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The roadmap for navigating the HFSS ad ban

By Hannah Walley, Head of Media, Insights UK at Kantar

The Queen’s Speech confirmed the Government’s plans to make sweeping changes to ‘junk food’ advertising to help tackle obesity.  Alongside a 9pm watershed on TV adverts and restrictions on in-store promotions, the reforms include a total online ad ban for products with high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) content from April 2022.  The exact parameters for identifying these ‘unhealthy’ products are still to be outlined, but it’s clear that the reforms will have a major impact on many FMCG brands and how they engage consumers.

Businesses need to get moving quickly if they haven’t already been planning ahead – evaluating their marketing strategies to understand how much of a challenge this new legislation will be.  Fortunately, HFSS products are not the first to face advertising restrictions.  Other regulated industries such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling and soft drinks have operated in constrained marketing environments for some time but have still been able to reach audiences and grow sales.  FMCG brands should learn from their creative and often lateral approach, starting with their laser-like focus on consumers. 

Thinking differently 

Brands have the advantage of time to prepare before reforms come into force.  They should use this window to experiment with their marketing mix and different media touchpoints to reach consumers.  First, brands need to understand what worked well in the past; which common threads connected previous successful campaigns and how could these be translated to other formats?  While there are different intricacies to good online and TV advertising versus print, outdoor and radio campaigns, the core pillars of effectiveness will be consistent across all channels – essentially it comes back to really knowing your customer, what they want and enjoy.

Now is an ideal time for advertisers to test new formats and to apply any lessons to their long-term strategy.  It has been shown previously, for example, that outdoor campaigns tend to have shorter-lived effects so marketers taking this route will need to review the rhythm of their activity to maintain momentum.

Businesses must also think outside the box and consider non-traditional tactics.  Red Bull is a great example of a brand using more experiential channels and events to maintain its presence of mind for shoppers while keeping on the right side of advertising regulations.  It communicates its brand values through non-traditional, often funny, content, sponsored events and publicity stunts (which are frequently re-shared online).  Whatever route advertisers take, identifying a core message that will resonate with consumers and sticking to it is key. 

Focus on the experience

Beyond this, HFSS brands should ultimately remember that their product and the experience it offers to buyers is their main selling point.  This period of reflection before new ad restrictions take hold provides an opportunity for businesses to reassess how they are making themselves stand out in their respective categories.  

Our recent study of British brands shows that growth comes directly from being different and being able to emotionally connect with consumers.  We know that consumers are starting to place more emphasis on brands’ purpose and reputation, and HFSS manufacturers should consider how they can reflect this in their offer and marketing, going beyond just selling a pleasurable eating and drinking experience. 

Take confectionery brand Tony’s Chocolonely – it combines high-quality chocolate and interesting flavours with environmentally friendly packaging and a message about its ethical provenance built into the design of the chocolate bar itself.  Customers not only enjoy an indulgent and tasty snack, they are able to feel good about the product they have bought.  Tony’s puts the emphasis on sustainability and responsible sourcing, but the issues will be different for different brands.  The point is that manufacturers need to strike a chord with consumers and make themselves distinctive. 

No need to panic

The Queen’s Speech put an end to uncertainty and speculation around new advertising rules for HFSS brands. Brands now know that they have to reassess their marketing strategies and that work must begin in earnest if it isn’t underway already. Thankfully, they don’t have to walk an untrodden path and they should look to businesses already in regulated industries for ways to maximise media channels in creative and different ways.

Key to getting this right is understanding who buys their products and why – something which should ultimately be the foundation of every good campaign.   


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