted Express had long run a promotional campaign purporting that the average journey time from the airport to central London was just 35 minutes. It was, at best, misleading. That journey time took the passenger from Stansted to Tottenham Hale which, in zone 3, is still some distance from central London. The journey time is in fact between 45-50 minutes.
In the long run, being less than honest about what you brand delivers can be far more damaging in terms of the customer experience and reputation that is established from that experience.
As a custodian of your brand, you should always focus on the strengths of your products. It is astonishing how many brands try to make claims as part of their proposition which then prove to be unfounded. Where the customer is concerned, honesty is the best policy and woe betide any business if they think otherwise.
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