At Natural Products Expo West in California this month, several major marketing trends stood out, including promoting clean labels, using free-from claims and plastering packages with a plethora of certification seals and badges that cover the gamut of issues. Walking the show floor it also was hard not to bump into bloggers, social media influencers and even a few lower-level celebrities who were there to promote brands – which really underscores the growing marketing power these groups have.
But how effective are these strategies at setting brands apart from the pack – especially if ostensibly everyone is using them?
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Jeff Hilton, the chief marketing officer and co-founder of BrandHive, discusses the benefits and shortcomings of these and other popular marketing trends used in the natural channel.
First on the docket is the clean label trend, which began several years ago as a movement to simplify products and remove unnecessary or undesirable ingredients, such as artificial colors and flavors. But over time, this trend has grown to include much more and continues to evolve so that industry is now on the cusp of what Hilton calls clean label 2.0.
Currently, “consumers are interested in what we call clean, but what they would call simple, renewable, more visible or transparent,” Hilton said. He explains that this demand in part grew out of consumers’ rising awareness about health and prevention and their ability to track their progress with wearable devices.
“All these things combined, in my mind, presents what I call consumer 2.0, which is a consumer who is really engaged and really informed, but totally confused and overwhelmed,” Hilton said. As a result, they are looking for products that are simple and made from ingredients that can be found in their kitchens.
“We as marketers have to translate that consumer language and need into what our products can deliver on and that is where the connection happens, and that is the connection that I don’t think is totally happening at this point,” he said.
The emergence of Clean 2.0
This focus on the ingredient deck is what Hilton calls Clean 1.0, and while these demands are not going away they are quickly dissolving as points of differentiation from a marketing perspective, and instead becoming attributes that are simply expected, especially by millennials and younger generations.
And as this happens, Hilton says, a Clean 2.0 is emerging.
“I think 2.0 clean is going to have much more to do with the process leading up to the sourcing behind the label. So, you have got the label and the simplicity and I think consumers’ antennas are up on that, but I think the whole story of fair label, fair trade … is what clean label 2.0 will look like,” he said.
The increasing role of users to promote brands
As consumer marketing demands evolve, Hilton says so too must manufacturers’ techniques for delivering that information. He says that marketers can’t simply tell consumers what to believe and expect them to blindly follow. Instead, they need to forge a stronger connection with consumers to the point that they will actually advocate for the brand.
“The paradigm has shifted. Consumers are getting their information from user generated content, I call it. It is things they read from peers,” or on websites such as Amazon that feature user reviews, he said.
“User generated content is what it is all about. People want to hear about what people are doing who don’t have a vested interested in the brand,” he explained.
This trend significantly diminishes the role of spokespeople, who consumers might view as a “paid shill” that does not bring credibility to the brand, he added.
Micro-marketing is the future
Tapping bloggers and micro-influencers also allows companies to more easily position products to meet the specific needs of different sub-populations, which Hilton says is critical for gaining mass market appeal.
“You can’t just take one product and say, ‘It is for everybody! What do you think? It does all these things!’ because millennials will use the same product for different reasons” than a baby boomer, he said.
As such, Hilton explained that he increasingly advises clients to micro-market. “Match a product with a particular segment and not try to appeal to everybody because I think fall in the cracks now adays when you try to talk to everybody because you don’t talk to anybody,” he said. “Segmentation is the name of the game today. It is matching that product with that audience.”
How useful are certifications?
Finally, Hilton talked about another marketing trend that is so pervasive that it is hard to ignore, but also hard to judge in terms of efficacy. And that is certifications and all the tiny icons that come with them that often line the front and sides of product packages.
“There is worth in them, but putting 20 symbols on your website, I think that brands are smarter to use fewer certifications and education about what the mean and what they are,” he said, noting that even with a certification as popular and prevalent as for non-GMO doesn’t mean consumers understand what genetic modification is, let alone what it means to be free from it.
“The symbols have limited value unless you illustrate what that means to the consumer,” which can be done easily on the product website or on social media, he said.
Ultimately, Hilton says, the key takeaway from all these marketing trends is that manufacturers cannot become stuck in how they communicate with consumers. The consumer is constantly evolving and so too must the messages manufacturers present and the way they tell their stories.