Clean labeling: Focus on what consumers really want

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Clean labeling: Focus on what consumers really want

By Jim Lucas, SGK Inc. - 04/15/2015

Boomers, millennials, Gen Z. Across generations and demographics, consumers are increasingly drawn to products that equip them with what they need to live healthier, fuller, longer lives. But product recalls, allergy scares and harmful additives present in many foods on today’s store shelves are of serious concern to consumers.

More and more, we’re seeing that when it comes to food purchases and nutrition labels, consumers want it one way: Clean. Twenty-two percent of U.S. grocery consumers would like to see improved labeling on packaging to help them easily identify more healthful food products, and less than 38 percent trust what companies say on labels, according to the global consumer trends for 2015 from international market research firm Mintel.

Enter the “clean label.” The clean labeling concept has gained traction in recent years, as consumers’ need for better transparency has grown and is unlikely to fade, given the FDA’s upcoming nutrition label regulation.

Unlike the term “organic,” there is no legal definition for the term “clean label.” Instead, it has, to a large extent, been determined by consumers. It refers to consumers’ desire for straightforward food labeling that lists exactly what ingredients are and are not in the product, as well as a clear, complete and accurate depiction of the product these people are considering purchasing.

Such a depiction is important, considering that while most consumers feel packaging nutritional information is important, more than a third (37 percent) are confused by claims on their food packaging, stated Lynn Dornblaser and David Jago, directors of innovation and insight at Mintel, in “‘Clean Label’ Is the New Natural,” a presentation at the 2014 IFT Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

But what does clean really mean? Unlike terms such as “organic” and “natural,” a definition for “clean label” is not a legal definition, but one that caters to and, to a large extent, has been determined by consumers.

And how might clean labels on packaging help build deeper, trust-based relationships with consumers? A clean label gives consumers a clear, complete, and accurate depiction of the product they are considering purchasing. It can incorporate several consumer-friendly themes, but there are key components that we’ve seen successfully applied across product lines in the food and beverage category by brands and retailers.

Ingredients that make a clean label are:

1. Accessibility. Consumers are trying to figure out what they are eating, but brands and retailers have not provided them with information that is easy to understand nor readily accessible. Therefore, a clean label should be easy to find and read, and should not require the use of additional resources to decipher its contents. For example, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets voluntarily participates in the Facts Up Front initiative and presents key data points such as calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar on the front of packaging for store brand products in a larger, easy-to-read format. A host of other well-known companies have also implemented Facts Up Front on their products, national brand or store brand.

2. Transparency. This is about putting your relationship with your shoppers and consumers first and “owning” it, for better or for worse. It’s an opportunity to do something refreshing and different while providing shoppers and consumers with the information that they need. If your product includes an ingredient that is not quite good for you such as added sugar, include that on your packaging and explain why it’s there. If you can do this right, you will gain consumers’ trust and ground on your competition. Remember, it’s not just about compliance. It’s about finding opportunities to pay it forward, not because you’re mandated to, but because it is what’s best for the consumer.

3. Simplicity. Consumers crave simplicity. They are inclined to purchase products that contain 100 percent natural, traditional and familiar ingredients. Marketers can expect consumers to buy based on not just what isn’t in a product, but also what is in a product. In this regard, Naked Juice got it right several years ago with labels that include straightforward messaging such as “5 Blackberries, 4 Raspberries, ½ Banana,” along with simple graphics of the ingredients on the list. And the brand includes an ingredient list that doesn’t undercut the messaging in any way. In this instance, the use of familiar, traditional ingredients appealed to consumers’ need for simplicity in the food products they purchase.  

4. Fewer villainous ingredients. Of course consumers want foods that are simple, natural, organic – the fewer harmful, villainous ingredients in your products the better. Some retailers have taken a leading role in this area, especially with their refrigerated and frozen foods. A great example is the Simple Truth and Simple Truth Organic “Free from 101” statement from The Kroger Co., Cincinnati. All products marked with the “Free from 101” label are literally free from 101 ingredients that customers told Kroger they don’t want in their food. Other private label brands have developed logos to highlight good aspects of foods that may not be known to have the perfect nutritional profile.

As companies experiment with new and engaging ways to incorporate clean labels on their packaging, it’s evident that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You don’t have to be perfect to make a lasting impact on shoppers and consumers. But you do have to make it clear to consumers that you have their best interests at heart and are using this opportunity to reconcile and refocus on a more meaningful relationship with them.

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