Total Transparency: Inviting Consumers Inside Kelly Hensel | March 2017, Volume 71, No.3

As consumers’ demand for information about their food grows, so does the need for food companies to draw back the curtain on everything from how they source ingredients to the manufacturing processes used. Companies that embrace authentic transparency will maintain or regain consumers’ trust.

Food transparency
Consumers control the food system more than ever before, and they are demanding more from it. Gone are the days when consumers might select a food item from the grocery store based on brand name alone or without looking at the ingredient list. Today, technology gives consumers access to a wealth of information, allowing them to make informed choices based on their values and desires. Unfortunately, some food manufacturers have been unable or unwilling to keep up with the ever-growing consumer demand for information. The result? Consumers no longer trust the food system. In fact, according to a global Nielsen survey, only 44% of respondents strongly or somewhat agree that they trust industrially prepared foods (Nielsen 2016).

How do food companies rebuild trust and regain market share? With 94% of consumers responding that “it is important to them that the brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made,” the solution seems pretty obvious (Label Insight 2016). The time has come for food companies to invite their customers inside so they can see for themselves how companies source ingredients, treat their employees, and everything in between. But transparency goes beyond making information accessible; it needs to be delivered in the right way, at the right time, and with authenticity. Only then will food companies gain consumers’ trust and brand loyalty.

Who Do They Trust?
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of consumers want more information about the way their food is produced, and in an age of constant connectivity, many of them are seeking out the answers online (Sullivan Higdon & Sink 2016). “An increasing number of consumers are going online as their number one source for food and agriculture information,” explains J. J. Jones, director of development, Center for Food Integrity (CFI). “Prior to 2008, CFI research demonstrated that consumers’ primary source for food system information was television—local to be precise. However, with the rise in digital communication, consumers are feeling more empowered to find the information they need to make food-related decisions for themselves and their loved ones.”

More consumers are crowdsourcing information from a variety of places, including websites, friends, and family. Armed with that information, they synthesize it with their values and beliefs to form an opinion. So when consumers can’t find the information they want from a brand or are confused by the information presented to them, their trust in that brand and food company diminishes.

To top it off, consumers don’t always trust the information they do find. There is a disconnect between the sources of information consumers trust and who they hold responsible for delivering that knowledge. According to the 2016 Label Insight Food Revolution Study, only 12% of Americans ranked food brands as their most trusted resource for information about what is in their food. Similarly, food companies are at the bottom of the list (No. 10) of who consumers trust to ensure good nutrition (CFI 2016). Instead, shoppers look to their doctors, family, dietitians, nutrition advocacy groups, and university scientists to get nutrition information they can trust. And it goes beyond lack of trust; 33% of shoppers believe food manufacturers are working against them when it comes to eating and staying healthy, while only 13% of buyers feel like food companies are working for them (FMI 2016).

Figure 1. Who do you feel should be responsible for providing you the information about the food you’re eating? From Label Insight 2016
Figure 1. Who do you feel should be responsible for providing you the information about the food you’re eating? From Label Insight 2016
The public may not trust the food industry, but they do hold it accountable: 67% believe the responsibility for providing information about food lies with the brand or manufacturer (Label Insight 2016, Figure 1). Likewise, food companies ranked No. 3 on the list of who consumers hold responsible for ensuring good nutrition, following state regulatory agencies and family (CFI 2016). This credibility gap may cause consumers to look elsewhere for information, which means brands are losing control of their messaging. It could also lead people to abandon the brand altogether for a competitor that does offer the information they are looking for. In fact, more than a third (37%) said they would be willing to switch brands if another shared more detailed product information (Label Insight 2016).

Some companies may see this desire for more information as burdensome, but it should be viewed as an opportunity. Providing product transparency presents the chance for brands to emerge as the trusted resource consumers expect, and to take back control of their messaging. What’s more, they can grow market share by attracting new customers who were previously loyal to the competition simply by providing additional product information.

The good news is that the industry is slowly improving. More than half (55%) of consumers believe the food system is moving in the right direction, compared to only 40% in 2015 (CFI 2016). In addition, even though most consumers continue to feel there’s a lack of transparency in the food industry, the perception of food companies’ transparency is on the rise—from 19% in 2012 to 34% in 2016 (Sullivan Higdon & Sink 2016). This is likely due to the food industry’s willingness to be more open about its production practices and increasing media attention and dialogue about food production.