The trouble with healthy snacking & the role of key players
We swear we will eat healthy only until we actually buy a pack of healthy snacks or opt for the ‘healthy’ option at a café.
Not the happiest of images, but think of a baby: pudgy little fists clenched tight, roaring in indignation and flailing away as mummy tries to get another spoonful of healthy but dull food down the hatch. Maybe most of us don’t need to imagine this, having been exactly that sort of child. Anyway, in a nutshell that’s the typical Indian consumer’s reaction to health food. Of course, since we are all grown up and no one is actually trying to force feed us — unless they are, in which case, good luck with your nightmare of an existence — the way we react is different. We make noises about how everything these days is bursting at the seams with fat and salt. We talk about how sugar is the new cocaine, and how angry we are that this fact was kept from us for the bulk of our existences (a time during which we gained the bulk of our existences). We stare in despair at our expanding waistlines and chubby faces and pretend to laugh it off when annoying people tell us “You look so ‘healthy!’” We get irate about ‘fatshaming’ advertisements, even ones that appear in countries we will never go to, for products we will never buy. And we swear we will eat healthy. That is until we actually buy a pack of healthy snacks or opt for the ‘healthy’ option at a café.
At which point one of two things happen: Either we really like what we’ve just sunk our teeth into, in which case we quickly conclude the claims of it being healthy are 100% bullshit. Or we hate it and make sure we never cross paths again. There’s actually statistics to back that last line up: Ali Harris Shere, director – marketing, Britannia tells us, “The retention index (a measure of what percentage of people who try the category adopt it) among health biscuits is the lowest at just 33%.” And yet, in a global survey from Nielsen, roughly one-third of respondents thought it very important that snacks be low in sugar, salt, fat, and calories (30%). One-fourth of those surveyed wanted either low or no carbohydrates. And roughly a third are looking for beneficial ingredients, rating fibre (37%), protein (31%) and whole grains (29%) as very important. So, why has it been such a slog for brands in India, trying to sell healthier, typically more premium priced options? Here are three reasons they’ve floundered so far and three more on how they could make health work. Why They’ve Floundered… Blame it on low per capita consumption of snack food in India: While this might seem an unintuitive reason, it has everything to do with why healthy snacks and drinks languish while their more calorie-laden counterparts fly off shelves. Awareness about healthier options is manifesting in oils, muesli, sugar substitutes, multi-grain bread or atta. When it comes to processed packaged snacks, says Devendra Chawla, group president – food, FMCG at Future Group, “A share of plate in a typical Indian palate, could be anywhere between 2%-10%, not more.” With food consumption at home starting to get more closely monitored, these snacks acquire the status of an occasional indulgence. One where the consumer is absolutely unwilling to compromise on taste. And so given how infrequently people allow themselves these indulgences, there’s no compelling reason to alter taste for health. So, what’s to be done for a brand that wants to sell healthy? Be patient: health consciousness is likely to seep in, but only when indulgences form part of one’s daily diet and per capita consumption rises. Chawla believes, “Marketers bringing gradual changes in ‘in home’ consumption are finding success where the decision follows consumer acceptance of health benefit. It is a long drawn process, as endorsed by the leading breakfast cereal maker who has been at it for the last decade and half.”
“Health and snacks are at cross purposes with each other”: Praveen Kulkarni, general manager – marketing, Parle Foods admits this with the air of a man who has seen it demonstrated time and again. While Parle’s Simply Good range of healthy biscuits is about a year old, Kulkarni explains, “People go in for snacks when they want a sexy indulgent option. When you try to make things healthy, taste gets affected.” It’s a challenge Britannia’s Shere has been grappling with too. While Britannia’s Nutri-Choice is currently the largest player in the healthy biscuit market with a 70% share, industry estimates peg the category at a mere Rs 1500 crore. To put things in perspective, the overall biscuit market in India is an estimated Rs 25000 crore. Shere says, “The general consensus is that healthy food products are bland and boring.” It’s the reason both Parle and Britannia, acknowledged experts at getting snacks in the paws and maws of the Indian consumer, floundered with their finger food ventures. Britannia’s Nutri-Choice Multigrain Thins launched with fanfare but had to be wound down. Shere explains, “While we had crafted a product that was good, it fell short of the taste that people had gotten used to in salty snacks. If there is a product which matches the sensorial expectation, while being intrinsically healthier, we think it can be a success.” Kulkarni has a similar story about baked snacks launched under the Monaco brand late last decade.
Companies pull the plug too soon:
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” attributed to Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke finds incredible resonance in Indian snacking. On getting early signs that people aren’t particularly queuing around the block to stuff their faces full of healthy food, manufacturers quietly do away with these variants and brands They often leave in their wake irate consumers who suddenly find their favourite — or only guilt free — snacking option missing. Chawla believes that global diktats often settle the fate of healthy snacks from MNCs, while local players throw a hat in the ring but aren’t committed to staying the course. He believes, " Considering biscuits and snacks are highly penetrated, even 5% should give hope to sustain.” Logistic problems come in the way of success too: a brand that’s an expert at distributing biscuits may find finger foods an entirely different ballgame. People in the system who are not sold on the idea of diversification can also send a fledgling brand packing.
Marketers bringing gradual changes in ‘in home’ consumption are finding success where the decision follows consumer acceptance of health benefit. It is a long drawn process, as endorsed by the leading breakfast cereal maker who has been at it for the last decade and half.
Devendra Chawla, Future Group
Image: Devendra Chawla (BCCL)
And How They Can Succeed…
Reinventing the wheel on healthy snacking
Marico was among the firms that got burnt trying finger foods, with Saffola Zest. The brand instead actively pushed Masala Oats, a healthier option more in synch with consumer expectations. While Coca-Cola will have a hard time selling a health story around its flagship carbonated beverages, it has a shot with its recently launched milk drink Vio. Health snacks is a fairly large space, and not being wedded or obsessed with a particular format of delivery is a good place to start.
Firing up the tastebuds
Even convalescents are unlikely to go in for a product that tastes like it was created especially for them. Britannia is trying to broaden the appeal of its NutriChoice range. Shere says, “NutriChoice has an enduring belief in the role that small yet smart food choices can play in enabling people to get more out of their lives.” While the brand has a number of health products like hi-fibre biscuits, and diabetic friendly oats biscuits, it also has an indulgent side with cranberries, almond and orange. Shere believes, “NutriChoice is not just a brand. It is a verb which stands for “making the healthier choice”. This is what we want to build for the future.”
The big trick that many MNCs have missed is their snacks — healthy and otherwise — are mostly replications of Western formats. Relatively little attention has been paid to more healthy variants of what most Indians have grown up on and love. Future Group is taking what Chawla calls a huge bet in the snacking space in terms of both manufacturing and marketing. And in an earlier interview with Brand Equity, Kishore Biyani made it clear that Indian tastes and flavours would be front and centre. Chawla believes, “One needs to Indianise and get to the centre of plate. Our brand Kosh in oats is about to be launched and we will commit to large investment over a long haul to make this work, with our understanding of the Indian consumers and their consumption habits.” Given Indians love for all things oily and greasy, our tendency to smother pizza with chilli flakes, to ask for butter and ghee variants of already greasy masala dosas and to drown pasta in creamy sauce with extra cheese, it’s hard to imagine a time when healthy options will play a dominant role in our lives. But that it can at least become a sizeable and profitable niche is what the food giants, both Indian and global, are betting on. And they seem resolute this time around. Here’s hoping their resolve is stronger than ours. Now, who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?