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Exploring claims and certifications from the consumer perspective

Consumers do not need to understand all the details of a labeling program, but they do need to know just enough to understand the value of the label.

Third-party labeling programs such as organic, non-GMO, animal welfare and Fair Trade can involve some pretty complex standards. And unless a consumer happens to be an expert, a lot of the complicated standards a company must meet to earn a certification may be completely lost on shoppers, even the more educated ones. The reality is consumers do not need to understand all the details of a labeling program, but they do need to know just enough to understand the value of the label so they’ll be willing to look for it and also, perhaps, pay a bit more for it.

While recently shopping with a woman in her mid-20s in San Francisco, she expressed her desire to purchase non-GMO products. She was picking up non-GMO vitamins, orange juice, meat and snacks. When asked, “How can you tell if something is non-GMO versus GMO?” she said she looks for the Non-GMO Project Verified label on product packaging. I then asked her to explain why she avoids GMOs in products, to which I got a blank stare, and this comment: “Well, I know it’s something that has been genetically modified and that cannot be natural, right? So I’m wanting to stick to as natural as possible.”

It’s pretty clear this consumer is no expert on GMO, yet she was still spending money on non-GMO-labeled products. As it turns out, this consumer had felt good old-fashioned peer pressure over the past few years that made her think she needed to buy non-GMO products to keep up and on trend with her network of friends and people she knows in real life, as well as those she follows online. She shared some of the food, wellness and lifestyle bloggers she follows on Instagram and, sure enough, several frequently promote avoiding GMOs. She’s consumed similar content and messaging over and over, and it clicked for her, which translated into this consumer proactively seeking out the Non-GMO Project’s verification label on products.

During a shop-along in Washington, D.C., with a single man in his mid-30s, I discovered his preference for buying products as a means of “showing off” to friends when he entertains in his home. He had a very “meat forward” diet and relished terminology such as “dry aged,” “grass fed,” “grass finished,” “humanely raised” and “wild caught.” Sure enough, he was putting products into his shopping cart that had labels like Global Animal Partnership animal welfare certified and Marine Stewardship Council certification for wild-caught fish.

While he appeared to have done some of his own research on these topics, I wondered how he had initially learned about them. He told me he got his start into “buying better quality meats and fish” when he first started shopping at Whole Foods Market after college. He said a mix of store communications in the meat and seafood departments, plus conversations here and there with store staff, had convinced him to focus on these attributes and labels.

Now, because he has taken the time to learn about something and invest in it financially, he wants to share his knowledge and get some credit for it. When he has guests for dinner in his home, he gets satisfaction out of explaining where the meat or fish came from, how it was raised and how he prepared it.

“When you have exceptional food and you also try to do a good job cooking it, that’s something special that’s worth a mention, as opposed to just throwing down a plate of food and saying nothing other than it tastes good,” he said. “I cannot un-know what I now know about food, so I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned.”

So how do brands better communicate the standards of their labeling programs to consumers so they can drive more demand for consumers to buy labeled products? Instead of trying to make consumers understand complex standards like single harvest honey, what enrichments are for beef cattle, or what regenerative farming is, show them the exact opposite. If your standards are hard to explain, simplify them and show what the product reality is if it does not meet your standards.

If you have a label that validates livestock eat 100% grass, show them what livestock and their meat is like when they’re not raised on grass, but instead grain. Apply a “this, not that” approach to some of the imagery in consumer communications.

Learn more about effectively communicating the value of labeling programs to consumers from Lisa Mabe during the “Claims & Certifications: What Do They Mean and Who Cares?” session on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 9 a.m., at SupplySide West in Las Vegas.

Hear Mabe preview the session by listening to “The impact of third-party certifications on shopping behaviors” podcast.

Lisa Mabe-Konstantopoulos is CEO of Green Purse PR (greenpursepr.com), a boutique research and public relations consultancy based Washington, D.C., serving the natural products industry. Mabe-Konstantopoulos is an award-winning public relations expert with recognized expertise in marketing to women, shopper research and social communications. Mabe-Konstantopoulos has over 14 years experience working with companies around the world, such as KeHE Distributors, Saffron Road, OBE Organic and Edible Arrangements.

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