In an effort to help residents make healthier food choices, San Benito County Public Health Services partnered with Hollister Super to create the Healthy Emoji Campaign. The program, which began in September after almost a year of planning, is active at the store’s two locations.
Hollister Super owner Chang So came up with the idea to use emojis to highlight nutritious food at a Retail Advisory Committee meeting, which includes entities such as the city of Hollister and Community Foodbank of San Benito County. So said that he reads news articles to look for trends in the grocery industry, which is where he learned that emojis were being used as tools to communicate with customers.
“The emoji program is trying to simplify a very complex set of information in a concise and direct and easy to learn [way],” So said. “It hits home. The millennials, the younger kids in grade schools and even grandparents are starting to text in emojis.”
While So loved the concept, he said the committee had to figure out a way to utilize it without promoting one product over another. After discussing several options, the committee opted to use a smiling emoji sign with a bag of groceries and the tagline “El Emoji Saludable Opciones Sanas Faciles” on one side, and “Healthy Emoji Healthy Choices Made Easy” on the other.
According to Data USA, 22.8% of San Benito County adult residents in 2018 were considered obese, continuing a gradual decrease since 2014 when the rate was 24.3%.
Erika Perez with CalFresh Healthy Living, another public health program, said a list of 35 items was created after a walkthrough of the Hollister Super location at 211 Third Street. Among the items on the list are 100% juice, low sugar jam, black beans, turkey and chicken hotdogs, extra virgin olive oil, and fat free and 1% milk.
Dietician Kristi Matthews, owner of Healthy Choice Nutrition, provides classes at the YMCA and participated in the walkthrough. Matthews was not immediately available for comment.
“We wanted to make it very simple,” Perez said, adding that guides were placed at the front of the store telling customers to look for the emojis.
So far, Perez and So have gotten positive feedback from customers. As for changing consumer habits, So said it’s too early to notice any significant patterns.
“People in the store notice the signs and maybe they are not necessarily buying that item, but they are recognizing the signs,” So said. “And that’s the concept of this entire program—if we can make somebody stutter-step or just pause for a minute, then the program is working.”
Public Health Services staff conducted a five-question survey before implementing the emoji signs. Of the 55 customers surveyed, 62% said they noticed the signs and promotions, with an additional 11% responding that they sometimes notice. Customers also said that whole milk was a healthy choice.
Perez said Public Health Services will conduct the survey again in January to see if more customers are noticing the signs and making healthier choices.
Along with the emojis, Public Health Services and Hollister Super are exploring other ideas such as scavenger hunts and quizzes with prizes to engage customers in identifying items on the list, and informing them of why some items are healthier than others.
“We have to take baby steps in getting people to understand and get comfortable with the program, and then hopefully that’ll spark a little bit of curiosity among the shoppers,” So said. He added that brown rice is healthier than white rice because it’s not processed.
With the Healthy Emoji Program in its initial stages, county public health and Hollister Super plan to implement all they have learned at events like food demos and health fairs, and to inspire other stores to start programs that highlight healthy food options.
“The whole concept is that if we are a community store, we need to protect the community,” So said.