Product endorsement is an increasingly common sight on supermarket shelves, yet the ethics involved remain delicate. Some recent endorsements have ended in embarrassment (most spectacularly the British Dental Association’s sponsorship of Ribena Toothkind). This could dissuade companies and potential endorsers from entering a mutually beneficial partnership. Sue Barnard asked the questions that matter.
Within days of launching its own soft drink, the RAC – better known in motoring circles – was receiving criticisms of its latest initiative. The organisation last month introduced a 250ml caffeine-containing drink, RAC124, to combat the problems of driver fatigue. An early criticism – and unfounded according to the RAC – was about the percentage of caffeine per litre.
Product endorsement is a risky business. If the concept does not live up to expectation, the endorser could be left shame-faced. Worse still, if an issue of judgment or ethics comes into play, the relevant parties could be calling in their crisis management advisors.
GlaxoSmithKline and the British Dental Association (BDA) know this only too well. The Ribena Toothkind juice drink – which brought these two parties together – will probably be held up for a long time as a case in point. Not only did its producer have to face the onslaught of the press criticising what had been a successful launch, but the accreditor, the BDA, had its involvement in this matter brought into question and also had to rethink its role.
Flora, too, fell foul of the critics in 1998 when its tubs featuring The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund carried Diana’s signature alongside the word “Thanks” instead of the brand name. Its aim was to raise £250,000 (US$365,000) for the fund, but the lasting impression about the initiative for some was one of distaste.
The RAC is fending off the criticisms. It also doesn’t consider it will face the same problems that the Red Bull energy drink has had to endure recently about its product’s use by clubbers and sportspeople. RAC consumer businesses’ managing director Findlay Caldwell said: “This is a product for motorists. It contains 124g of caffeine – equivalent to two cups of coffee and the exact level that Loughborough University recommended in its investigations into combating the serious problems of driver fatigue.”
It appears that the RAC has done its homework. The concept has been approved by Rospa (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) and many motoring bodies and it’s a wonder how it has managed to get so much safety advice on pack.
But with so much at stake, do the benefits of endorsement outweigh the risks?
The endorsers certainly seem to come out on top. The BDA has no regrets about its support of Ribena Toothkind. Its backing followed a recommendation in 1994 from the Department of Health (DOH) in its Oral Health Strategy for England. The DOH considered that food and drink manufacturers could help reduce the consumption and the frequency of intake of sugar-containing food and drink by “looking seriously at the composition of their products and replacing cariogenic sugars with less harmful sweeteners, or omitting sweeteners altogether”.
In 1995, the BDA decided that it would be helpful to extend its product accreditation scheme to manufactured food and drink products that set out to help with this recommendation. The result was that it set up its own panel of eminent professionals and in time was approached by GlaxoSmithKline.
BDA spokeswoman Diana Scarrott told just-food.com: “GlaxoSmithKline had done something that nobody else had achieved in the industry. It tackled the caries problems by cutting the sugar to a very low level (0.7%), but also added calcium in a way that made the product virtually non-erosive.”
The problems came in two forms. Some new (and some consider, more accurate and appropriate) methods of testing for erosiveness and cariogenicity were carried out, but the research results had not reached the publication stage. Additionally, there was the issue of wording. The DOH had not given recommendations on this latter aspect.
Scarrott said: “It is our belief that Ribena Toothkind is an enormously improved product and one that helps with the DOH recommendations, but it would be impossible to say that any product is totally safe. We want to see more products that help to reduce dental decay and erosion, but I fear that this controversy will have frightened off a lot of producers.”
In hindsight, the benefits have probably been outweighed by the risks in this case caused by the negative media attention. While GlaxoSmithKline would have liked to see increasing sales and perhaps recognition of being a champion of the cause, consumers would also have benefited through more dental education funding and improved products.
The Family Heart Association (www.familyheart.org) also has the consumer centrally in mind in its approval of products such as Flora and Provamel soya dairy products. Director Michael Livingston’s sole aim is to save lives by getting to the 100,000 people in the UK who are at a very high risk of dying from a heart attack at a young age (35-55 years) because they are unaware that they suffer from inherited familial hyper cholestemia, a problem that affects particularly western nations.
