Clean label is the trend of the year in the North American food and beverage industry. The level of investment companies are making to reformulate products and alter consumer perception of many foodstuffs from processed to natural, better-for-you may be unprecedented. At the same time, as companies are simplifying product formulations, they are embracing transparency by disclosing in greater numbers how ingredients are sourced and handled. Both efforts are designed to calm consumer concerns about the foods they eat and enhance trust in the companies that produce them, but clean label and transparency may be parts of a much larger trend that marketers must recognize.

Research conducted by the Center for Food Integrity, Kansas City, shows improved transparency by manufacturers and marketers increases consumer trust in food. A survey of 2,000 consumers conducted by the group investigated the attributes that are most important to consumers when it comes to gaining their trust. The attributes include policies, practices, performance and verification.

“The survey shows an organization’s practices are most important in five of the six topic areas,” said Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity. “Consumers want to know more about what you are actually doing in these important areas. They also want the ability to engage by asking questions through the company web site, and they expect straight answers in a timely fashion.”

Examples of the practices that matter to consumers include product label information, opportunities for engagement through company web sites, the availability to the public of third-party audits and even policies protecting whistleblowers. Companies perceived as transparent received high marks for providing information about the impact of food on health, food safety, environment and business ethics via the Internet. Areas of opportunity include the companies’ performance in responding to consumer inquiries and providing information about how they have verified some business practices.

Where this trend is heading should not be lost on food and beverage marketers. Yes, consumers are interested in learning more about the foods they consume, but ultimately they are seeking products that make them feel good about themselves and their decisions.

Research published in the December Harvard Business Review highlights an emerging field of inquiry about the importance of brands achieving an emotional connection with consumers. The article, titled “What separates the best customers from the merely satisfied,” highlights the authors’ findings that brands in the first group, including food and beverage brands, are anywhere from 25% to 100% more valuable in terms of revenue and profitability than brands that generate consumer reposnses of “merely satisfied.”

The authors of the article note consumers connect emotionally with brands when they resonate with their deepest emotional drives, including the desire to feel secure, to stand out from the crowd or to be the person they want to be.

It is easy to see how achieving an emotional connection with consumers may become a key strategy for food and beverage marketers. There are few products people consume on a daily basis that affect them in such a personal manner. In many cases, rightly or wrongly, the foods a person consumes, how they make them feel and what those foods do to their body will have a direct impact on how that consumer perceives themselves and, in some cases, how their peers may view them.

As the discipline of marketing continues to advance it may one day be recognized that clean label and transparency are a part of a larger trend. Such tools as the Internet, social media and many other forms of communication have given consumers the ability to respond to marketing messages. Those managers who listen closely may learn that a growing number of consumers view what they eat as more than sustenance and expect much more from manufacturers.