The Unlikely Way to Fight Obesity



This is the sixth in our series about the most influential players in the obesity drama. So far we've seen how grocers and restaurateurs—"solids," using my chemistry metaphor—are excellent operators and implementers but are unlikely to devise creative solutions to fix obesity; how the gas-like researchers and activists offer novel but punitive ideas that industry does not welcome; and how consumers, with the exception of the most disciplined among us, cannot be counted on to lead the way.

Is there anyone who can make sense of America's overeating binge and come up with a solution? I believe so ... and it's not someone you'd expect. I'm talking about the food marketers themselves—the corporations that manufacture and promote the likes of Coca-Cola, Tostitos, Oreos, and Campbell's Soup.

Food marketers live in a world between the solid grocers and restaurateurs and the gas-like health advocates and academics. They are the "liquids." That means they carry both solid and gas traits. For instance:

• They can understand the abstract language of gases, while being comfortable with the solids' reliance on facts;

• Like gases, they can be "idea people," yet they know how to implement ideas with practical actions; and

• Unlike their solid industry counterparts, they want to effect change ... if it makes business sense.

Different from the Food Leftist academic researchers and activists and their Retail Right grocery and restaurant counterparts, packaged foods marketers tend to be less extreme in their politics and generally favor Right-Center positions.

Food marketers are able to grasp the big-picture issues, with a better understanding of how to make things happen in reality.

All this suggests that the food marketers possess an innate ability to step up and help solve big problems like obesity. By this I mean that they are able to grasp the big-picture issues advanced by the health advocates, but with a better understanding of how to make things happen in reality. And they bring a longer-term strategic perspective than the short-term-oriented grocers and restaurants.

Because they possess these skills, brand marketers should be able to make quick hay by solving obesity. So what holds them back? What makes them behave ... more like solids? The answer is simple: pressure to deliver on their bottom-line profit goals. Wall Street beckons and quarterly earnings trump altruistic intentions. This means that the problem-solving skills of the packaged goods marketers are not harnessed to their full capacity.

Besides the pressure to deliver short-term earnings, another factor intervenes. Marketers are entrusted with the care and feeding of their assigned brands, and they adopt the role of a nurturing parent. Mess with my "baby" and you'll have a fight on your hands. And managers are rewarded depending on how well they grow their babies—in the form of profits, market share, and customer loyalty.


neil conway/flickr

So when the more gas-like health activists issue a FATwah to tax sodas or to criminalize sodium, the corporate reaction is immediate and firm: it's time to protect the baby—just like any parent worth her salt would do. This is the dynamic that gets unleashed when more punitive measures are proposed in an attempt to change marketer behavior.

Let's look at a recent example: soda taxes. After several states and municipalities floated initiatives to tax sugared drinks under the assumption that reduced consumption of soft drinks would lower obesity rates, industry responded with massive defenses of its iconic brands.

Analyses have shown that a 10-percent tax on sodas would reduce consumption by approximately 8 percent (see this report from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, for example). An added benefit of a one-cent tax per ounce would offer an annual revenue windfall of $14.9 billion to government treasuries. Cities and states from Philadelphia to San Francisco to New York State to Missouri have all been considering such taxes.

So what happened? Under attack and protecting their brand babies, the normally balanced food marketers did what they do best: spend millions to squash the competitive assault.

So if attacking food companies isn't the best way for researchers and health activists to fix obesity, there must be a better way to tap into the "wiring" of the food guys. What has been missing from the obesity debate is a strategy that aligns the needs of food marketers with the public health imperative to reduce obesity rates.

So how does one motivate food marketers to change? Not by trying to punish them through taxes, bans, and ingredient limitations, but by simply demonstrating to them how they can improve their most prized metric measurements, namely profits, sales, market share, customer loyalty, and reputation.

The tactics and arguments that have been advanced to date have elicited the exact opposite reaction from food marketers as what was intended. By designing programs that help food marketers act in their own enlightened self-interest, public health advocates can ignite a wave of industry cooperation that will accelerate the reduction in excess calories for sale.

Rather than continuing to try to destroy the very essence of how food companies operate, we would be better served by taking the contrarian path; that is, finding ways to crank up those vast marketing and communications machines to help resolve the problem.

So what can be done? Tune in next time.