The FHA’s approval focuses on products which help to reduce cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in particular. Livingston believes the benefits of approval in its case outweigh the FHA’s attachment to commerce. He says: “It enables us to widen our educational message, and in doing so, save lives.”
While the endorsers seemed to be understandably keen to accredit products which meet their stringent criteria, the manufacturers appear to be less willing to speak up. It was surprising how many did not wish to comment. But they’re in a no-win situation. If they talk of the sales benefits, they will be seen to be far from charitable, if they speak altruistically, they will face scepticism.
Those which did speak off the record, admitted that the associations with a third party did have a positive effect on sales, although the extent was difficult to measure.
Pressure to ignore contradictory findings?
just-food.com did, however, speak with one scientist who had been approached to support a major manufacturer’s product health claims. He was more cynical about endorsement. While wishing to remain anonymous, he did speak of his alarm about the “flimsiness” of the supporting evidence he had been provided with and the willingness of the manufacturer to ignore contradictory findings. He said: “What has to be remembered is that the over-riding motivation for the producer is to make money. Unfortunately, this can take precedence over real proof. Reputable scientists have to look at the whole body of evidence. They cannot afford to be blinkered.”
But overt accreditations are not the only way of raising sales and at the same time doing some community good.
Awards can help. Take the case of St Giles Foods’ Fry Light sunflower oil product which disperses just one calorie per spray. It, even today, carries the Slimming Magazine light & low awards 1999 winner logo and is high on the shopping list of those attending the UK’s 6,000 Slimming World clubs, following the organisation’s listing in its literature.
St Giles Foods’ managing director Fred Key said that the company had not prospected for it, but it had resulted in positive repercussions. While he was not adverse to seeking product endorsement, he said the costs involved would have to be weighed up against the perceived benefits compared to other marketing initiatives such as advertising.
Müller, too, benefits from Slimming World’ recommendation of its low-fat Light yogurt to its members, but in this case the packaging does not carry any endorsement. Light is a £96m brand (up 50% year on year) which supports Slimming World with numerous PR activities. In Müller’ case, it approached Slimming World direct.
Other companies such as Raisio (Benecol) and Yakult are firm believers in their own health claims and the scientific evidence to support them. They currently rely on advertising and PR to promote their message, feeling that their helplines, which provide consumers with information to back their claims, are an appropriate means of endorsement.
Product endorsement can have a great deal of benefits. It’s the risks that have to be guarded against. But are there any guidelines for manufacturers to protect themselves? Mintel, in its Cause-Related Marketing 2000 report, sets out some guidance which could equally relate to the various forms of product endorsement. It considers:
- The endorser and the brand should be synergistically linked. If there is no common thread the corporate partner risks laying itself open to charges of cynicism.
- The more the cause or charity chosen is one that the target consumer group will relate to, the more successful the deal is likely to be.
- It must be clear to the consumer why the connection has been made.
- The quality and price of the goods being offered should be identical to that of a comparative non-cause-related product.
- An association can be no substitute for quality.
- Careful planning is essential.
So how much will it cost? In a straightforward product endorsement crm deal, the share of revenue, according to Mintel, will typically be less than 5% of the sales price. If a third party needs to be involved, such as an advertising agency, this too has to be factored in. Some charities may ask for a guaranteed minimum donation.
Above all, the relationship needs to be supported by an ethical approach to business throughout the corporate partnering company. The two sides will also need to know each other well for the product to have a chance of success.
But who should make the first move? According to our discussions, manufacturers usually make the first move. Often it follows a long-term relationship and the recognition that some fundraising activity could take a different tack. It could even be the result of a prospective endorser’s initiative, for example in the BDA’s case when it was interested in furthering the DOH’s recommendations. It could also be a call for award entrants.
The opportunities are widening. It would be a pity if the progress of sound innovation to meet our changing lifestyles were not to benefit from this. It is just a question of whether manufacturers and their endorsers are prepared to weigh up the risks.
By Sue Barnard
Sue is an independent business journalist and consultant specialising in the retailing and manufacturing industries worldwide. She is based in the UK. She can be contacted by email at: email@example.com
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