Mothers shocked about formula milk companies' marketing costs

Rows of baby formula milk powder tins at a supermarket in Singapore.
Rows of baby formula milk powder tins at a supermarket in Singapore.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Housewife Kay Park, 41, wanted to see a pediatrician, but on three occasions, she ended up meeting a formula milk company's marketer in the hospital clinic first. The representative from Dumex, she said, was "persistent".

"I saw her inside the paediatric clinic, just outside the doctor's office, and each time - perhaps she did not recall that she had spoken to me before - she asked what formula milk brand I used, and whether I wanted to try her brand," said the mother of two sons aged two and four.

"This happened in a clinic, not a supermarket - I think such an approach is overdoing it. I wouldn't be that concerned if it was just brochures or posters at the clinic."

While mothers interviewed by The Straits Times gave mixed views on whether they agreed with the companies' marketing strategies, most of them said the marketing costs should not be passed to consumers.

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Those interviewed were shocked and disappointed to learn that the rise in marketing expenses was a key factor for the hike in formula milk retail prices. A report released by the Competition Commission of Singapore on Wednesday found that between 2010 and 2014, the amount that all major manufacturers spent on marketing increased 42.4 per cent.

The competition watchdog found that heavy investment in marketing and research likely led to the increase in markup of wholesale prices, and this in turn, was the main factor for increases in retail prices - which have, on average, more than doubled over the past nine years.

Public servant Chiam Mei Si, 33, spends about $140 per month on formula milk for her 1½-year-old son. She said: "It's shocking that their marketing costs have gone up by so much, and that these costs are passed to consumers. They might be banking on the fact that mothers don't have much of a choice and want to buy the milk brand that works best for their children.

"What about the low-income families that need formula milk?"

Pre-school educator Ng Mingzhu, 32, who has an 11-month-old daughter, added: "The companies usually say that the price increase is due to higher R&D costs only. That may play a part, but I think it's got more to do with aggressive marketing. It's disappointing, but I guess they are profiteering private companies."

Most mothers interviewed said their doctors did not recommend specific milk brands, but cited instances of marketers from formula milk companies introducing them to their products at hospitals and clinics.

Lawyer M. Y. Yip, 39, who has two sons aged two and four, said she has been seen this happen at a hospital.

"They ask if you can do a survey for them, they get your e-mail address, put you on their mailing list, and send you e-mails about their promotions. And to thank you for completing the survey, they give you a few sachets of maternity milk for pregnant mothers and infant formula milk," she said.

"I didn't find the marketers particularly aggressive, and it doesn't bother me since I was waiting for my turn to see the gynae."

But Ms Park has had worse experiences.

She said her older son was fed Nestle's Nan formula milk at the hospital from the first day he was born, and she was not asked about her preferred brand. This may have led to him being unwilling to be breastfed and unwilling to switch to another brand that she preferred, she said.

Meanwhile, the Government has plans to tighten regulations on labelling and advertising for formula milk for infants up to 12 months, prohibiting the use of nutrition or health claims and idealised images on tin cans.

Most mothers interviewed said this is unlikely to affect the way they buy formula milk, as they rely more on word of mouth from family and friends, and online reviews.

Still, housewife Melissa Lee, 22, welcomed the move. "Some companies claim that they added ingredients mentioned in the label, but it turned out to not be true. To make consumers feel at ease, I hope the authorities would visit the manufacturers' factories and do research on the milk products."

But though Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said on Monday that "cheaper (milk) options are no less nutritious", it may take a long while before parents believe that.

Said Ms Lee, who spends about $190 per month on Dumex milk for her 16-month-old daughter: "I will not choose the cheaper brands. You get what you pay for. If they all meet the nutritional needs of infants, then why the price difference?"

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg