I was recently asked to speak at the Food Matters Live conference, which brings together all kinds of people interested in issues around food – from manufacturers, to nutritionists, educators and consumers. As part of the ‘free from’ seminar track I spoke on a panel about “What inspires trust in free from brands? A consumer perspective.”
It was a great opportunity to meet with lots of people interested in the sector, including a few fellow free from bloggers, and lots of new companies just starting out. This blog is an abridged summary of my talk, which you can also view a recording of below.
Before thinking about what causes free from consumers to trust a brand, you first need to consider how many and varied free from consumers are – we are by no means an homogeneous group! For the purposes of my talk, I asked the attendees to imagine this as 4 people (of course this is still very generalised):
- Diagnosed: Gemma: mum of a multi-allergic child who emails chocolate bar producers to ask specific questions about their factory and processes before buying.
- Self-diagnosed: Simon: in all likelihood lactose intolerant following severe food poisoning. Drinks soya milk lattes but will put up with the pain for the occasional ice-cream sundae.
- Lifestylers: Edi: a PT at my gym who believes gluten makes her ‘bloated and inflamed’ and eats a low carb/high fat diet.
- Ethical consumers: Kate: an evangelical vegan. Will not eat veggie sausages that have been cooked on the same grill as bacon.
So you can see that each individual has different motivations for following a free from diet; and the extent to which they adhere to their diet and pay attention to things like cross-contamination will vary enormously.
It follows that the factors that cause each of these to trust a food product/brand will vary according to their motivations and needs. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to creating products and marketing them could leave one or more of the groups feeling alienated, or unsafe.
As a member of the first ‘diagnosed’ group I ran a short online poll among my community to find out what they prioritised when considering whether to trust a brand. I had expected SAFETY to be the primary concern – and yes of course it is, but the conversation was dominated (especially among those dealing with more serious allergies) by the theme of ‘TRANSPARENCY’, especially around production methods & operations.
This is a very important point – safety is personal and subjective – consumers need to decide for themselves what is considered safe in terms of production:
- From one extreme – some one who will not consider safe anything even packaged on the same site as the allergen;
- To the other – those who will a gluten free cake that has been handled with the same tongs.
We need the information to be able to decide for ourselves. So how do we get that?
Of course labelling plays a major part. In addition to meeting basic legal labelling requirements to highlight top allergens, we look for:
- Reassuring use of accreditation (but this is only defined legally for gluten and vegan/vegetarian foods which have licensed logos)
- Descriptive precautionary/advisory labels – not ‘may contain nuts’ but ‘packaged in a facility that also packs hazelnuts and almonds’
But beyond the packaging, those with special diets will also look for manufacturers to communicate clearly, openly and honestly about their production methods and ingredients sourcing; ideally by publishing on their website or responding promptly to queries through their service channels – online and offline.
Transparency is also important in other areas, for examples pricing. Many consumers feel like they are being charged an unjustifiable premium for staple ‘free from’ products. To be trusted, brands need to help consumers understand why the prices are higher, which is usually related to production controls and more expensive ingredients.
QUALITY and RELIABILITY of brands/products are also major factors in the trust free from consumers place in a brand:
- The products command ‘premium’ price, and the market has made major leaps in branding and quality that befit this status
- Consistency of quality is a major issue in ‘free from’, especially with gluten free bread
- Reliability also extends to supply – something Coeliac UK have tirelessly campaigned for in supermarkets where people often bemoan the empty ‘free from’ shelves which they increasingly rely on, especially with withdrawl of gluten free prescriptions and dairy-free baby milk products in some parts of the country.
- ‘Trust’ in free from extends to retail brands too – all too often an allergic consumer will find a relied-upon product which meets their particular dietary need replaced with an own-brand alternative which contains an allergen (e.g. soya).
Consider, though, that the order in which these are prioritised would likely vary for someone not following a free from diet for diagnosed medical reasons; and other factors would likely be important for someone with more of an ethical motivation.
What’s common to all factors though, is something not specific to free from brands: customer intimacy. The feeling, vital to building trust, that “this brand understands me and my needs, and demonstrates this in the way that it conducts its business”.
The world is increasingly personal and we have an expectation that products and services are tailored to our needs. This extends to health products. Brands should:
- Understand their core market (e.g. medical needs, those who avoid gluten avoid dairy etc.),
- Recognise that ‘free from’ is not a homogenous segment – needs are varied & personal. The dairy-allergic child who wants to fit in at a kid’s party has different needs from a vegan adult or someone on a ‘paleo’ diet.
- Use marketing and service channels to demonstrate that understanding through deeds and even the language they use (we find it reassuring when a waiter says “coeliac menu” rather than “gluten friendly menu”).
- Be a member of the community – we trust people, not big companies!
- Also, free from brands should understand they are often dealing with people who see themselves as patients who are entitled to products that give them a basic quality of life, versus a consumer segment choosing luxuries.
A few examples of when things go wrong… the stakes are high. Get it wrong for most consumer products, and you lose sales. Get it wrong in free from and someone could get ill from a reaction to an unintentional ingredient. Free from consumers are a passionate bunch, and have been known to mobilise against brands who they feel betray their trust.
Free from is a high stakes business, but get it right and you win customer loyalty for life. We will go out of our way to track down products that meet our specific needs, and online is a great enabler of that.
Finally, some examples of brands getting it right, and winning trust (assuming they have their product safety, quality and reliability sorted as a first step!).
- Tesco have clearly done their market research – their new launches and expanded range demonstrates a strong understanding of their core market of families managing multiple dietary needs and trying to live a ‘normal’ life.
- Kinnerton and Newburn Bakehouse (Warburtons) have clear, open approaches to production and communicating that, the latter even invited in bloggers to view their dedicated production facilities.
- Many small brands like Cocoa Libre and Pudology are trusted by the free from community because they have sprung from the community and we feel like we know the people behind them. When they scale to supermarkets, they maintain control and consumer loyalty.
- Marks and Spencer have a strong approach to allergen labelling with very descriptive ‘may contain’ labels that reference coeliac disease particularly, meaning we know to take them seriously. Their reformulation of many products (such as meat products) to remove gluten means we feel like their dedication to gluten free extends beyond the token ‘free from aisle’.