Food companies have been hit with a "big is bad" bias that often makes it difficult to earn consumers' trust. While the growth of clean labels has started to rebuild relations with consumers, what else can food and beverage companies do to regain trust?
After an era of secrecy – where co-manufacturers were never named, company plants were identified by some inscrutable code and country origins of ingredients were shrouded – food and beverage processors increasingly are parting the curtain, as well as showing their social conscience. Farmers' names appear, charitable works are trumpeted and the Earth is being cared for by large and small processors alike.
And they’re showing extreme concern for the consumer. Companies promise they're protecting consumers from GMOs, allergens, pesticides, carcinogens, synthetic colors, hormones and any other issue that could be a hot button for millennial moms or aging hippies.
"Whether rewarding a company’s fair-trade labor practices or zero-waste policies, millennials are the most serious about ethically sourced grab-and-go foods," says Chicago-based Culinary Visions Panel. From environmentally friendly business practices to cage-free eggs to fair-trade coffee, "this generation does not want its dining choices to have unintended negative consequences," says the panel's executive director Sharon Olson.
"Sales of conventional products are declining, while sales of products touting simple, clean, sustainable and free of artificial ingredients are on the rise," Nielsen (www.nielsen.com) reports. Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely to seek organic, non-GMO and hormone-free labels, as are households that make more than $100,000 annually, the firm adds.
"Today's consumers want to be better informed," explains the Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com). "They want to know what’s inside, how it was made and who made it before they buy. Consumers increasingly view sustainability and corporate responsibility — from organic ingredients to animal welfare to company treatment of employees and energy conservation — as aspects of quality."
Each consumer seems to evaluate different, often multiple, attributes to determine if a product meets their personal purchase preferences.
Food manufacturers are telling more in-depth product stories on their websites, blogs, packaging, advertising, social media, mobile apps and via the digital SmartLabel. The SmartLabel platform uses an on-package QR code, read by a shopper's cellphone, to take the consumer to the web to share detailed information on ingredients, sourcing and other issues that could be relevant to the consumer.
Some, like Hershey Co. (www.thehersheycompany.com), helped launch a cross-industry consortium called the Consumer Information Transparency Initiative, a group of packaged food companies that share ingredient and sourcing information online to regain consumer trust, notes Deborah Arcoleo, Hershey's director of product transparency.
Hershey also delved into the subject on its own. “We did a lot of consumer research [last] spring and worked to identify how consumers viewed transparency, what sources they trusted, the leading pain points, and the ‘must have’ data versus ‘nice to have’ information,” Arcoleo explains. The increase in food allergies was one trend that loomed large in many of the responses.
Evolving from clean label, clean living ranks first on a list of consumer trends from Euromonitor (www.euromonitor.com/usa). Mobile technology and internet accessibility play key roles in shaping a clean lifestyle, and clean foods are an essential element.
Such an additive-averse, minimalist lifestyle is especially influencing millennials and Gen Zs, not only in food, but in their choice of household items, cars and living spaces, Euromonitor discovered. These groups embrace mindfulness and betterment, favoring reducing harm to themselves, others and the world. Euromonitor calls them Clean Lifers. They prefer things in moderation, drink low- or nonalcoholic beer, preservative- and flavor-free carbonated waters, free-from granola bars and won't touch artificial colors.