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.

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