The scoop on Unilever’s new marketing commitments

Experts say the global CPG is taking a leadership role by committing to change how it markets certain foods to children.

Last year, before the current crisis began to unfold, another public health issue weighed on marketers’ minds.

Since 2016, a private member’s bill that would restrict the marketing of certain foods to children has been circulating within parliament. The proposed law was part of the federal Liberal government’s goal of reducing childhood obesity in Canada. Its guidelines were revised in response to industry consultation and the bill was eventually passed by the House of Commons a full two years later. But awaiting one final approval by the Senate, it never became law, and last October’s federal election wiped the legislative slate clean.

Now, one of the world’s largest CPG companies has committed to further self-regulate the way it markets to children, not only in Canada but across North America.

In February, Unilever said it will alter the way it advertises to children before the year is out. The company will stop marketing and advertising foods and beverages to children under the age of 12 in traditional media, and below the age of 13 on social media. It will stop using influencers or celebrities who primarily appeal to children under the age of 12, and limit its use of cartoon characters to products with a “specific nutritional profile,” though it intends to continue using certain characters on point-of-sale materials.

Unilever said it will begin implementing these measures in its ice cream business, through Wall’s, whose brands include Max, Paddle Pop and Twister.

In a release, Unilever said a “key reason” for its decision was the World Health Organization’s naming childhood obesity a major public health issue. According to WHO, worldwide obsesity has nearly tripled since 1975, and more than 340 million children and adolescents aged five to 19 were overweight or obese in 2016.

Unilever already self-regulates the way it advertises to children in North America. In Canada, it has been a participant in the Canadian Children’s Advertising Initiative (CCAI) since 2007. Consisting of major food and beverage companies, the CCAI is administered by Ad Standards and aims to help brands shift “their advertising and marketing emphasis to foods and beverages that are consistent with the principles of sound nutrition guidance.”

It’s part of a similar initiative in the U.S., so it’s unclear why the company decided to make further commitments this year. In a response to a list of detailed questions, the company provided a statement to strategy.

“Unilever Canada already meets the commitments announced in our latest global update on marketing to children. Unilever Canada will continue to work within the context of Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. This means we will continue to NOT advertise to children in Canada. In addition, we will remain an active participant in stakeholder discussions with authorities including local health and federal governments.”

Manuel Arango, director of policy, advocacy and engagement at the Heart & Stroke Foundation, which leads the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, says all action from industry players is welcomed. But, he says, “the best thing they could do is support the federal government in its efforts to implement mandatory restrictions on certain types of foods and beverages, so that’s where we really need their support.”

Arango points to academic research, funded by Heart & Stroke, that suggests self-regulation has not been effective: kids continue to encounter thousands of social ads for unhealthy food every year. Plus, he says, the goal should be to level the playing field for all advertisers by implementing regulations that can be applied across the board.

The current federal government appears keen to revisit the issue. As part of her mandate letter in December, Health Minister Patty Hajdu was directed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to continue working to “introduce new restrictions on the commercial marketing of food and beverages to children and establishing new front-of-package labelling.”

No matter the outcome, industry experts believe Unilever is playing it smart by taking a leadership role on the issue.

Peter Rodriguez, founder and CMO at Brand Igniter, and a former CPG marketer at Smucker Foods, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Pfizer and Kellogg (where he led marketing for snacks, frozen foods and family cereals), says Unilever’s actions will have a positive impact on the industry, while preserving the company’s relevance in the eyes of consumers – something Unilever has historically been able to do through proactive, long-term planning.

“It’s one of those things that can further elevate the credibility  not only of the company  but of the food and beverage industry,” says Rodriguez. “The consumer evolution towards more conscious eating is not something that is going to stop. That is something that has been happening for some years, and it’s accelerating. So I believe smart companies that see this initiative will consider following these actions if they want to continue being relevant.”

Unilever isn’t simply responding to the threat of potential regulation, Rodriguez believes. It’s more likely, he says, that the company is anticipating global consumer trends. These trends could turn into social values, setting the stage for legislation to pass. “When social values and consumer behaviour change, that’s when legislation happens,” he says. “By that time, if a company has not anticipated [that change], then they’re not prepared as they should be.”

“Unilever is a leader in sustainability, waste, fair trade and environmental practices, so this doesn’t surprise me,” adds marketing expert Tony Chapman. “They are also a leader in building brand equity through a higher purpose.”

But Chapman questions whether the company’s “no marketing” rules will be applied consistently across point-of-sale, sampling and packaging, noting that companies must pay substantial fees to secure space on shelf and in freezer sections.

“If they are consistent with adult only messaging, I vote this ‘five cones’ up,” he says. “If not, then I would say it’s a scoop in the right direction.”