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April 4, 2016

Should the obesity issue influence companies’ growth strategies?

United Biscuits, the UK's largest biscuit maker, has set out how it believes the sector in the country can grow sales by GBP500m by 2020. After hearing how the Yildiz Holding-owned business plans to increase the size of the category, Ben Cooper wonders whether the issue of rising obesity should inform how food manufacturers shape their drive for growth.

United Biscuits, the UK’s largest biscuit maker, has set out how it believes the sector in the country can grow sales by GBP500m (US$711.2m) by 2020. After hearing how the Yildiz Holding-owned business plans to increase the size of the category, Ben Cooper wonders whether the issue of rising obesity should inform how food manufacturers shape their drive for growth.

Ahead of an event hosted by United Biscuits to present its “category vision” for the biscuit market, the secret hope was for a vision of biscuits, an unreconstructed celebration of indulgence and the guilty pleasures of sugar, salt and fat, and a welcome respite from unremittingly grim, if justified, messages about obesity, our “addiction” to sugar and the dangers of consuming the foods most of us love to consume.

United Biscuits did not disappoint. The company’s vision for the biscuit category is effectively to grow it by GBP500m by 2020, on the back of seven market drivers, such as ‘Making a meal of it’, ‘On the go’ and ‘From me to you (gifting)’, and the event featured plenty of samples of the products it hopes will deliver a sizeable contribution of that growth.

First, pre-empting a request for “clarification” from the United Biscuits media team, it should be noted one of the company’s three focus brands is its Go Ahead healthier range, while ‘Better for us” was one of the seven market drivers being discussed. Also, this was an event focused on category development and not on diet and health issues.

Nevertheless, conspicuous by their absence were any mention of sugar taxes, obesity or type 2 diabetes. The only chefs in evidence were from the company’s own product development team, responsible for the Eton Mess aux Hobs Nobs, the Chocolate Digestive Cheesecake and the Jaffa Cake Trifles. Jamie Oliver was thankfully nowhere to be seen, nor was his name uttered.

What Oliver and his allies would have made of the prospect of adding GBP500m (US$711.2m) to the UK biscuits and snacks market is, however, not hard to imagine. The vision is undeniably one of growth potential not only for United Biscuits and its retail partners, but perhaps also for British waistlines.

However, the manner in which United Biscuits chose to announce its plans is interesting in the context of the diet and health debate.

First, amid the brand marketing jargon, the United Biscuits team stressed cultural attributes of its brands and the biscuit. Biscuits, snacks and cakes were not a “high-risk, obesogenic food category”, as some health campaigners might contend, but an important part of British food culture, a beloved culinary tradition. The characterisation of the biscuit as a particularly British tradition undoubtedly struck a chord and would appear to give a strong underpinning to the company’s category aspirations. 

That speaks to an interesting dimension of the food policy debate. Are such cultural factors sufficiently discussed in the debates over diet and health? True, lifestyle factors are cited as contributors to diet-related ill health – sedentary occupations, busy lives, low incomes, poor parenting – and are influential. The health lobby narrative tends to focus on the idea of almost unwitting consumers at the mercy of increasingly aggressive and cynical marketing and promotion, which companies counter by stressing the importance of individual responsibility. Less discussed are longer-standing cultural norms that might help our understanding of why the current obesity crisis has emerged. 

A key theme at the United Biscuits briefing in London on Thursday (31 March) was the presentation of the biscuit almost as a British cultural icon. An epidemiologist would most certainly have rained heavily on their parade. 

“Snacking plays a huge part in the lives of UK consumers,” Mark Winter, sales director for United Biscuits in the UK and Ireland, wrote in the foreword to the company’s vision. It most certainly does but is there a downside? Our long-standing love of the biscuit going back at least decades might also suggest our weakness for snacking is culturally ingrained. Add to the mix larger portions, more consumption “occasions”, ever more interesting and appealing products and yes, millions of pounds in marketing budgets, and the social anthropologist’s explanation of why the UK has a worse obesity crisis than many other developed countries would be complete.

However, in the United Biscuits vision, the Brits love of bix is benign. It offers business growth for a leading player (now owned by Turkey’s Yildiz Holding) in the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. The emphasis on what that extra GBP500m could mean for small retailers in the UK was a constant theme. Consumers expressing their love of biscuits is good for the economy, creating wealth and providing jobs.

And what of less quantifiable benefits? Once again, frequently missing from debates about diet and health, as from discussion of alcohol policy, is the contribution these products simply make to human happiness. In the many conferences that have been held to discuss food and health policy, the fact that we like to eat indulgent foods or drink alcohol, that they give us joy, is presented as background to the problem, scene-setting before discussion proceeds to ways in which we might have to consider denying ourselves or others – or at the very least restricting – such pleasures.

A more libertarian view would be that these factors represent much more than that. They may be hard to measure but amid all the negative consequences they should be a significant entry in the credit column, at least to counterbalance, if not outweigh, the undoubted negative impacts.

To suggest the lack of discussion on Thursday of the possible health implications for some consumers of increased consumption of biscuits and snacks was an omission or an oversight on the part of United Biscuits may be a little harsh. This was in many ways not the right occasion for that conversation.

And yet, major companies speak of embedding sustainability into every sphere of their operations. Being a responsible corporate citizen is not about simply producing statements and corporate responsibility reports but living and breathing those values throughout the company, day by day.

United Biscuits included “Better for us” as one of the seven market drivers within its category vision, a driver it said could contribute some GBP109m to the GBP500m total category growth by 2020. By doing so, one could say United Biscuits at least gave a nod to the diet and health issue. Other than that, it was not mentioned.

Given all the current debate in the UK over obesity levels and how food companies should, or must be compelled, to respond, one might have anticipated some mention of the need to temper category ambitions with a need for responsible marketing and promotion. 

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