Leading or Misleading in product communications: Communicate clear and transparently

This blog part of the blogseries ‘Leading or Misleading’ on transparent product communications around  sustainability and health. Read its intro [here].

The key to marketing sustainable and healthy products is making the story informative, but still simple and preferred. But how do you provide transparency, whilst not overcomplicating things? What we’ve seen in the examples of the previous two blogs, is that brands or products that are perceived as ambiguous in their sustainable and health claims are losing credibility and consumer trust. On the other hand: brands or products that are perceived to be transparent and trustworthy are getting rewarded. For your transparent Leader communication, we are going to pay attention to two aspects: what you communicate and how.

What you communicate
We know the importance of context. After doing product research you should be aware of the good and the bad that comes along when buying your product. As a leader in product transparency, you want to communicate the entire story. This also means informing your consumers that there could be more to the product claim than meets the eye. If there are any challenges or problems, you want to address them. Study by Accenture shows that 62% of consumers want companies to stand up for the issues they care about. A leader in transparency sets goals for the product or brand for improvement on these issues. They provide a roadmap on how they want to achieve them, with regular updates on how things are progressing.

How you communicate
It might be difficult to share the entire product story on the packaging. Therefore, you need to make the story as accessible as possible. A way to do this is trying to direct the consumer to a place where they can find all the information they need to educate themselves. In order to stay on the same page with your consumers, they have to keep a clear understanding of the story you’re trying to tell. By understanding and researching your consumer, you have a good sense on the knowledge level about for example sustainability. Try to avoid jargon and technical terms if you know that the consumer is not familiar with this. Don’t forget that good communication is a two way channel: you should not only tell your story, but also listen to your consumers and try to understand them. Make sure your consumers can come to you when they have questions or doubts about the product. Even when you can’t solve the problem; consumers might be more forgiving when they know you listened.

Doing product communications right
Verstegen Spices & Sauces and Fairfood has found a great way to provide the entire story of nutmeg to the consumer. They use blockchain technology to make the production of the spice nutmeg completely transparent. The nutmeg has a QR code that brings you to a website that shares all information about the farmer, product, supplier, the brand and the consumer. The consumer can follow the entire journey of the spice and all agreements surrounding the product: from price fixing to quality claims. All they have to do is scan the QR code with their phone. We definitely recommend to check out their website.

Doing product communications wrong
Consequences of not researching properly can also be very expensive. For example, the Canada Competition Bureau fining the Canadian arm of Keurig Dr.Pepper Inc. US$2.37 million for misleading consumers on recyclability claims about its single-use coffee pods. Dr.Pepper tried to improve the circularity of their products, giving instructions on how to recycle correctly. However in this case Dr.Pepper did not look too much into the context of the product. The claims Dr.Pepper made were stated as inaccuratesince outside the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia, most recycling programs don’t accept Dr.Pepper’s single-use coffee pods. They also did not mention the additional steps required by some recycled programs. Therefore, they misguided the uneducated consumer to think that the coffee pods could be easily recycled when only the tops were peeled off. Additional to the fine, they had to pay US$67,000 for the agency’s costs, donate US$630,981 to a Canadian environmental charity, and publish corrections online, in print, and on the packaging of its new brewing machines. In this case, the communication was there, however it was inaccurate due to the lack of research of context and consumer understanding of the claims. Dr Pepper simplified the context to such an extent that it was rendered false and resulted in a substantial fine.

After reading this 3-part series you should know a lot more on what to do, and what not to do when trying to be a leader in transparency for health and sustainability. Be critical when you go through each checklist to see how much of a leader you are. You might find that you’ve unknowingly been a misleader, and you’ll find aspects that you can still improve on to become a better brand with better claims. We can help you improve, just contact us.

Transparent product communications – a checklist

  • I communicate the entire story, placing my product in context.
  • Consumers have easy access to the entire story of my product.
  • I proactively share product values, and goals of improvement on today’s issues.
  • I communicate the roadmap on how we are planning to reach product goals, and share updates on things that are in progress
  • I actively try to avoid misinterpretation by avoiding technical terms or ambiguous claims.
  • I anticipate on the questions or doubts my consumers could have about my product.
  • I am being responsive to the questions or doubts my consumers can easily share.
  • I measure how satisfied my consumers are with the level of communication, and actively try to improve this.

Leading or Misleading in product communications: Familiarize with your consumer's way of thinking.

This blog is part of the blog series ‘Leading or Misleading’ on transparent product communications around sustainability and health. Read its intro here.

You know how many varieties of peanut butter there are available at your average supermarket? We eyeballed more than 20 varieties. According to one supermarket’s website we missed another 32. Consumers are faced with an overwhelming selection of products, each claiming to be the best one. But we do not want to spend hours on end in the grocery store, deciding which product is actually the best one. So, as a consumer we learn to conceptualize the world using mental shortcuts to make quicker, more efficient decisions.

