Rabobank: What can big food companies do to rebuild consumer trust?

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Trust is one of the most influential factors when making a food purchase and big food companies are scrambling to regain it. ©GettyImages/Goran13
Trust is one of the most influential factors when making a food purchase and big food companies are scrambling to regain it. ©GettyImages/Goran13

Related tags Cpg companies Brand Food Nutrition Consumer trust

Big food manufacturers have increasingly recognized that their scale and robust supply chains aren’t enough to stay competitive and turn around years of little to no growth, and are refocusing their efforts on restoring consumer trust, says Rabobank.

More than one in three consumers listed ‘trust in the brand’ as the second most influential factors when shopping, according to PWC’s 2018 Global Consumer Insights Survey polling over 22,000 consumers around the globe.

Yet, it seems the food industry is falling short in the trust department as consumers remain unclear of whose interests big food companies are serving.

While there isn’t an industry standard ‘12-step program’ to regaining consumer trust, there are some clear strategies large CPG players are implementing, Rabobank executive director of food & agribusiness Nick Fereday points out.

Accreditation and certification

Adoption of third-party certifications such as Fair Trade and USDA Certified Organic began with small, niche brands, with food giants eventually catching onto the trend either by acquiring said brands or revamping some of their existing portfolio to meet consumer-friendly certifications.

An emerging accreditation to the mix has been the ‘force for good’ B-Corp certification given by the non-profit B-Lab, which aims to make a comprehensive assessment of a corporation’s impact on the environment, employees, customers, surrounding community, and other factors.

Just like organic and Fair Trade, B-Corp certifications were popular among small, independent brands then gaining traction with publicly traded multinational companies such as Danone North America​ earlier this year.

“Given the herd-like mentality of Big Food, we do not expect Danone’s certification to be a one off,”​ Fereday wrote in Rabobank’s July 2018 Talking Points report​, adding that Hain Celestial, Campbell Soup, and Unilever have all shown interesting in becoming a B-Corp.

It is still too early to tell if Danone’s transparent ethics pledge will be enough to restore consumer trust, but according to Fereday, for companies who are facing increasing pressure to demonstrate progress on sustainability efforts, obtaining certain accreditations helps maintain a social license to operate while maintaining a competitive spot in the market.

“In the case of B-corps, they have yet to enter the mainstream in the same way as say Fair Trade labels but that is why Danone’s decision to be certified is so significant,”​ he said.

However, there are also other ways to connect with consumers on sustainability and other mission-based goals such as Tyson Foods’ multiple environmental commitments including a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030, and General Mills’ pledge to sustainability source three-quarters of its top-ten ingredients, he said.

Can big food spread the message to ‘eat responsibly’?

While it can be easy to get caught up in the aspirational messaging of these environmentally- and socially-conscious company goals, the elephant in the room according to Fereday, is the nutritional quality of the food products themselves and their impact on consumers’ health.

The American diet is typically low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and higher in calorie-dense, low-nutrient foods, according to a recent USDA report​.

“There is clearly value in independently verifying a company’s ‘healthy’ supply chain with their company initiatives, environmental commitments around waste recycling, and carbon offsets," ​said Fereday. "But we are left wondering at what point this tips over into the quality of the foods and when will the nutrition facts panel and calorie count, count?”

Some of the prevailing consumer skepticism over food may very well stem from the conflicting advice on what to eat and what to avoid, according to Fereday. In fact, IFIC’s food and health survey revealed that 60% of consumers are confused when making food choices, adding to the stress of grocery shopping.

However, there has been industry progress both at a manufacturer and regulatory level. It may have taken eight years to implement, but the FDA’s rollout of mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus is a positive step towards helping consumers make informed food choices.

The revision of the Nutrition Facts Label to make certain nutritional information such as calorie counts and serving sizes easier to identify presents an opportunity for big foods companies to step in and help guide consumers on making informed dietary choices, according to Fereday.

Fereday added that perhaps food companies should adopt the same language and advocacy messaging as alcohol companies do, stressing moderation and responsible consumption.

“Is it conceivable in the future, food companies would encourage consumers to eat responsibly?”

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