Marketing Genius?

As Carly at Gluten Free B has already pointed out earlier this year, probably the best way for gluten-free manufacturers to boost profits is to target non-gluten-free eaters. They can’t do this on the basis of cost because free-from is more expensive, and as Carly says, to compete on quality requires an incredibly strong product. 

Promising benefits is the ticket. Slimness is one obvious option. The gluten free diet’s efficacy as a weight-loss regimen has not been proven, and ‘proving’ it in any convincing manner is difficult anyway, as GF diets vary as much as non-GF diets. Cook up a vegetable quinoa every night and you’ll possibly lose weight; gorge on Mrs Crimbles macaroons and your scales will veer the other way. It’s common sense, but ignoring common sense is something the weight-loss industry does well and without shame.

Some free-from businesses have tried to take a leaf out of that industry’s books to varying degrees to push the weight-loss or healthy diet theme, but I suspect it may not be enough to pay reliable and consistent dividends, what with stiff competition from other diets – the Cabbage Soup, Atkins (overdue for a return), Dukan, 5:2, South Beach, Blood Type and whatever future-faddyness gets devised next. Besides, dieters are fickle, and an increasingly wising-up public can easily read the figures on the label: free from is often more calorific.

Where there may be more scope is in implying other physical benefits – such as sporting performance. This has the added perk of pricking the ears of the undertapped male market too, where weight loss is of more marginal interest – if you’ll excuse the gender-based assumption. And the pace-setters in this approach? Genius, in my view, who for some time appear to have been seeking to align themselves with sport in a number of sometimes subtle, sometimes less so subtle, ways.

The latest came via a tweet days before the Wimbledon men’s final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic:

Who’s [sic] #perfecttoast is this: a good slice of Genius toast will always win the match for him (hopefully!) #wimbledon

Coeliac David Johnstone queried this, pointing out that Murray is no longer gluten-free, and I followed-up by asking whether Murray had endorsed the bread, as could be inferred from the tweet.

The tweets were deleted.

Sporting Genius
Here’s a Genius press release from last year, implying GF can help stars reach the ‘pinnacle of sporting potential’, helping tennis players ‘ace’ their opponents. The language in the early paragraphs is worth scrutinising; note the use of the ‘collaborating with scientists’ line, for instance, to add authority.

Genius have tweeted links to articles from Runners World with titles such as ‘Gluten-free Meals for Better Running’, and ‘Tips for Running Gluten-Free’ – but failed to do likewise with this article from Runners World titled ‘Are You Really Gluten-Sensitive?’, concerning a small study which found that most non-coeliacs with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity were not gluten sensitive at all, and which cautioned against removing grains from the diet.

They’ve sent non-GF sports journalist Sue Thearle some products to try – she liked them, and so did her kids, so yippedee-yoo for them.

They’ve posted articles such as ‘Gluten Free Sports Diet’, which again is worth close examination. They pitch in with fear, first of all: wheat, they say, contains “a host of … unpronounceable ‘nasties’ such as wheat germ agglutinin, gliadin, gliadomorpin, aspartic- and glutamic acid, and enzyme inhibitors”. “The proven benefits of a gluten-free diet for competitive sport are now extensive” they go on, failing to cite a single reference in support of that eye-popping statement. In the final paragraph, “Nokak” (you couldn’t make it up) Djokovic gets a predictable mention, and the writers appear to assume coeliac disease and wheat allergy are synonymous.

Perhaps most interesting was their sponsorship of non-coeliac hurdler Andrew Steele, son of coeliac and TV personality and GP Dr Chris, in his quest to make the Olympics last year. In this article attributed to him, but very possibly not written by him, there is talk of “the science that allows the body to function better without gluten” (again, no reference), and interestingly about the psychological benefits of going GF – which a nutritionist speculated on in this readable piece from the Wall Street Journal some years ago.

Murray’s Toast
Genius’s marketing team, who I presume is behind all their social media and press activity so far described, told me they deleted the most recent tweets as they recognised they could be open to misinterpretation. They made a similar perfect toast for Boris Johnson’s birthday (in June), they said, and Murray’s was intended as “a bit of topical light hearted fun in the spirit of Wimbledon”.

Curiously, they left the equivalent Facebook posts intact. Here’s Boris’s toast and here’s Andy’s toast.

Boris’s toast is a slice of toast, you may notice, but Andy’s is specifically a slice of Genius toast. Boris’s ordinary toast helps him cycle around London – of course it does, as it supplies energy for fuel – while Andy’s GF toast helps him win a tennis match – as opposed to just play it. Subtle, and clever.

Gluten-consumers Andy Murray and Marion Bartoli winning Wimbledon, respectively beating gluten-avoiders Novak Djokovic and Sabine Lisicki, denied us the chance to witness what kind of a response free-from businesses would have given to two GFers winning arguably the greatest prizes in tennis in 2013. But perhaps the silence which followed told us more. The evil side of me wanted, say, Hovis to seize the moment – but gluten has such a bad name these days that even drawing attention to your products containing it may not be deemed such a good marketing ploy.

Perhaps unfairly, I don’t really buy Genius’s ‘light-hearted fun’ protest of innocence, and if questioning it makes me heavy-heartedly fun-less, then that’s fine. It’s also fine that Genius are promoting and marketing themselves, their business and their products, just as many of us here are doing the same – as I often do with my books, my writing and my involvement in free from awards, as you may do with your websites, your blogs, your supper clubs, your recipe e-books, your free-from products and so on. We are all just trying to get by.

But I think we all have a duty to try to play fair, to not stretch truths or mislead, to not add to the web’s misinformation about free-from and food sensitivity.

