The reason why consumers don’t trust large food companies

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — This week the chief executives of some of the world’s largest food and beverage companies and their retail partners met in Paris for the Consumer Goods Forum’s global summit. Many important issues were on the agenda, including health and wellness, climate change and the evolution of personal technology, but one issue that was discussed in the opening session caught my attention – Reestablishing trust with consumers.

The meeting was opened on June 18 by co-chairs, Dick Boer, who is the president and chief executive officer of Royal Ahold, and Paul Bulcke, the c.e.o. of Nestle S.A., who discussed the issue of consumer trust. Mr. Boer and Mr. Bulcke said renewed consumer trust will only come about with strong actions and commitments from the Forum’s members in such areas as health and wellness and sustainability. The Forum’s goal is to implement measures to reduce climate change and enable consumers to make healthier lifestyle choices.

While the c.e.o.s’ goals are laudable, they exclude the primary reason many consumers express distrust in the largest companies that manufacture food and beverages — Misinformation. Several weeks ago I wrote a column about how fear is used as a sales tactic, and the distrust Mr. Boer and Mr. Bulcke reference is a direct result of these marketing efforts.

It is with regularity that some food and beverage ingredients that have been used for decades are described as “toxic,” the source of such conditions as hypertension, or the cause of the obesity epidemic. Companies that use such ingredients are guilty by association and often portrayed as being interested in short-term gains at the expense of the consumer’s wellbeing.

Those people who propagate such misinformation are seeking to differentiate their products through marketing rather than innovation. After all, what is the point of paying a premium for a product manufactured by a small company that offers no distinct point of differentiation than its counterpart that is sold by a large, multinational corporation?

Trust is a matter of perception, and there is no better way to shape consumer perception than to create a sense of fear around a company, product or technology. In the past few decades such tactics have been used quite effectively to shape the debate around the labeling and use of bioengineered ingredients, the use of lean finely textured beef, the use of irradiation as a food safety tool, and to differentiate the quality of products produced in small batches vs. those produced using mass production.

Compounding the problem is personal technology allows for the rapid dissemination of information both factual and untrue. Consumers now are inundated with more messages than ever and it is next to impossible to separate the truth from hyperbole.

The Consumer Goods Forum’s effort to reestablish the consumer’s trust with the group’s members and the industry as a whole is admirable, but it is doomed to failure if the primary cause of distrust is not recognized. Sowing the seeds of distrust in a competitor is a strategic endeavor. Pretending otherwise will simply create a disadvantage in the marketplace and force companies to continually reformulate products in an effort to catch up to consumer perceptions.
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