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STUDY: The Public Wants More Information from Food Brands

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It’s no secret that consumers are more concerned with the health benefits, purity, and environmental impacts of the food they buy than ever before.

But a recent Cone Communications survey polled more than 1,000 people to dig a bit deeper for specifics, finding that generational divides exist within these trends and that food brands have a fresh opportunity to define and differentiate themselves via consumer preferences. 74% of participants said that companies need to do a better job of explaining why they stand apart in terms of environmental concerns.

Some more key stats from the “2014 Food Issues Trend Tracker” after the jump.

Consumers placed safety (93%) and nutrition (92%) at the top of their priorities list, but…

  • 74% would prefer to buy locally produced products
  • 69% value sustainable packaging
  • 65% want no GMOs in their food

On the local issue:

  • 66% would pay more for local; 64% give “supporting local businesses” as the main reason
  • 39% believe local products are higher quality

83% consider sustainability when making purchasing decisions:

  • 43% want to be more environmentally active
  • 38% want to support companies that “do the right thing”

Women and Millennials are more passionate about these issues, with female shoppers more likely to consider local production and sustainability and young shoppers more interested than the public at large in buying from companies that produce organic products and partner with charities. (Interestingly, Millennials are slightly less interested in buying local.)

Finally, confusion reigns when it comes to GMOs: 84% want companies to provide more information but a majority (55%) are unsure whether GMOs decrease the health value of the food they buy.

Alison DaSilva, EVP at Cone, answered some of our questions about the survey.

What do you think is the most significant finding to pass on to clients?

The tracker reveals that sustainability is now a key driver of consumer food purchases, alongside health and family satisfaction. In fact, at least two-thirds of shoppers are looking for food that’s not only safe and nutritious, but locally and humanely produced, sustainably packaged and better for the environment.

Consumer motivations for shopping with sustainability in mind are both altruistic and personal. Food manufacturers, therefore, can’t rest their laurels on a single claim anymore. They need to identify and communicate mutual benefits.

Which brands are already ahead of these trends?

Whole Foods has been on the leading edge of food sustainability, and the company is still pushing these issues forward, as evident in its demand for all GMO products to be labeled by 2018.

Ben & Jerry’s (Cone client) prides itself on using high-quality, ethically-sourced products, and goes beyond its core product offering to advocate for larger social issues. The company is also transparent about its GMO-free journey, with a dedicated portion of its website featuring its position on the issue.

Silk products (soymilk, coconut milk, etc.) are non-GMO verified, and the company has been a big advocate for more transparency in labeling. Silk has also been a supporter of non-GMO labeling campaigns. (Silk’s parent company, WhiteWave, is a Cone client.)

Chipotle is front and forward in the sustainable, ethical food category, using nontraditional means to engage consumers around food issues, such as its “Farmed and Dangerous” mini-series and Huffington Post Food for Thought sponsorship.

But this more robust focus on sustainability isn’t limited to niche, values-based companies; consider McDonald’s and its sustainable beef commitment. Even the big guys are setting ambitious, game-changing sustainability goals that carry implications for the entire supply chain.

How can companies offer clarity on these issues in the name of both customer satisfaction and brand positioning?

Companies play an incredibly powerful role in helping consumers understand these issues. Partnerships with trusted institutions like Fair Trade USA (client), Rainforest Alliance and the Non-GMO Project help provide consumer assurance, verify claims and show real commitment to the issues as well.

Most consumers do not want to look very hard or far for those details; they primarily look on product packages or labels for more information. Being transparent on-pack is critical in providing consumers with simple ways to learn more about products’ manufacturing and packaging, and vague statements like “all natural” aren’t going to work. Claims that are too general and not substantiated with specific facts are less convincing to consumers. They want to know more, and they’ll punish companies they feel are misleading them, as we saw with the NAKED Juice lawsuit.

The importance of social media cannot be overstated, as there’s a lot of conversation about these issues happening online. Companies need to be a part of that dialogue with an authentic voice and transparent communications.

What sort of specific messaging and marketing practices would you recommend in light of this information? What would you discourage?

Transparency, authenticity and consistency. Companies must be transparent in their product production and packing; authentic in the claims they make about those products and associated benefits, and consistent in how those attributes and commitments are substantiated and communicated.

Greenwashing or deceptive marketing is to be avoided at all costs – and not just in how claims are worded, but in how the information is presented, from font colors on labels to website imagery. Our recent 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study has shown that nearly nine-in-ten U.S. consumers will boycott companies they feel are misleading them or acting irresponsibly (88%).

Do you think the new FDA labeling regulations will have any effect on brands’ ability to position themselves within the health food sector?

At their core, the new FDA labeling regulations are designed to help consumers make informed decisions and prevent deceptive claims, signaling a greater call for transparency across a broad range of issues. It’s likely we’ll see more efforts in the vein of the labeling regulations.

What do we take from these findings, and how are we encouraging clients to get ahead of the trends?

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