It’s something we should all watch out for, and not be afraid to question.

I’ll repeat my prediction that the ‘gluten free for weight loss’ bubble is going to, if not burst, then deflate slowly, and that the ‘gluten free for sporting prowess’ balloon could be the one to take its place. I hope some serious research is conducted in this area too. Mostly I hope that free-from manufacturers don’t lose sight of the coeliacs, or indeed others with difficult medical food sensitivities.

10 Comments

  1. glutenfreeb.com

    Thankyou for the mention! Glad you got to this topic as I didn't want to be a hater – feels like I'm always on the case of this particular brand, and I do think they produce some great products. They have also done a lot to push the boundaries on quality of gluten free products for coeliacs.

    I do think we should expect higher standards of our gluten free producers in their marketing though. In the day job I work with pharmaceutical marketing people – who are held to much more rigorous regulations, ethical standards and processes in terms of the claims and implications they can make about their products and the health benefits they give. It's forbidden to make a claim about a product that doesn't have scientific evidence to support it. Whilst in this case, Genius aren't making direct claims, they are making some pretty strong implications, and I'm pretty sure if they were held to the same standards as a pharma manufacturer, then they would be getting their wrists slapped and would likely be fined.

    Now should they be held to the same standards? It's tricky because they border the health and consumer markets, but personally I believe as a prescribable product they have responsibilities over and above, say, Hovis.

    Genius have certainly taken a step change in their marketing approach this year – reducing their range, and aggressively going after the lifestyle market. I'm more concerned about the ethics of their recent poster campaign and festival tour encouraging people to 'try a lower gluten life', and the blogs from people 'seeing if they feel better going gluten free for a week'. They claim awareness raising, but it's the wrong way to go about raising awareness of medical gluten issues – which can't be diagnosed if gluten is excluded. All they are doing is raising awareness of the product.

    Incidentally, the point about 'nasties' made me laugh – I heard on the grapevine that Genius has been delisted from Whole Foods due to the preservative nasties in their bread.

    Reply
  2. Emma Louise

    It is a sad indication of the world we live in that businesses creating these foods for medically freefrom customers need an additional target market to be able to make enough money Is it just an ideal to have the focus on the main target market?

    Reply
  3. Alex G

    I do agree with the points in your first paragraph. Although I wanted to stick to sport, while I was researching this piece I obviously came across their other activity. There's a 'go GF for a month' experiment described on their blogs, with the team from Innocent taking part. Also worth a read if you've not seen it.

    Reply
  4. Alex G

    Well, the main target market in this case is the 1% of coeliacs, but with up to 8% going GF or experimenting with GF, it's perhaps too idealistic to expect that the focus would be on the minority – though as Carly touches on above, perhaps we should expect more from the prescribable brands?

    Reply
  5. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    The sad fact is, it's easier to convince someone to buy/try a loaf of gluten free bread and see how they feel than to convince someone to get tested for coeliac disease.

    I have a few friends who likely have gluten issues, and all I ever tell them is, "keep eating gluten, get a blood test". As someone whose diagnosis was messed up by conflicting medical advice it does seem utterly irresponsible of Genius to suggest these "go gf for a month", "try a lower gluten diet" strategies. That said, I do like some of their products, and they clearly have a place in the market, but if they continue giving advice that could be harmful to the undiagnosed coeliacs out there I will take a very dim view of them in the future.

    Reply
  6. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

    Being realistic, a commercial operation which is focused on profit will pursue the market that delivers the best margins – so it is inevitable that, as Alex says, a Genius will be tempted to pursue the 8% of voluntary GF-ers rather than the 1% of those who, medically need to be GF. However that does not give them the liberty to make dodgy claims! And it would seem that Genius' marketing strategy over the last few months has been, at the very least, questionable.

    As GlutenFreeB says, health claims in the pharmaceutical or supplement industry (both also focused on profit) are tightly – and rightly – monitored and restricted. Foods which claim to deliver specific health benefits need to be equally tightly monitored and to be able to substantiate any claims that they make.

    Reply
  7. Alex G

    "it's easier to convince someone to buy/try a loaf of gluten free bread and see how they feel than to convince someone to get tested for coeliac disease"

    I agree this is very probably the case, and is part of the reason why I'm often in two minds about coeliac self-test kits, on the basis that at least self-testing is better than no-testing. The ideal is of course rule out CD first – but is it a reluctance to trouble a GP, or GPs who are reluctant to grant patients testing?

    Perhaps problem is that tinkering with your gluten / diet is just seen as normal and risk free these days.

    Reply
  8. Alex G

    There are quite tight restrictions on on-pack claims – eg cholesterol lowering – but I don't know if these apply to general marketing information. Besides, implications to make you, say, a 'sporting winner' are quite vague and unmeasurable. How can they be policed?

    Reply
  9. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    I think there's definitely a problem with the gp/patient relationship these days. I know I've been put off from booking appointments with my GP by the "gatekeepers" aka receptionists. But it goes both ways. Since being diagnosed w/ coeliac, I'm a lot pushier about my health, but I've still had health concerns that doctors simply will not do anything about other than prescribe me a weak drug that has been ineffective for 3 years. Their response has been "It could be an allergy to anything so we can't test for it".

    I think most people would be willing to see a doctor for a complaint if a) the doctor took them seriously and b) it wasn't such a bloody hassle, and you weren't made to feel guilty for wasting their time by using a service that is rightfully yours.

    Reply
  10. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    It would also be super nice if Doctors followed NICE guidelines regarding coeliac testing.

    (rant over)

    Reply

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