Familiarize yourself with how the consumer makes assumptions
We make these mental shortcuts ourselves, sometimes unconsciously using inbuilt biases. For instance, deciding food is healthy because it’s labelled with “50% less fat”. We know too much fat is bad for us, so 50% less fat should be healthy. With some research, we find out that the claim less fat does not tell you anything about the nutritional quality, giving consumers a false sense about the product being healthy. What makes it even harder is the number of terms used in food products, and how many of them can be confused with others: “Low fat” is tended to be confused with “low calorie”, “organic” with “sustainable” and if not complicated enough: many people often relate “sustainable” products with the product also being “healthy”. The confusion happens because there is often no time or motivation to clearly research and understand what those terms really mean. Resulting that we go into the grocery store relying on the short-cuts that we’ve made ourselves.

Luckily, more people are more and more aware of the seriousness of global issues such as global warming, obesity, covid-19, etc. The advice consumers are given in making food choices such as “you should eat healthier”, and “you should know the impact of your daily choices” are all around. However, what is healthier? And what is the impact of my food product? We see that consumers want to choose responsibly, but find it too complex to do so, and therefore are requesting brands to help them.

Be aware of the risk of consumers overestimating your product
The consumer that wants to become healthier and/or consume with less impact are on the lookout for food products and brands that can help them succeed. It is important to understand that the less knowledgeable or less upfront motivated consumer will often categorize a product based upon the most noticeable claim or attribute of the product. The danger here is that it often results in overestimating the healthiness or sustainability aspect of a product. Research shows that this goes as far that when a company has a great image or reputation, such as Tony’s Chocolonely, consumers assume these companies also make “better” products in terms of healthiness and sustainability. This turns into a problem when consumers learn the truth about your product from other sources than your own brand. Consumers then continue to trust brands less to deliver on their promises, and they are quick to move on when disappointed. According to HAVAS’ meaningful brands report less than half (47%) of brands are seen as trustworthy, and only 34% of consumers think companies are transparent about their commitments. Ultimately, ensuring that you tell the complete story, whilst making sure that your consumer fully understands, will make the difference between being a leader and being a misleader.

Doing product communications wrong
An example of unknowingly misleading the consumer with easily misinterpreted attributes are the Veggie candies from Nicolette van Dam. If you look for Veggie candy, it’s the new vegan candy on the market made from vegetables and fruit. It comes in a box with vegetables on it, and it states to be 100% natural, rich in fiber, gluten-free, and only natural sugars. All words and visuals associated with the healthy food trends of today, which make the consumer categorize the product as healthy. So, is this a crime? No not really, the claims are technically correct and as Nicolette van Dam also states: “I never said it was healthy”. However, the claims on the product could cause a lot of confusion, as the short-cuts in consumer brains tells them that the product should be healthy with all those foodclaims and images. The reality is, Veggie candies still contains 7 grams of sugar per 15 grams of candy. Yes, the sugars are natural, however our body does not see any difference between natural or added sugar. The natural claim should not automatically trigger the short cut of the product being healthy, but it most often does. The consumer now assumes Veggie Candy is healthy, because Veggie Candy gave a lot of room for the consumer to misinterpret their claims. The result: Veggie Candy was rewarded with “Het Gouden Windei”, an accolade for the most misleading food item of the year. A lot of consumers now feel deceived. The feeling of deception amongst consumers has been researched to have a negative relationship with future purchase intentions, trust, consumer loyalty and overall attitude towards the product and brand.

Doing product communications right
Back in 2007, Innocent made the same mistake of misleading their consumers. The advertising watchdogs made complaints about the ad of Superfoods Smoothie: a blend of pomegranates, blueberries and acai berries, that had a detoxifying effect and contained more antioxidants than five average portions of fruit and vegetables. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the ad needed to be taken down due to lack of truthfulness, substantiation, and medical and scientific claims. For Innocent, there was only one way out: say sorry and become completely transparent. Fast forward to 2022, we can now read their honest story on the bottle. Innocent is now much more careful in how their claims can be interpreted. For instance, they avoid the claim ‘a great source of vitamin C’. This claim can cause consumers to overestimate the healthiness of the product. Instead, Innocent tells the consumer “It’s a source of Vitamin C, which contributes to the normal function of your immune system”. Also, on the bottle they recommend that the consumer should not mainly go to the smoothie for fruit and vegetable intake but that they should enjoy the smoothie as part of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet. By adding this, Innocent puts their product in context and shares this in a way that is not easily misinterpreted. This builds consumer’s trust.

Now we know that context and consumer perception are important to research when you want to become a leader in transparency. If you do, you have all the information needed to start communicating as a leader in transparency. In the 3rd and last part of this rubric you can read about how to tell the product’s entire story (the good and the bad) but still make sure that it’s simple, digestible, and accessible information for the consumer.

Know your consumer - a checklist

  • I am aware of the demographics of my consumers.
  • I am aware on the knowledge level of my consumers on sustainability and health
  • I understand the different ways my claims can be interpreted by the consumer.
  • I understand the way my product is perceived by consumers, and it’s in line with the true story.