Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

Unilever to not market its F&B products to children below 13. Any takers?

Unilever has decided to stop advertising and marketing its F&B products, starting with ice-cream brand Wall's, to kids below the age of 12 via traditional marketing methods and kids below the age of 13 via social media channels. However, this isn't the first time a company has taken such a step.

In 2010, seven food and beverage companies: Hindustan Unilever, General Mills India, Kellogg India, Nestle India, Mars International India, PepsiCo India and Coca-Cola India Inc. came together for what is now called the 'India pledge' - an initiative mainly aimed at refraining from advertising to children under 12 in print, on TV, or on the internet.

Once again in 2016, members of the Food & Beverage Alliance of India (FBAI) pledged to advertise only those products to children under 12 years of age, that meet a common nutrition criteria (CNC) or to not advertise at all.

The signatories of the pledge were Coca-Cola India, General Mills, Kellogg India, Ferrero India, Nestle India, Mars Chocolate India, PepsiCo India, HUL Ltd., and Mondelez India. This pledge applied to all signatories by December 31, 2016.

We asked a panel of marketing experts about the ripple effect of such an initiative and whether other companies will follow suit. We asked about its impact on F&B advertising and the reason for this pledge being repeated every few years.

Jyotsna Yallapalli
Jyotsna Yallapalli

Jyothsna Yallapalli - strategic planner ( worked with JWT, Lowe Worldwide, Havas Worldwide, The Womb, and McCann)

“Some time back, Coca-Cola, Mars, The Hershey, etc. all pledged not to market their products to kids under 12 (global markets), but soon the trend was back in the direction of sugar. While Unilever’s decision is in the right (healthy) direction, and will surely push the competition to make conscious and visible changes in their products and communication, I am not sure how it would solve society’s nightmare of ‘child obesity’ at the ground level. Kids are surrounded by many options like local brands which may not follow stringent processes and regulations.

Let’s remember, every mom, in every home, is trying her best to control her kids' consumption of unhealthy/junk food and beverages. Yes, the giant’s decision will sensitize families, parents and influencers, but will it disrupt society? I am not sure.

Food and beverages made with organically cultivated ingredients, marketed at an affordable price range or masstige price points, could be an interesting weapon to tackle this societal issue.

However, the company’s pledge will remain at the pledge level (people read, appreciate, and forget about it, after a while) unless the company gives ample legs to this category-leading decision, activates conversations and a range of sports-centric initiatives (promotion of sports, encouraging sports culture amongst kids, etc.) towards minimizing ‘child obesity’.

Since marketing and advertising efforts will shift their focus on parents, this decision, I feel, won’t impact F&B marketing much.”

Rajiv Rao
Rajiv Rao

Rajiv Rao, filmmaker, former NCD of Ogilvy & Mather, now Ogilvy India -

“I think Unilever is doing something very positive. Everybody wants products that are good and healthy for kids, so the company is setting a great example and taking a very ethical stand. I think other companies should follow suit, they can keep aside business and decide to do good. People will fall in love with the brand more. For instance, brands that are responsible and use environmentally friendly material - you trust and like them. However, I don't think this initiative is a threat to any company or brand.

There was a time when Cadbury was only talking to kids. If you remember that ad where a girl ran inside a cricket ground, it changed everything. Before that, no chocolate brand ever showed adults eating chocolate. It was the first time a brand said, 'Hey, just because it's a chocolate, it doesn't mean you only show kids consuming it.’ There's a huge market and you need not only target kids. I don't think there is any huge drastic loss to the advertising agency. They will always find a different consumer.

Brands have been evolving over the last 10-15 years. They're taking responsibility in every way from floor packaging to using environmentally friendly material to recycling stuff. The consumer too has evolved with the brand and is consciously aware of what's good and bad. That's why you see that many brands have changed their philosophy and product. They have to keep up with consumers or at least be ahead of them.

Sometimes, it's the brand following the consumer and sometimes consumers following the brand who may decide to change their lifestyle because the brand is saying so. Social media is there but I don't think that's the reason for a brand to make such a big pledge.”

Lloyd Mathias
Lloyd Mathias

Lloyd Mathias, Marketing & Business Strategist -

“I think as market rulers, it's appropriate for Unilever to take the first step. I would expect that other companies like Nestle, P&G, Pepsi and Coke will have to follow if they haven't done so, for the simple reason that it's responsible. Companies have to emphasise that they're responsible citizens and should be seen doing the right thing. And proactively not marketing to the children is a very positive step. Having said that, Pepsi and Coke some years back voluntarily decided not to advertise on children's channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. There are a lot of moves globally from larger multinational companies to ensure that they don't influence younger people unfairly, especially with products that can be harmful to their health. I am certain it will put pressure on other companies to follow suit.

In the short term, there might be a little bit of impact on advertising but in the long term, considering the fact that the company is doing something positive and responsible for young kids, it will work in their favour. It is the right method and it won't hurt the advertising space overall. However, young people have their ways of finding out things. This pledge doesn't mean they won't get to know about products like ice cream. They won't be alienated.

Companies are very keen on signalling that they are responsible. However, despite all these announcements and the pledges in 2010 and 2016, there would be a few companies who may not be following the pledge in its true spirit. They may, through third-party or distributors, still be targeting those kids. It's important to keep an eye on such violations and one would expect large companies to follow these pledges not just in letter but in true spirit.

In the age of social media, brands have to be careful not to break promises because you are bound to be called out. People are happy to embarrass large companies online. So, companies need to talk about how strictly they are adhering to this pledge.”

Rashmi Berry
Rashmi Berry

Rashmi Berry, Managing Partner, BrandStory Consult -

“The ‘Responsibly made for Kids’ initiative by Unilever is literally what the doctor ordered. More so for India, which is projected to have the second-largest number of obese children in the world by 2030.

The pledge in itself is not unique. It’s very much in line with the International Food & Beverage Alliance’s (IFBA) voluntary commitments with respect to marketing and advertising targeted at children as per WHO guidelines. And has been adopted by most global leaders including Coca-Cola, Danone, Ferrero, Kellogg, Mars, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Nestle among others.

However, what is heartening about the initiative is the clear substantiation of what ‘Responsibly made for kids’ means for Unilever in terms of ‘Responsibly Communicated’, ‘Responsibly Sold’ and 'Responsibly Developed’ along with the commitment to a timeline, mandatory training, and third-party audits. This shows true intent, clear actions and a desire for real outcomes.

This should also deliver favourable business and brand outcomes with rising levels of social consciousness and health awareness, especially amongst young parents.

As an organization that has set the standards for marketing and communication best practices, there’s no doubt that this will pave the way for other brands and organizations to follow suit.

While similar pledges have been made on and off by organizations in the past, most have lacked ‘heart’, largely paying lip service to a cause. The hope is that with the success of this initiative, more brands and organizations will authentically commit to a higher purpose, putting actions behind words to deliver better health – to consumers and the business. ”