In 2015, the UK government announced a plan to ban the use of brightly coloured branding on tobacco products in a bid to reduce smoking.
Since then, bodies such as Public Health England and the Institute for Public Policy Research have called for the same brand censorship of alcohol, sugary drinks and confectionary in order to tackle other health crises prevalent in UK society.
Moves have been made to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and sugar already. For example, the introduction of sugar taxes has led to some companies reducing the overall sugar levels in their products. Scotland has also implemented a minimum pricing per unit for alcohol, but some claim that more needs to be done.
The question is, would plain packaging on these products be beneficial to society, and how would the move effect the FMCG, hospitality and sponsorship industries?
The impact on the FMCG and hospitality industries
Alongside my full-time job as an Account Manager at Mallory Group, I also own and run a restaurant on the Isle of Wight.
Alcohol sales contribute to around 70% of our revenue, and attractive branding on drinks plays a huge part in incentivising significant spending among our customers.
Our drinks lists are carefully curated, based not only on taste, but on visual appeal. As the price point increases on our list, the more attractive the label to encourage a higher spend.
One of our sales exercises is to take our ‘Wine of the Week’ to a table to encourage a purchase. Typically, the labels on these wines are visually striking, and the price points high. Yet despite the premium price, it is easier to sell these bottles than any other wine on the list. With the staff member vouching for the drink, the branding seals the deal and the customer is sold.
The idea that branding sells products is, therefore, unanimously agreed on both sides of the argument. However, the fragility of our high streets – with so many businesses closing their doors – means a huge move to plain packaging would be a colossal set-back for many licensed premises. So many businesses rely on strong branding to attract consumers and make the profits necessary to continue trading. The impact of brand censorship in the beverage industry would undoubtedly have a negative effect on the economy.
Whilst those in the drinks industry would argue that their products only become harmful when consumed in excess, health campaigners claim that they are frequently marketed to a younger, more impressionable audience which is damaging. This is somewhat of a hot topic within the sponsorship industry.
In 2018, Sportcal reported that the 30 leading alcoholic beverage brands were spending more than ‘$760 million each year to sponsor the biggest competitions, clubs and athletes in the sports industry.’
Football’s global popularity has made it a key target for alcohol brands. The 2018 report details that around 49% of the alcohol sponsorship deals examined by Sportcal involved football, with deals being struck with organisations and individuals alike. Consider how many children are football fans; that’s a lot of exposure to alcohol-related marketing campaigns.
It isn’t just alcohol brands that are active in this space though. Many FMCG brands see sponsorship as a core part of their business model.
Coca Cola has partnered with next year’s Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020 – the ultimate global sporting platform that will generate phenomenal exposure for the drinks brand. This prominence, however, is something that has been under scrutiny for years.
After London 2012’s sponsorship by Coca Cola and McDonalds, sports sponsorship by ‘unhealthy’ brands was criticised by many, claiming it was an attempt to recruit youngsters to partake in harmful behaviours. Despite this argument exploding several years ago, it seems nothing much has changed – in recent weeks, KP Snacks received significant negative backlash when The Hundred, the brand new cricket event in the UK targeted at children and families, revealed their new kit. Skips, Butterkist popcorn and Hula Hoops, amongst other brands, were all in the limelight, with their logos emblazoned on the front of the shirts.
Speaking to the BBC, Caroline Cerny at the Obesity Health Alliance, which represents dozens of health charities, said: "Junk food brands sponsorship of popular sporting events is just another way they make sure their unhealthy products take centre stage in children's minds."
Is this an overreaction or are these brands creating a space where alcohol and ‘junk food’ brands are synonymous with sport? Do these brands become normalised by putting them on a global platform amidst sporting stars in peak fitness?
Part of our work at Mallory Group is within the sponsorship sector, helping brands and rights holders increase their commercial return and effectively engage their audiences through sponsorships and brand partnerships.
Within sponsorship, we are noticing a recurrent theme; people want to see more responsibility in the sector. Environmental activists are already leading in the fight for change in the industry – the Royal Shakespeare company recently announced an end to its BP sponsorship, making this difficult decision at a time when arts funding is minimal and corporate cash is a lifeline.
Betting brands too have come under scrutiny, with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson claiming the party would ‘ban gambling companies from football shirts’ should the party win power. They now must navigate the sponsorship arena with greater care, wary of engaging a younger audience.
However, whilst brand censorship in the food and beverage industry may improve public health, it is something that would be potentially immeasurable for a number of years. The damage caused to the FMCG and hospitality industries would likely be irreparable – Brand Finance’s 2019 Plain Packaging Report claims the move would cost the global drinks industry alone more than £350 billion, with the damage to the creative and hospitality industries still largely unexplored.
Censoring ‘unhealthy’ food and drinks brands within sponsorship would certainly shake the field – remove these major sponsors and sport would certainly suffer. Many brands like McDonalds work hard to activate their sponsorship in a meaningful way, investing significant funds in grassroots sport.
Perhaps a complete branding whitewash is a step too far but we do need to tread more carefully as companies look to influence new audiences. Brands must act responsibly and add value to ensure they have an authentic involvement in a sport, which is where we, at Mallory Group, can help.
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