4 Jun 2012
We are having an ongoing conversation here at work about whether consumers are capable of making their own choices and decisions around food, or whether there should be more regulation around claims that help influence them. There have been a number of lawsuits in the food world around various claims for “natural” food products. Google POM Wonderful and Tropicana Orange Juice for the latest. All lawsuits are coming from the growth of consumers that want to better understand the food that they put in their bodies, and brands going after them.
I happen to believe that consumers have free choice to make decisions for their own well-being. With that said, incentives exist for companies to make claims and promises that play to consumers’ preferences. Foods never describe themselves as unhealthy, bad tasting or expensive. Instead, positive connotations like indulgent, natural tasting, premium are used. As consumers gravitate towards healthier and better for you options, food brands are eager to capitalize and promote the healthier aspects of their products.
But when there becomes a world full of healthy claims, it can become difficult to understand which are substantiated, and which are just marketing fluff. A regulatory environment for product testing and claims substantiation doesn’t exist. Instead, it’s self-regulated, where consumers and competitors are policing the companies that cross the line. This has caused many brands to have to change packaging (as an example, Activia) when successfully sued. Now the legal environment is getting much busier.
My real concern with all of the above is whether we are losing trust in what’s real and true. The regulatory and legal environment that exists means that trustworthy and seemingly obviously healthy brands are being sued for false claims. Without a regulatory environment, it’s impossible to know which claims are true. Consumers read the claims which they recognize as being aggressive because of the incentive system, and then see the lawsuits accusing them of aggressive claims. The result is that it’s hard to rely on the claims and information that exists.
I’m not sure of the right solution. In a perfect world, full information would be available for people to understand. But nutritional information can be easily manipulated and misrepresented, and so consumers are right for being skeptical.
I think the solution is for consumers to ask the right questions and to seek out their own answers. There is more and more information-sharing between consumers, and less from company/brand to consumer. I happen to believe what I hear from friends and trusted “gatekeepers” more than I do from packaging. I do my research in areas that I know a lot about, and share appropriately.
This is an emerging area and is sure to get more interesting and complicated in the next few months.
DanielCheck out my latest posts here