Do We Still Believe in Food Brands?

Brand loyalty is a key part of business in America. Consumers who are brand-conscious are much more likely to favor one brand over another every time they shop, based on past experience, perceptions of performance and quality, taste, trust and more, and may even pay more for a product hat has what they consider to be a good reputation and to which they're loyal, even though another that costs less has the same attributes and performance.

Ketchup, for example, is synonymous with Heinz — even though there are plenty of competitors that taste as good or better, depending on your preferences.

Yet as more people are becoming increasingly conscious of what they put into their mouths, an article last week in The Daily Meal reported that many consumers are turning away from their favorite food brands and choosing what they perceive to be healthier alternatives.

Perhaps the millennials or the internet have something to do with it, but people don’t always believe in the mainstream brands they used to buy, which could spell trouble for commerce. This distrust has prompted healthy snacks to explode across product categories, and to stay in the game, mainstream are replacing high-fructose corn syrup with cane sugar, eliminating trans-fats, reducing sodium, sugar and genetically-modified (GMO) ingredients. By now, you probably know the list.

So does this mean the days of, say, Hamburger Helper are numbered? Iconic brands seem to be losing trust among consumers even as they continue to make inroads into the use of healthier ingredients, improve their sustainability and environmental practices. The Daily Meal conducted a nationwide survey, asking readers if their trust in specific food brands had increased, stayed the same or dropped in the last five years. Included were brands of chips, non-chip snacks, staple ingredients and condiments.

Its findings support the trend. According to survey respondents, every brand lost some degree of consumer trust over the past five years. Brands scoring well were French's Mustard, which only 9.6 percent of the readers trusted less, and Land O’ Lakes Butter (at 13.9 percent). Packaged food brands trusted least were Kraft Barbecue Sauce (39 percent) and Pringles (38.3 percent). The reasons for the loss of trust in such well-known brands varied with those who took the survey, but included concerns about quality of ingredients (when prices dip too low, people start to ask why, and grow suspicious of corner-cutting) and what is perceived as "overly slick" marketing.

There was also a thread of cynicism weaving through the findings about big food brands. A number of survey respondents noted that of the brands they liked overall, those brands hadn't been struck by any scandals yet. Yet? That's pretty disconcerting. Expectations are exceptionally high in this country, and with the need for increased food safety and security, transparency, increased regulations and more compliance issues, a growing population, environmental problems and the like, packaged food companies have a lot on their plates as it is.

But food companies are paying attention. Many are trying to get back into consumers' good graces with their efforts to replace certain ingredients consumers don't want, revise formulations and portion sizes, add new twists and improve overall healthy attributes. This is no easy task. After all, food is a sensory-driven, emotionally connected thing. What consumers value may not necessarily be what marketers value, and it's tough to deliver everything promised all the time. So it's more imperative than ever for them to constantly ask consumers what they want, and keep asking. Their brand's existence could actually be at stake.