Martin Glenn believes big brands can guide the public through the health minefield. Julian Hunt reports

When the bullets started flying in the great obesity war of 2004, surprisingly few leaders of the branded food sector were prepared to stick their heads above the parapets and defend not only their products but the industry as a whole - and the positive role it can play in the health of the nation. Martin Glenn was one of the few exceptions. And in the year when the war on obesity generated as many column inches as the war in Iraq, the PepsiCo UK boss stands out as one of those who is not afraid to speak out against the new Puritanism that threatens to engulf the industry.
Earlier this week he was at it again,speaking passionately at a high-profile conference in London on the issues surrounding food and health and the government’s Public Health White Paper (see News).
But when we met earlier this month, just days before that White Paper was due to be published, Glenn was clearly concerned at its possible contents. Now the government’s thinking is out in the open, he agrees the language in its weighty tome is stronger than he expected, while the stuff on food labelling is far more aggressive. Nevertheless, Glenn is relieved the government has shied away from fat taxes or other fiscal measures. And he is just as relieved that the government seems keen to work with industry rather than legislate, and has adopted a sensible timeframe in which to agree solutions to the challenges set out in the White Paper.
“I guess I felt it would be like this,” says Glenn, who adds: “I would argue that some sort of common sense needs to prevail and will wait to see what the proposals are on labelling. Our goal has to be to make the breadth of the proposal on food labelling really wide to include all food that we buy. What’s the difference between food in a restaurant and food you buy in a supermarket?”
As to the best way forward, Glenn is warm to the idea that the industry should back the formation of a new organisation modelled on the Portman Group, although he does have reservations. “It would seem to make sense, given that in the White Paper there are multiple references to engaging with the industry. So, if we are in a new world where the government wants to opt for a third way - not legislation but self-regulation - then that seems logical. It is hard to do with advocacy groups such as the Food and Drink Federation.
“But such a recommendation cannot come out of industry - because our critics will say we are just trying to be responsible. It needs a formal suggestion from government. Still, it baffles me to think that food should be treated the same as alcohol.”
Why has the industry ended up at this point? Well, the answer stems partly from the fact that the army of new Puritans who make up the health lobby have mounted a pretty determined assault on the industry - with the aim, it seems, of banning everything. And that clearly frustrates the boss of a company with a presence in many food categories, not just snacks. “You can have healthy diets with treats in them…telling people otherwise will not work,” he says.
Glenn is just as adamant that big initiatives - such as traffic-light labelling or TV ad restrictions - may grab headlines but will not solve the country’s obesity problems, just as the latest diet craze from California may grab the media’s attention in the short term but does not actually help individuals lose weight. “Why are there so many diets? Because they do not work,” he says.
Instead, real change will only come about through lots of patient work over many years. The focus needs to be on every facet of lifestyle, excercise, education and, yes, food production and marketing. But it’s a slow process - boring, in fact - which is why it does not go down well with the industry’s critics. Yet it’s the only way, says Glenn: “A business is successful because it builds up layers of competitive advantage over many years. If healthy lifestyle was to be marketed as a brand, then you would have to do the same to make it a success.”
There’s no denying that the heated debate of the past year has made consumers more sceptical. But they still want to buy products that meet their changing needs - with convenience, health and nutrition all topping their list of demands. So Glenn remains confident that big brands are well placed to guide consumers through the food and health minefield. “What they say is ‘these guys have too much to lose if they treat us badly’. So for brands with integrity, consumers know they have a sanction if we mess up,” he says.
As a business with big brands in both the healthy eating and snacking sector, PepsiCo UK had spotted all of this at the beginning of the year. And that’s why much of its NPD is focused on a better-for-you positioning - with major launches such as Quaker Seasons, Walkers Potato Heads, Tropicana Essentials and a new variant of Pepsi Max all in the pipeline. There’s been some neat marketing too - such as the tie-up with The Sun to give away one million pedometers dubbed Walk-O-Meters.
It’s all about winning the consumer battle, not trying to curry favour with lobbyists, says Glenn.
Such innovation is a sign of how far PepsiCo UK has come since January when it was formed through the merger of Walkers, Quaker and Tropicana. The merger was all about accelerating growth not cutting costs, says Glenn. And he rattles off a host of examples of the other successes notched up by PepsiCo UK in its first year; things that would not have been possible had the three units still been operating under their own steam.
Take McDonald’s decision to list Tropicana and Quaker Oatso Simple - a deal, says Glenn, that required lots of co-ordinated selling and marketing. Then there’s the way the business was able to respond after its cereals factory in Rotterdam was destroyed when a crane collapsed on it - with Walkers’ engineering expertise being critical to getting a new factory open.
There’s still work to be done - particularly in merging three ordering systems and expanding the head office to accommodate the enlarged team. “I don’t want to paint a picture that everything has been perfect,” says Glenn, “But we feel very good at what we have achieved.”
And when it comes to the great obesity war of 2004, Glenn and his PepsiCo colleagues should be just as proud at the fact they have always led from the front.