Leading or Misleading in product communications: Know the sustainability and health context of your product

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

Say you have a product of which you would like to make consumers more aware of. You believe it offers sustainable and / or health benefits of which the consumer might not be aware. How to translate this aspect of your product? It all starts with knowing the aisle in which your product is positioned, and the role it takes – or is about to take – into and after a consumer’s life.

Ask questions about your own product
As a producer it’s important to understand the product (category) you are putting into the market. It’s always good to ask a lot of questions about your product.  What place is it going to take? Does it provide an alternative, or is it something completely new? What is it’s added value? How will it be transported or packaged? How and where will it be bought? How will it be thrown away?

Think about your product’s (potential) dilemma’s
Mistakes are made when you limit what information is accessible: e.g., biological food products can be said to be more sustainable because it refused chemical use, but as animals are more likely to grace outside it also increases methane pollution. The same can be said about avoiding plastic packaging in food products: if you avoid, you might also increase the risk of food waste. It is important to understand these complexities before you communicate them to the consumers. Plus, in reaching your products sustainability or health benefits you are highly reliant use phase of a product and the behavior of the consumer. For instance, it is also up to you to make sure the consumer recycles a product in the end or choses a product that fits their nutritious need. As an example: A US survey showed that of 86% of people that took vitamins or supplements, only 21% had the nutritional deficiency for that vitamin.

Doing product communications wrong
With single use plastics being increasingly banned across the world. McDonald’s switched to “eco-friendly” paper straws instead. It stopped using plastic straws, even though they were recyclable, in all its UK branches. The restaurant chain uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, so the move to paper was a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic. Customers were unhappy with the new straws, saying they dissolved before a drink could be finished. As a result, McDonald’s strengthened their paper straws. When implemented, the company discovered that the new paper straws ended up being too thick to be processed by their recycling partners. Now, petition has been initiated to bring back recyclable plastic straws at McDonald’s. It gained more than 50.000 signatures.

Doing product communications right
Placing your product in context can feel unnatural as it can result in you showcasing a negative impact of your product. You might have doubts if that’s what you want to promote. Tony’s Chocolonely did it anyway; and they got rewarded for their transparency. Tony’s Chocolonely is known as a brand that makes an impact. Which is easily leveraged by consumers to justify their over-consumption of a chocolate that still includes a lot of sugar. Tony’s admitted that they were part of the sugar problem that the world faces. They encourage the consumer to educate themselves, and not eat too much sugar. Additionally, they stated that they support the sugar tax beyond sugary drinks, and that they were going to adapt their labels and running campaigns to help their consumer make healthier choices. This was highly appreciated by many of their consumers. Looking at their LinkedIn posts, this post had a response of 15.5k likes, where the average post of Tony receives 200 likes. It seems like consumers like to hear the truth.

The truth of your product

It’s important that you translate to the consumer this context into which your product does or does not provide a sustainable or healthy alternative. With less room for misinterpretation. When you recognize the truth of your product, you can translate it to your customers. This way, you are leading, and not misleading. In our next blog we will talk more about how to avoid being a misleader by considering consumer perception

Know your product’s context – a checklist

  • I am aware of the wider problems and challenges around my product.
  • I understand the ways it does, and the ways it does not, provide a sustainable or healthy alternative.
  • My product has clear values and takes a stand on the issues.
  • I provide context to my claims so that they can’t be misinterpreted.
  • The entire story of my product (the good and bad) is clear and is ready to be shared.

This blog series is written by Romée Lasschuijt, Communication & Strategy Trainee and consumer behavior expert at The Terrace, and Eva Schouten, Sustainability Consultant and supply chain transparency expert at The Terrace.