SBJ/December 12 - 18, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Brands aim for healthy-active consumers

Michelob Ultra has touted itself to runners, golfers
and cyclists as a brew that’s the perfect reward
following a good workout or a race.

Astride a stool in an Irish bar in midtown Manhattan, an attorney sat with his beverage of choice — a Michelob Ultra. While the tavern’s uniform of choice was a sport coat, tie and briefcase, he was wearing a warm-up suit and carrying in-line skates in a bag. He admitted to trying Westin hotels after they went workout happy this year. When it’s not 96-calorie, 2.9-grams-of-carbohydrates per 12-ounce serving Michelob Ultra, “Joe T,” who asked that his last name not be used, quaffs Coke C2 or Kraft’s Fruit2O.

“I really didn’t know I was being marketed to until I went to a friend’s half-marathon and saw all the Michelob signs,” he said. “There’s a lot more people like me than I thought.”

The success of Michelob Ultra demonstrates that. Just three years after its national rollout, it has grown into a top-10 domestic beer brand and Anheuser-Busch’s most successful new product introduction since Bud Light, the nation’s top-selling beer. Choose your nomenclature; Joe is either a “healthy-active” or a member of “generation active.” By whatever terminology, he’s indicative of a psychographic that marketers are selling everything to from beer to fast food.

By some estimates, 40 million consumers make up “Gen Active.” At its core, it’s a 35-year-old for whom physical activity is now more important than ever, since he or she has a growing family. They are competitive, they have better-than-average household incomes and, like some of the brands they use, they once worshipped at the altar of the Atkins diet but now see health as more than managing food intake.

When beer and fast-food brands can adopt a healthy-active positioning, you know it’s something more indelible than a fad diet.

“Brands are recognizing that the carb craze has become more than a temporary condition,” said David Gaglione, an associate director at the New York office of brand strategy and design consultancy Landor Associates. “For an expanding group of people, it’s morphed into a lifestyle.”

While on the surface, beer would seem to be the most non-endemic of products to this group, no marketer has exploited this group more successfully than A-B’s Michelob Ultra. Launched as a low-carb brew, it quickly changed course and attached itself to the healthy-actives, sponsoring golf, marathons and cycling events.

“It isn’t a diet beer; it’s for anyone with an active lifestyle,” said Michelob Ultra brand manager Mike Sundet. “That’s a much broader appeal.”

The claim of taste superiority has long been one of the basics of beer marketing, but Michelob Ultra’s marketers saw early on that lifestyle was more important to this segment than taste.

“It was a more unique niche for us to go after this lifestyle than to try to differentiate on taste,” Sundet said. So Michelob Ultra is marketed as a beer without guilt for those trying to lead an active lifestyle.

“This isn’t about saying beer is healthy,” said Merrill Squires, whose Squires Group agency handles healthy-active marketing for Michelob Ultra, MasterFoods’ Snickers brand and Lipton ready-to-drink teas.

“The rationale is, ‘You deserve a beer after you finish the competition and, by the way, Michelob Ultra is a low-carb beer that’s healthier for you.’”

It’s a masterstroke of positioning that sees Michelob Ultra portrayed as a reward to those who have sweated their way through a race — the brand’s low calories and carbs allow the indulgence.

Perhaps even more counterintuitive has been McDonald’s and its recent use of healthy choice positioning. While it has added healthier food in the form of salads, fruits and vegetables, its brand message now tells consumers that a balanced lifestyle of exercise and diet is essential.

“We have added some healthy foods to our menu, but we aren’t attaching this to any particular food item,” said John Lewicki, McDonald’s senior director of alliance marketing. “What we are saying is be active, choose wisely, eat a balanced diet. It’s as much about what you do as what you eat.”

McDonald’s promotes exercise with commercials
that invite children to go out and play.

Research by McDonald’s among women and mothers shows people get the connection “that we’re changing‚” Lewicki said.

“McDonald’s core brand values were created for and targeted at children, so aiming at exercise and health is not unnatural,” said Robert Passikoff, president of brand loyalty specialists Brand Keys, which has worked with other fast-food clients.

Westin Hotels has partnered with Reebok to build more than 90 on-site gyms and used them in the hotel industry’s first ad campaign touting fitness facilities as a unique sales proposition.

Playing off the growing concerns about childhood obesity, Disney is hosting an entire healthy-active summit at its Florida Disney World Resort in March.

When non-endemic brands can successfully adopt a healthy-active position, what can endemic sports brands do but get hyperactive? VF Corp.’s The North Face brand is launching six running shoes and an accompanying apparel line by sponsoring ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes’ attempt to run 50 marathons in 50 states, on 50 consecutive days. His attempt begins in September 2006.

“Whether it’s someone genuinely involved in the healthy-active lifestyle or someone that pretends to be, this is a psychographic profile that’s growing exponentially in reaction to the problem of obesity,” said Joe Flannery, vice president of marketing for The North Face. “Any brand that associates themselves with this kind of positive message can only benefit, unless it’s completely disingenuous.”

So could marketers put forth the healthy-active proposition on anything? Are we going to see a cigar for the healthy-active? Probably not. KFC’s brief attempt at claiming its fried chicken was healthy a few years back was cited as an example of disingenuous healthy marketing that won’t work. “Consumers are too smart these days to stretch credibility that much,” said Landor’s Gaglione.

Of course, that doesn’t mean more brands won’t crowd under the healthy-active umbrella.

“You’ll see more brands reconfiguring themselves with these values,” Passikoff said. “It’s an aging [American] population but at every age, a lot of us have decided our mother was right about eating well and exercising.”

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