“Don’t eat our sauce more than once a week”, screamed the Daily Mail’s incredulous front page.
Mars Food (the pasta, rice and sauce bit of the global business) had published its ‘Health and Wellbeing Ambition’ the day before.
Much of it was about making products healthier by changing the recipe (known in the sector as reformulation).
The communications team had placed a fairly uncontentious article in The Grocer authored by Fiona Dawson, Global President Mars Food, about how this might happen.
The plan was clearly to get this story out and give it a bit of a push. The expectation was probably that there would be limited pick-up in mainstream media.
But in the febrile atmosphere following the Chancellor’s announcement of a “Sugar Tax” in the budget, any pronouncement by a big food and drinks company can erupt.
There was a single line in the Grocer article quite far down saying that Mars would “make it easier for people to understand which foods are to be eaten occasionally”.
On the company website, a promise was published to help consumers choose between “everyday” and “occasional” options.
The published plan only covered Mars Food, so doesn’t apply to the chocolate or sweets businesses whose brands include M&Ms, Snickers and Starburst.
Most of the Mars Food portfolio is actually seen as relatively healthy. But it then emerged that Dolmio pasta sauce was to be branded an “occasional” choice, with so much sugar that it should probably only be on the dinner table once a week.
Once they heard that, the UK newspapers piled in. A major food company was actually advising customers not to consume its products. At least, not every day.
The Mail front page splash, and coverage too from the Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and Independent, ensured the story was picked up by the BBC and dozens of other news providers. AP and Reuters also wrote it up, providing a significant international push.
Twitter was briefly ablaze with argument about when and whether consumers should have their weekly “Dolmio Day”.
Within 24 hours, not only had all major news organisations in the UK covered the announcement, but it had been reported all over the world – including pieces in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, CNBC and ABC News to name but a few.
Mars Food may have been absolutely gobsmacked by the volume of global coverage. But many in the health lobby welcomed the announcement with the National Obesity Forum describing it as “hugely unusual but very imaginative”.
In assessing the impact, Mars Food will have to measure positives and negatives and come to a view.
On the one hand, Mars has shown leadership. By taking a stand on labelling it has taken some of the pressure off delivering on reformulation. The message has been sent out loud and clear to customers and stakeholders that the company “gets” that the world has changed and it must respond. Some longstanding critics are making positive noises for once.
But on the other hand, Mars has drawn massive attention to the high sugar content in some of its foods, notably Dolmio. It may have further encouraged those who want tougher regulation on food products. If foods are not to be eaten every day, some will conclude that they should not be eaten at all.
In the current climate, any big announcement by a company like Mars can quickly become front page news. The commercial implications are hard to forecast (although I’m guessing rather negative for Dolmio). Longer term, Mars Food may benefit from getting this difficult conversation out of the way and demonstrating a bit of confidence in a nervous industry.
One lesson we can probably all agree on is that PR can be a powerful thing.