When large helpings of information can be good for your image

Two years ago, snack food companies were in denial about any connection between their products and the general fattening of the population. Now some well-known names are toning up their online features to get their reputations back in shape.

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Nestlé’s Tip of the Month on its ‘Wellbeing’ site’s home page is “Eat according to your needs”. Oh dear, I thought, is that the best food companies can do to tackle obesity on their websites? After much digging among fast food and confectionery sites I discovered it is not – several companies are using the web well to defend their reputations. They should be – it is the obvious medium for transmitting (and spinning) complex arguments, and also for displaying just what goes into the food they make.
Obesity has been big this week. The UK arm of McDonald’s announced much lower profits, blamed largely on changing consumer attitudes, as confectionery companies said they were phasing out king-sized chocolate bars. Meanwhile, the film Super Size Me is still showing us what happens if you eat vast amounts of fast food.

From denial to detailed rebuttal

The McDonald’s site used to be notable for its resolutely rosy view of the world. No more – the only plug on the home page now is for the Corporate Responsibility Report, while the word ‘nutrition’ has sprung up all over its country sites. It is easy to be sceptical, but McDonald’s is undoubtedly trying hard.
The US site offers the stoutest defence. A Frequently Asked Questions page is straightforward, peddling hard the notion that “as part of a balanced diet”, fast food can be fine. Some of the questions it answers are sophisticated: “What is the status of transfatty acid reduction at McDonald’s?”. The site also provides a lot of information for health professionals.
None of the other country sites have this sort of detail, though the UK does have a link to a robust and amusing ‘mini-site’ about the troublesome film. This is tongue in cheek and effective: “The film is slick, well-made and yes, somewhat annoyingly, doesn’t portray McDonald’s in the most favourable light”. It then does some myth-rebutting.
Strangely, the link to this site is tucked away – I could only find it at the bottom of a press release – even though Super Size Me is still on general release in the UK. One of my hobbies is spotting internal dissent, as reflected in websites. I am reasonably sure this an example, with the ‘let’s be open’ brigade within McDonald’s losing out to the ‘just don’t mention it’ squad. Incidentally, there is also a response to the film on the US site, but it is buried deep within the press release archive.

Calculators as teaching devices

Another line followed by McDonald’s and several other food groups is ‘education’: tell the consumer exactly what is in the products and let them decide what to eat. And if they continue to eat too much, well, that’s their problem.
The web is ideal for this, because interactive devices can be used as “nutritional calculators”. McDonald’s country sites have an array of them – they are all quite different, which shows that despite its sameness on the surface the group is in reality a loose federation. “Bag a McMeal”, on the US site, is a particularly neat Flash-powered tool that lets you assemble a virtual meal and see how it scores on nine indicators, from calories to protein. You can even get a breakdown of each item. How much cholesterol would you cut out if you held the “pasteurized processed American cheese”? The answer is here.
I found less sophisticated versions of these calculators on other McDonald’s sites, as well as on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. Confectioners do not seem to have caught on to them yet, with the exception of Cadbury Schweppes, whose UK site has had its Nutri-Wizard feature for quite a while. As well as providing information on each product, it lists them by dietary need (egg-free, gluten-free, kosher etc).

Double interactivity

If you want to see interactive tools given a really good stretching – alongside all sorts of nutritional information – try Kraft. This is the US site: do not go to Kraft Australia unless you want a recipe for Double Chocolate Cheesecake made from Toblerone.
Kraft was the first company to declare that it was going to take obesity seriously, and it uses its website as an important propaganda tool. Two of the four main sections on the home page have health-related material. Kraft Cares tells us how much the company is doing to stop people eating so much, while Responsibility has a Nutrition, Health and Wellness section that does more or less the same. But the really impressive stuff is on Kraft Foods, where the Healthy Living section is bursting with interactivity.
The recipe search lets you look by “nutrition goal” – low fat, low calories, good source of fibre etc – and the recipes come complete with a “healthy living” comment: “Vitamin A or C, generally nutritious”. That sort of thing. Then there is a fitness plan, where you fill in all sorts of details and get an e-mail setting out your recipes for the next week; also an online diary, a calcium calculator and much more. On the whole I think I prefer the Australian site, but there is no doubt that Kraft US is trying really hard.

Implementation lets down intention

Which is more than can be said for Nestlé. Even though one its main sections is Wellness and another prominent link is to Nutrition, much of the content is weak. Some of the interactive tools are poorly thought out. The calcium calculator has such limited options that it is almost useless, while one of the quizzes asks the question “We need to drink 0.8l a day – True of False?” without specifying the liquid. There are 14 country-specific nutrition sites, but again they are spoilt by poor detail. The UK site offers the opportunity of seeing a nutritional breakdown of what we ate yesterday, which would be good except I didn’t eat any of the choices it offers.
Still, it’s early days. Two years ago there was precious little about nutrition on food company sites. Today there is a great deal. All that needs to happen now is for the laggards to catch up with the leaders.
First published on ft.com 01.10.2004

First published 06 October, 2004
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