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Claims and certifications: What do they mean and who cares?

Brands are investing in third-party certifications to meet consumer demand for validated health products, yet it’s apparent that consumers don’t have a clear understanding of certifications or what they stand for.

Many brands worldwide are going through the effort to earn third-party certifications to meet consumer demand for responsibly-sourced, sustainable products that are true to their health claims. Leading players are stepping up, and as an industry committed to substantiated and transparent health, we want to see them receive the recognition that they deserve. This is largely dependent on the consumer’s understanding of certifications and the perceived value attached—an educational responsibility that sits on brands’ shoulders. 

In a dedicated two-hour workshop at SupplySide West/Food ingredients North America, six experts spoke on the topic of “Claims & Certifications: What Do They Mean and Who Cares?” We know they matter to consumers—it’s apparent through shifting expectations and purchasing decisions—but we want them to care more.

Eric Pierce and Amanda Hartt of NEXT Data & Insights kicked off the workshop with proprietary data and insights gathered through Informa Health & Nutrition’s consulting group. They concentrated on the industry-wide belief that certifications require monetary and resource investments, yet don’t drive purchase. That said, data collected from Natural Products Expo 2019 reveals that 78% of new food and beverage products launched carried one or more certification type, and half of all food and beverage products exhibited carried two or more certification types—which begs the question: why are brands going through the trouble? Pierce and Hartt noted that certifications in fact rank quite lowly in importance to consumers when making purchasing decisions—but while they might not have a direct relationship with sales, a shift in perspective sees certifications as a marketing investment instead. Certifications go a long way to assure consumers and B2B customers of product quality, brand value and commitment to trust.

Continuing the conversation on how much certifications influence healthy and natural product purchasing decisions was Maryellen Molyneaux of Natural Marketing Institute (NMI). She noted that while third-party certification seals have declined by 8% since 2014 amongst the general population, the top most influential factor, having grown by 2% since 2014, is the package label—supporting the fact that consumers, especially the LOHAS demographic, do pay attention to and engage with what’s displayed on a product’s packaging. Upon reviewing the NMI data that compares consumer understanding of familiar certifications against their likeliness to buy, ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ leads with a 350% growth in recognition since 2012 and a 43% growth in purchase influence since 2012.

An evolution of this certification understanding reflects consumer engagement with the products they explore at shelf. Consumer perception of claims and certifications is precisely the topic on which Lisa Mabe-Konstantopoulos of Green Purse PR spoke. A main concern she raised is that many brands invest in earning a third-party certification, but then don’t market themselves as effectively as they could. We want consumers to understand what certifications stand for, actively look for them, and then buy those label-bearing products because it’s of value to them. To get to this position, Mabe emphasized that it’s important for brands to understand what makes consumers search for labels, if they’re looking for them at all, and how they came to learn about them. Collaborating with label partners and ‘shop-alongs’ can help brands to deepen their understanding of consumer behavior.

Together with a label partner, Global Animal Partnership (GAP) worked to improve their certification labels with consumer understanding front of mind, as Anne Malleau explained. Alongside dedication to helping consumers make ethical and educated purchasing decisions for their farm animal-sourced produce, GAP’s consumer survey results inevitably drive the farming sector to uphold a level of standards. A paid survey of 439 consumers revealed that majority were more likely to purchase products with claims pertaining to enhanced quality of life, such as a ‘More Living Space,’ ‘Enriched Environment,’ ‘Natural Living’ and ‘Pasture Raised.’ In closing remarks, Malleau summarized that consumer lack of understanding leads to reliance on labels to help identify claims that matter to them.

Closing off the workshop was Jeff Hilton of BrandHive who spoke on the topic of ‘certification fatigue.’ Certifications tie back to authenticity, credibility and legitimacy—whether applicable to the end consumer or B2B customer. While customers want confidence in the product they’re putting their money behind, the overwhelming number of claims and certifications leading to confusion and ‘fatigue’ absolutely exists. Firstly, consumers don’t understand the difference between a claim, like ‘GMO free’, and a certification, like ‘Non-GMO Certified.’ Other claims, like ‘Clean Label,’ are known by the industry but have no meaning to a consumer. Ideally, claims and certifications should assist consumers with finding products that align with their values and needs, but too many just adds complex layers. Not every claim or certification matters to every consumer, and because consumers tend to shop for a particular health benefit, Hilton encourages brands to prioritize the most dominant claims and certifications on packaging labels—especially for products with multiple benefits. Certifications don’t have to be present everywhere; they can be allocated to live under a brand’s website, and others can be supplemented through meaningful storytelling that resonates with the consumer. Specification is everything when it comes to certifications.

You can check out all of the SupplySide West education sessions here

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