Regaining the trust of consumers is critical

by Keith Nunes
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Many consumers do not trust food and beverage companies, particularly those perceived as large. This is not a new revelation, but it is one that may have long-term consequences, particularly as on-line marketing and sales programs, interactions demanding higher levels of engagement with the consumer, become more important to the overall financial health of companies.

That the lack of trust is a genuine problem has become increasingly evident. Most recently, the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey released in early May underscored the issue. When 1,003 survey respondents were asked which sources of information would they trust the most to provide accurate information about the types of food they should be eating, food manufacturers ranked last.

The good news is such credentialed professionals as registered dietitians and health care professionals ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the ranking. More concerning is that fitness professionals, food experts on television, and health, food and nutrition bloggers are more trusted than food manufacturers, according to the survey.

In a report released this past January, the consultancy Deloitte, in conjunction with the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, delved into drivers influencing consumers, and the study’s authors highlighted social media and digital channel use. The tools have disrupted the traditional reliance of manufacturers and retailers on traditional communication and marketing, according to the report.

More alarming to the industry is the 2014 finding by Deloitte that consumers are 3.4 times more likely to have negative perceptions about food companies than larger companies in other industries. The tendency toward distrust was particularly true of millennials, according to the report. In interviews conducted during the development of the Deloitte report, industry executives from food manufacturing and retail said the issue of trust represents a growing challenge for the industry.

The Center for Food Integrity is working with the industry on the issue and has put forth several suggestions companies may follow in order to earn consumer trust. A key to such an endeavor is transparency, specifically in the areas of food’s impact on health, food safety, human and labor rights, treatment of animals raised as food, and business ethics in food production.

Yet providing information is not enough, according to the Center for Food Integrity. The dissemination of information must be done in a convenient, easy-to-understand way that demonstrates a company is putting its policies into action and generating actionable results consistent with its values.

While the lack of trust expressed by some consumers today may be disconcerting, it will prove to be even more problematic as on-line marketing and sales become more prevalent. For example, many companies, both large and small, have embraced SmartLabel, a program designed to provide consumers access to information about the food and beverage products they buy. The platform will include web sites, apps, quick reader codes and other elements. Attributes included in SmartLabel will fall into two categories. The first will be information companies are required by law to list on product labels. The second category will include voluntary information related to such topics as vegan, fair trade, dolphin safe, etc. This second tier of information will allow manufacturers to highlight their values as they relate to social and environmental responsibility and how they have been put into action. SmartLabel has been developed to enhance transparency, but one has to wonder how the program will perform optimally if users don’t trust the sources of information?

These issues loom even larger as on-line sales become more important, because generating repeat sales requires a higher level of engagement with consumers. That intensified engagement, in turn, depends on trust, heightening the importance for food companies of regaining and sustaining this trust over the long term.

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