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.