Should HFSS brands be afraid of the dark?


The UK government is looking to introduce restrictive legislation around the advertising of HFSS products. But we’ve got a pioneering virtual solution that can help brand marketers. 


There’s no doubt you’ve heard the news, the UK government is set to turn the lights off on ‘junk food’ advertising. If it all goes ahead, TV and online ads for food and drink products that are high in (saturated) fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS) will be banned from being ‘aired’ before 9pm, and an outright ban of online ads will come into play by the end of 2022. That means ALL online marketing communications – no more brand websites, no more paid-for advertising online (think search and social, video, in-game and in-app, etc.), and no more social media content! Yes, it looks like the HFSS market could go as dark as the cigarette industry.

It’s an aggressive approach that’s been talked about for a while now, so the decision to push the ‘go’ button wasn’t too surprising. What is surprising, however, is how tough the ban is set to be. There are many foods under the umbrella that you would not have thought to be ‘junk food’. Sure, the obvious ones like pizza and burgers are covered, but so too are sandwiches and yoghurts, and possibly even avocados, marmite, jam and cream!

It’s a scary place for HFSS brands to be. The questions is, does it have to be? What can marketing teams do now that will ensure their communications will still be able to find its way to their target audiences when the lights go out? Our opinion: start rapidly collecting rich, consumer data. The specific details are yet to be confirmed, but the government has currently said that if someone has opted-in to receive communication from a brand (an emailer for example) then this would be exempt from the restrictions.

So, we suggest HFSS brands devise a 2-step plan immediately:

Step 1: Data Capture SolutionAim to collect as much rich data and encourage as many people to opt-in as possible in the few months before the lights go out.
Step 2: Personalized Retargeting Plan – Put together a highly-engaging retargeting strategy for when the switch is actually flipped.

Let’s start with Step 1. People are precious about handing over their details, as they should be. So, if you’re going to attempt to get your fans to part with theirs, you’ll need to create a campaign worthy of the exchange, something we’ve done (successfully) multiple times using a pioneering new Virtual Media called Virtual Atoms (VA’s).

These smart digital assets (NFTs) are a Virtual Media, built on a blockchain platform, that have the ability to revolutionise the way you connect with your customers. Imagine being able to distribute infinite digital tokens and experiences to engage with your audience virtually on a one-to-one basis. Imagine those digital tokens could be designed in any way (as moving CGI or static digital elements) and could be programmed to be or do just about anything – a video, a competition, a money-off coupon or free sample, a virtual treasure hunt in the real world, and so the list goes on… Well, with VA’s you need to imagine no more, because they can be all those things and more. And they’re far more affordable than many other forms of digital media.

Customers can collect VA’s in the virtual world by ‘grabbing’ them in camera AR or map view, like the campaign we’ve just done for Benefit Cosmetics in the UK. They’re stored in the user’s web-based digital inventory, but they can be sent, shared, or redeemed for real-life rewards (like the 2-for-1 beer vouchers we recently did for Carlton & United Breweries in AUS). You can assign them any value, from pennies through to a million pounds, or exclusive access to events or experiences, and there are zero ways to replicate them. They give you the ability to create campaigns that can blow your audience away – in exchange for their very valuable contact details (which is where the social psychology of reciprocity kicks in).

We’ve built some strong brand love and had some real success with Virtual Atom campaigns, but the real test of a new digital solution is often when a client runs several repeats of it. At last count we had completed 3, 2 were live, 3 more were in the planning phase and 3 new briefs were on table!


Data Capture Solution done. Onto Step 2, your Personalised Retargeting Plan. The beauty of rich data collection is that once you have your audiences’ details, you can put together an engaging retargeting strategy. Retargeting, or re-marketing, has really been proven to work, and work well. The click-through rate of retargeted emails is 10 times higher than your average display ad. But it is generally a channel used for retaining your existing customers, not gaining news ones, which is why it’s so important to start your data collection now while you can still easily reach your market.

The thing about retargeting is that it needs to be done well. Having your customers details doesn’t give you the right to spam or stalk them into opting out. In fact, quite the opposite. You should be using those details to turn your fans into advocates with highly personalised, creative campaigns that go out of their way to surprise and delight, and, once again, Virtual Atoms are the perfect tool to help you do just that. The possibilities that VA’s bring to the “virtual table” are endless. You are truly only limited by your imagination.

The ‘junk food’ ban has had UK marketing teams stress eating for sure, but obesity is a global problem. Looking at a list of countries with the most obese populations, the USA is currently 12th, the UK is at number 36, South Africa 30, Australia 28 and New Zealand 22. Needless to say, our global team is watching No. 10 Downing Street with bated breath, as the likelihood is that where the UK’s regulations go, the rest of the world’s will follow. A daunting place to be for HFSS brand teams globally to say the least.

Change, like the ‘junk food’ ban, can be scary. It means we have to start thinking out of the box, being brave and taking the marketing roads less travelled by other brands and agencies. Luckily, Because is pretty good at that. So, should HFSS brands be worried about 10 Downing Street flipping the switch? We think ‘no’. With the right people at your side and the right tools in your marketing toolkit, there’s no need to be afraid of the dark.

If you’d like us to shed some more light on what Virtual Atoms can do for your brand to help you prepare for the coming regulations…

Author bio


With nearly 30 years of marketing experience, both client and agency side, I’ve acquired a rare perspective on brands and business: I believe you have to challenge things creatively if you want to grow sales. Consumer technology is reshaping our world, and it’s only the great brands that stay on the crest.