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Case Analysis: Slippery Marketing

Saying that an oil is good for health is fine, saying that it is good for your heart needs some serious support, writes Sachidanand Madan

Photo Credit : Sanjay Sakaria


What is being discussed by Aparna aiyer and her family around cooking oils in this case study is a common story with consumers not just for oils but many other so called health foods as well.

The use of jargon or ingredients with health benefits or actors dressed as doctors, etc., are attempts to influence the consumer and used routinely by marketeers to build their brands. This is further layered through sponsored write-ups, cookery programmes and recommendations by “interested” nutritionists in news columns, magazines, TV shows, etc. The fact is that this strategy has worked very well for many iconic brands and is thus still used.

The largest misuse of cooking oils is in the area of heart health due to the strong connection of oils and fats with cholesterol and its linkage to heart health.

In the area of oils, food sciences is not as evolved as we are led to believe and even doctors and nutritionists are not as knowledgeable as they claim to be. It is fashionable for “elite” nutritionists and doctors to recommend olive oil as the best oil. Many “high society” families claim that they only use olive oil not just because it is recommended by nutritionists but also since it is the most expensive oil in the market and thus has snob value. It is another matter that most olive oil coming to India is low quality and that many Indian oils like mustard, sesame, etc., are probably as good and have definitely better value.
Consumers are totally confused as to whether ghee, which was once a ‘No No’ because it had cholesterol, is good for them or not? Most have reduced or given up its intake. There is no marketeer who is advertising pure ghee as ‘good for you’ as it contains HDL, which is good cholesterol and should be a part of your oil and fat intake.

Vanaspati, which was popularised as a better and cheaper option to ghee due to its vegetable origin with no cholesterol, is now known to be bad due to triglycerides. The same marketers who pushed it have now withdrawn their claims. But the urban poor, rural consumers and small eateries still use it as a matter of habit. No one has told them that it is harmful to their health. The damage to ghee has not been undone nor has the damage due to vanaspati been reversed. Finally, the party that suffers the most is — “the consumer”.

Similarly, mustard oil and coconut oil that were considered inferior to sunflower, safflower, rapeseed and soya oils, etc., are now back in vogue and acknowledged to be good oils. Marketeers who spared no efforts to denounce them have disappeared but, in the meantime, there are millions of consumers who carry some erroneous impressions about these perfectly good oils.

It is impossible for a common consumer to keep track of these shifting stands, which scientists, doctors and nutritionists seem to take and which marketeers twist to their advantage or, at times, even use to mislead.

A recent report by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health claims that dietary cholesterol has a limited role on body (blood) cholesterol and LDL. The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reported that “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum (blood) cholesterol.” Thus, the choice of oil may not have as significant an impact on heart health as we have been led to believe.

Advertisers of oils and fats have taken many liberties and made tall claims to promote their chosen oil so far as the benefits of ingredients/fatty acids in oils are concerned. What is never considered or communicated is:

• How much of this beneficial ingredient/fatty acid is changed or available after processing specially when the processing can be done in different ways? Some good and some bad.
• To what extent is the “magic” ingredient impacted by the type of cooking, that is, deep frying, grilling and so on?
• How much of this beneficial ingredient is finally available to the body and absorbed? Is it enough to give the benefit claimed specially if it is going to be lost in the cooking?

As long as the advertising is restricted to general health, the marketeer can take some liberties. But when the marketeers talk about curative properties or specific organ health, the responsibility of the marketeer goes up several notches. Then, the marketeers need to be pretty sure that sufficient homework has been done, that the product, in fact, delivers on its claims. The best way to do this would be a scientific clinical test. It is unfortunate but true that this is seldom done.

Some would even go to the extent to say that when an oil brand becomes prescriptive, it needs the same rigour that drugs undergo. While this may be an extreme position, it is important for a responsible marketeer to make sure that if their product is going to be consumed by people as a potential cure or to alleviate a health problem, then they must ensure that they have taken reasonable steps to establish its efficacy against the targeted ailment.

Most marketeers take the easy way out and either use an international positioning/claim or find their own jargon/ingredient to position their health benefit. The brand manager has no time or inclination to undertake a clinical test as that requires hard work and money, which they would rather spend on advertising.
It is easier for the marketeer to say that a particular oil is good for you and your heart, as it is being used by the Mediterranean Europeans who are healthy and live long. Wow! What great intellect.

First of all, it is impossible to say how Indians will respond to this particular oil without any clinical test
assuming that it is indeed a good oil. Second, to attribute good health of the Europeans to just this oil is itself unfounded as the wine companies say that this good health is due to wine, the chocolate guy says it is due to dark chocolate and the cheese guy has his own story. If all of them are right, then mankind has at last found the answer to live for 200 years.

What is likely is that the good health of the people is due to a combination of overall diet, climate, genes, etc. Most brand owners will be unable to back this claim by an international clinical test, nor answer this: What will happen if this so called “wonder” advertised oil is used in Indian cooking replacing say mustard oil, for sautéing or frying?

coming to Vidur’s stand on what food companies should do when a product is found to be not good for health or in the case of oils not good for the heart. This is a tough one but let us look at it differently. Say, if you give someone who trusts you an advice that you believed in, but subsequently find is completely wrong, would you not go back and correct the impression of the person who has placed his trust in you?

Saying that an oil is good for health is fine, saying that it is good for your heart needs some serious support but combining that with fear as well as doctor detailing wherein the oil starts getting prescribed to heart patients is taking it to a different dimension altogether.

Brands that have become prescriptive and have taken the position of curative heart health have most certainly a responsibility to correct this impression after subsequent scientific evidence points to the contrary.

Sadly, this does not happen
in India and, for that matter, does not happen in other parts of the world. While brands see it as their prerogative to create this impression and profit from it, they believe that it is the duty of the state to correct this impression when it is realised that it is not true.

The brand creates a new product, a fresh habit, weaning consumers from existing probably better options and when the falseness of its claims are realised, at best, it just moves on to reformulating its identity, but should it not help break the habit it created? Is this responsible marketing? And then we say, ‘Consumer is king’.

Over the years, we have allowed advertising much more liberties then it deserves. Is there need for a stronger system to ensure that marketing claims have greater responsibility and punishment more severe than a rap on the knuckle by ASCI? One would think so.

Finally, getting back to oils, it is rare to come across sensible doctors and nutritionists who advise that all oils are good when had in moderation and it is best to have the traditional, locally grown oils and rotate them regularly. Maybe one day, we will have a marketeer who will take this honest approach.

Also Read: Know Not What I Eat | Prakash Nedungadi | Dr Rakesh Gupta

The writer is a chief executive with considerable experience in the foods sector including oils

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case analysis case study magazine 07 March 2016 marketing