Amit K Shrivastava
Guest Article

Honey Wars and food marketing come down to science Vs faith

While Marico’s milking the moment – and why shouldn’t it? – the Saffola-Dabur honey battle comes down to science versus faith, feels our guest author.

‘If you eat fish, your brain will grow sharp’, was one of the food wisdoms I was fed (along with a steady diet of fish) in my early years. Many such examples of strongly held and earnestly delivered pieces of belief around food have been part of our growing up. To add to this body of belief, we have a steady stream of scientific studies from across the world delivering new news on food. Either uncovering a new superfood or debunking a long held myth about some other.

Over the years, working on food brands and understanding consumers, I have found the way in which we respond to information around packaged food really fascinating.

The recent news on a study which claimed many leading brands of honey in India were adulterated with sugar syrup triggered a debate on how it would impact the brands. Would it open doorways for new brands to enter or would the incumbents continue to hold fort?

As in many other facets of life, data is a weak force against belief grounded in culture and engrained habits, particularly when it comes to food or even food brands.

Take the example of milk and its position in our minds (or should we say heart?) as an unmatchable source of nourishment. Across categories, food brands understand that suggesting the presence of milk in their product lends them a powerful halo of wholesomeness due to this belief.

Technically, a number of studies have raised doubts as to whether milk (other than mother’s) is good for human consumption. Bournvita, in its campaign ‘doodh ki shakti’ pointed out that merely drinking milk did not deliver calcium and was a waste (unless of course, blended with Bournvita!).

Have these claims seriously dented consumer confidence in milk as the supreme nourisher? And mind you, this applies as much to the topmost socio-economic strata of our society, one that might have, at best, moved to brands promising organic milk free of pesticides.

To understand this, look at the associations milk has in our culture – mother, cow (and therefore mother too), gods who love milk and butter, gods’ statues being bathed in milk, overflowing milk vessels as symbols of abundant wholesomeness. Challenging the faith in milk goes against all this and more. It’s just too ingrained in our psyche as sacrosanct to allow for new data to question it.

Let’s take another example along the same lines. The position sweets have in our culture versus the growing body of data around the harmful effects of sugar on health. Much like milk, mithais have divine associations in our mind. They are part of our offerings to the gods, part of our festivals, and in general, they connote auspiciousness and a celebratory mood.

In an exploratory study a few years ago, we found that consumers primarily saw low calorie sweetners relevant only if one was diabetic.

Not eating meetha was not ‘health conscious’ but tragic. Indeed, diabetics being affectionately encouraged to have a little meetha by people around them is not uncommon in our society.

Marketing messages trying to link sweeteners it to weight management had not really resonated with Indian consumers… not even with metro consumers. Rather than ‘freedom from’ meetha, they needed to signal ‘freedom to enjoy meetha’ to find acceptance.

Which brings us to the subject of honey. Just like milk and meetha, honey in our culture has deep roots.

Consider the composition of Panchamrit (five amrits or ‘nectar of the gods’) used in Hindu worship. It has three dairy elements – milk, curd and ghee, one meetha –sugar– and the fifth element is honey!

What further supplements our cultural connection with honey is its use in Ayurveda.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a brand like Dabur leads the category while Patanjali is one of the significant brands.

It can be argued that the milk and meetha examples refer to the category’s credibility whereas in the case of honey, the scanner is on brands. If we look at the position these brands hold in the category, however, it makes them very well entrenched with the category values.

Strong food brands have been able to shrug far more serious questions – be it Coke, Cadbury or Maggi.

Therefore, will data this time trump what is a matter of faith? The jury is out, but my view is: with suitable rearguard actions, in the mid-term, the incumbent brands should be able to overcome this hurdle relatively well.

(The author is director at Learning Curve, a Gurugram-based brand consultancy.)