“We know that consumers need to change, that they want to change and that they are trying to change. So, why don’t consumers change? What is getting in the way of them changing” and adopting the healthier diet and lifestyle they say they want, Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, a distinguished professor of nutritional Sciences at Rutgers, recently asked attendees and the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Science Forum in Washington, DC.
“It is confusion,” she answered. “Consumers are very confused. In fact, when they were asked about how easy it was to figure out how to eat healthfully, half said it was easier to do their taxes.”
Bredbenner explained much of this confusion about what is ‘healthy,’ and how to eat well comes from “communication friction” that ranges from common marketing tactics by brands to government regulated labelling originally designed to help them understand what they were consuming.
By understanding the sources of communication friction and finding other ways to market better-for-you products, brands and consumers alike will achieve their goals, she added.
Make information accessible
The most prominent source of communication friction is inaccessible information – or information that is presented in a way that consumers are not able to use, Bredbenner said.
“Most nutrition communications are written at an eighth or ninth grade reading level, but four out of 10 adults in the US have a basic or lower reading level that means they are reading at third to fifth grade level or lower,” she said.
For example, she noted that most qualified health claims, which were developed to help consumers make more nutritious choices, are written at a twelfth grade reading level or higher. Another example is the use of unfamiliar vocabulary, such as insoluble versus soluble versus dietary fiber – all of which most Americans cannot define.
“But you know what, two-thirds know what fiber is. So, why don’t we just talk to them about fiber because we all need to get more fiber. So, let’s make it not so complicated,” she said.
She also recommends ditching “scary tables and graphs,” which seem like a natural fit for quantitative nutritional information, but she said half of US adults fail basic math tests, which means they can’t correctly read or interpret graphs.
Tell the whole story with sufficient context
On the other side of the coin, messages that are too simple can do more damage than good, Bredbenner said.
“We try to keep messages simple because we think consumers’ attention span is short, and it is, but often we make important mistakes that get in the way of communication,” she said.
For example, she noted, failing to tell the whole story about low-fat. “When the low-fat trend about 20-25 years go took off, we told people to eat low fat and they did, but what happened? They gained weight because they didn’t either stay with us long enough to hear the rest of the message or we forgot to tell them that calories count. So, we have to tell them the whole story.”
Hand in hand with telling the whole story is providing sufficient context, which often does not happen currently.
Bredbenner says many consumers today are distrustful of science because marketers and society have failed to explain that science evolves and can change over time. Thus, all consumers see are scientists changing their mind about what is nutritious, which can lead to a “reduced nutritional backlash, when consumers do the exact opposite of what we tell them,” she said.
One way to avoid this is to hedge, she advised. “Hedging is when we talk about, you know this is a really great study but we have to remember that it was only older adults that were involved, so it might not be generalizable.”
Lopsided coverage also can get in the way, she said. This can take the form of focusing only on the good or only on the bad. Attempts to correct for this by telling both sides are equally fraught as it makes sorting through all the information to determine a conclusion difficult for most consumers.
“A better strategy is the two-sided refutation, which is when we take what perceptions there might be or misinformation and the we refute those with facts,” she said.
Provide positive, personalized messages
Other strategies that do not specifically address consumer confusion but will help marketers better reach consumers are to put a positive spin on messages and to make them personal.
“Negativity is something that gets in the way. It is not necessarily causing confusion, but it can turn off consumers,” Bredbenner explained. “Positive content,” on the other hand, “is much more likely to be shared with others,” helping to extend marketers messaging.
“Impersonal messages also are a problem” because consumers will not actively listen if they do not think it applies to them, she said. “Personalized messages are extremely important because they are more likely to be read and remembered and motivate change.”
Create a clear call to action
Finally, Bredbenner said, if brands and public health advocates want to change how consumers behave, they must give them specific calls to action that are clear and simple.
“Poor instructions is where we really fall down a lot with our communication. We forget to give them clear personal benefit,” or the instructions are vague and unrealistic, she said.
For example, telling consumers to eat more calcium is not effective when consumers do not know how much calcium they need or where to find it.
“A more actionable message would be to say, next time you are looking for a snack, have yogurt. It will give you more calcium,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, “we must communicate in a way that builds consumers’ confidence, or in the literature what we refer to as self-efficiency,” so that they have the power to make real changes and the tools to stay on track.