As I stared at a seemingly endless array of packaged chicken parts in a high-end grocery store recently, a mother of two strode up to the refrigerated section and decisively grabbed a package that promised “All-Natural Free-Range” chicken. “Yes!” she exclaimed to her kids. “Here they are!”
“Why those?” I couldn’t help but ask her, intrigued by her unbridled enthusiasm. She wanted this brand and its chickens, she told me, because these hens were humanely kept, and free of hormones, antibiotics and other bad stuff. What’s more, she said she believed the parts in the package came from the same chicken. Clearly, in her mind, the chicken parts had come from a happy, healthy hen roaming a rural field before being humanely butchered and gingerly tucked in the packaging she held.
Amazing. This articulate, educated woman was paying a premium for a “natural” product because of a dream in her head. As a marketing professional I was delighted — and more than a little dismayed. I politely let her move on without explaining that the breasts were undoubtedly from different chickens, that “free range” simply means the poultry had been allowed access to the outdoors, that federal regulations prohibit the use of all hormones in poultry, and that the only substantial requirement for “natural” chicken is that they contain no artificial ingredients. Indeed, this bird and many others like it probably ingested antibiotics. At any rate, there is no process to verify most of the claims on food labels. So who knows?
Not consumers. Shoppers are shelling out a lot of money for products they believe are good because of clever marketing, labeling and claims they don’t understand. Some of them may be as happy as my fellow shopper to pay more for products they believe to be better than others. It helps them feel good about the choices they are making for their families. And it helps keep food companies fat. But this isn’t going to last.
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Recently, we asked 300 consumers around the country about their knowledge and understanding of the foods they buy. To my surprise, 76 percent of respondents said they were more concerned today than they were three years ago about the food they eat. But only 30 percent of them could define the meaning of an “organic” product. A majority said they were concerned about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) — and those who buy non-GMO products pay a premium for them — but only 24 percent knew the meaning of “GMO” (By the way, all certified organic products are non-GMO. But a product labeled “non- GMO” isn’t necessarily organic.).
Is ignorance bliss when it comes to food buying? Not necessarily. There are signs of growing skepticism and label fatigue in the market. We found that 72 percent of shoppers believe some food labels and terms are meaningless. 12 percent are outright disbelieving of company claims. Marketers beware: How much longer will consumers continue to pay a premium for products with an unclear or, worse, a misleading promise?
With all the talk of educating and engaging consumers in a transparent world, I believe there is an opportunity for smart food companies to inform consumers more honestly about the products they sell.
This won’t be easy. Companies will resist. But shoppers like that woman clutching the chicken parts in the grocery store want to be informed and will appreciate being enlightened. And they will reward honest companies by buying and recommending their products again and again. Bullshit-free food marketing. Isn’t it time?
This post first appeared on MediaPost on January 12, 2015.