How can consumer brands use technology to encourage a healthy lifestyle?

Obesity rates in the UK are currently the highest in Europe, and food and drink brands are coming under increasing pressure to play their part in reversing the trend. Governmental regulation has also stepped up with sugar/salt caps, public health campaigns and initiatives to simplify labelling just some of the weapons in its arsenal. But as health messages frequently change (fat was previously considered the enemy now health experts state that it is sugar) there is growing evidence that despite these measures, consumers are still confused about how to make healthy choices.

Whilst brands like Coca Cola have tried to encourage their customers to make healthy lifestyle changes with campaigns that encourage consumers to stay active, Unilever has now taken a giant step further by piloting a wearable device capable of monitoring shoppers’ everyday habits and giving daily prompts on how to live healthier lifestyles.

The device, dubbed the ‘Behaviour Engine’ and designed alongside tech company Tessella, looks to take a holistic approach to behavioural monitoring: while the wristband records shoppers’ sleep patterns and physical activity, the accompanying app monitors purchasing behaviour, nutritional habits and other aspects of consumers’ lifestyles.

Of course health and fitness bands are nothing new. We have discussed previously some of the more innovative wearable devices on the market and also how brands such as Walmart are exploiting wearable tech to deliver savings to their customers. However this move is significant, as Unilever is one of the first food and drink brands to trial playing such an active role in improving consumers’ health and positively impacting on behaviour.

In many ways, playing in this space is a natural fit for brands in the food and drink industry. As well as providing richer data and insight into consumer behaviour and shopping and eating habits, it also allows businesses to respond positively to some of the criticisms levelled at them as part of the obesity crisis by actively impacting on consumer behaviour.

There are also further opportunities for brands in this sector; as innovation accelerates and the capabilities of wearable tech multiply, the ways in which brands can support customers are becoming ever more sophisticated and holistic. Some examples of the technology already in the early stages of development include Wello from Azoi which measures a user’s vitals, a shirt that detects irregular sugar levels, contact lenses that monitor changes in your retina, smart toilets to monitor vitamin intake and hydration levels, smart fridges that monitor nutrition and intelligent fibres in clothes that log pulse, breathing and heart rate.

For a global FMCG brand like Unilever, asserting their presence in this area could bring the brand even closer to their customers whilst aligning the brand with every aspect of preventative healthcare and healthy living, from nutrition to health products.

This approach is not without challenges, however. Evidence suggests that consumers are sometimes cynical of brands’ motivations when it comes to health messaging and often don’t believe brands have consumer interests at heart.

In addition, providing comprehensive access to healthcare data also comes with some fears around security and privacy. Brands will need to provide reassurances to consumers that their data is kept secure as well as convince them that the value of such bespoke services outweighs the risks.