View: Can milk, food, drinks drop their healthy halo 'N' just be fun and be loved?

Last week, Cadbury Bournvita lost its crown in the malted drink category. GoI told ecommerce sites and other portals that Mondelez India-owned Bournvita and a few other brands should not be called ‘health drinks’ because the category isn’t defined in the country’s food laws. The trigger for this announcement was an influencer’s post about the malted drink’s sugar content last year. After the backlash, Bournvita, which is marketed as a health supplement for children, was forced to reduce sugar content by nearly 15%.

Children find milk tasteless. So, decades ago, a new category of milk additives was born. In the 1970s, they were called milk food drinks (MFDs). MFDs were of two types: milk substitutes, which could be had by adding hot water (Horlicks being the biggest), and chocolate-flavoured milk additives, or chocolate MFDs, such as Ovaltine, which was popular in the 1960s. Then came Bournvita, Maltova, Nutramul, and Milo.

In the mid-1990s, National Dairy Development Board unleashed the ‘Doodh Doodh’ campaign to give milk more oomph and vigour. While the ad and jingle added fun to milk, kids still wanted it to get more exciting. And the sale of chocolate MFDs continued to boom.

The cookie brand, Oreo, was marketed in the US, as an aid for getting kids to drink milk. The famous ad showed a mom teaching her child to eat an Oreo cookie: Open the cookie. Lick the cream. Dip the cookie in milk and eat it. What is left unsaid is that then you drink the milk. This ‘ritualisation,’ or making drinking milk a fun activity, became a part of how kids learnt to drink milk and eat cookies.

There is a whole new business called ‘Brand Rituals,’ where a brand tries to create a ritual around its consumption. Probably, Oreo invented this game.

In the 1990s-2000s, MFDs were being buffeted by pressure from brands that offered more ingredients. Complan was the first to let out the war cry by saying, ‘Complan is Complete Planned Food’. Complan initially tried to say that it is more complete than milk. You can guess where that went.Soon enough, wisdom dawned, and the brand was presented as a nutritional supplement for athletes and swimmers. One of Complan’s early ads featured the swimming legend, Anita Sood. Then came the ‘I’m a Complan Boy. I’m a Complan Girl’ ad, featuring the young Shahid Kapoor and Ayesha Takia. The brand pivoted to showing growth in height in its ads.Soon enough, there was competition from Pediasure. Let alone Complan, brands like Bournvita and Horlicks were also under attack from the newbie. Pedisure went to doctors and focused on picky eaters as its target. Incidentally, Pediasure‘s global campaign originates in Indonesia.

Brands like Bournvita have been changing their formulation and claims over the last two decades. ‘Tan ki shakti, mann ki shakti’ was a long-running campaign. That gave way to more substantial claims (backed by more ingredients). But as they added more goodies, these brands – and I’m not singling out Bournvita here – needed to keep the sugar content high, lest kids find the taste unpalatable. And there was your slippery slope.

While brands claim their goodness and health, consumers are not fools. They do apply their filter to discount what is being claimed. Action by government authorities and advertising watchdog ASCI will help tone down the messages.

Finally, consumers will decide what is tasty, healthy, and the right mix to give their kids. Unfortunately, refined sugar has emerged as the new villain, and these brands are all built on a foundation of sugar.

They have a tough act of balancing taste and goodness. Can they give up their healthy claims and pivot to become simple, fun drinks that are tasty in the broadest sense of the term? How will that affect their fortune? Will consumers run away in droves? Or will they recognise these brands and embrace them for what they are: good old-fashioned milk taste modifiers?

The writer is an ad veteran


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