The Food Standards Agency is continuing its battle with the food industry as the government body perseveres with its traffic light system of food labelling. Food manufacturers and retailers say the scheme is nonsensical and unfair as food products are unhealthy only in the context of a broader diet and lifestyle. So providing information that stresses the importance of context – percentage of recommended daily allowance (RDA), for example – is the best way forward, it argues.
But, replies the FSA, concepts such as percentage of RDA per portion are hard to understand and calculate, and easy to manipulate. If one slice represents one portion, why does the serving suggestion show five slices?
And so the battle rages on. On one level, it’s all about technicalities/ what constitutes the best information and what is the best means of communicating this information? But at another level it is about motives… and the purpose of marketing itself. What is the information on a pack for? To help the buyer make a better, more informed, decision? Or to help the seller sell the product?
Talk to any cross-section of marketers and the majority will probably tell you their job is to influence consumer decisions to buy their brand. Marketing is about changing consumer attitudes and behaviours in our favour, they say.
This persuasion paradigm is instinctive to any seller, and extremely powerful. But it has one drawback. If every company focuses its efforts on persuading people to buy its particular brands, no one bothers to address the challenge of choice from the consumer’s point of view: the challenge of sifting and judging countless competing and contradictory claims to make a better decision.
In such a context, a persuasion-driven information environment compounds the problem. If all the information you are given comes from vested interests, who can you trust?
A question of trust
In this way, marketing has dug itself into a deep, deep hole. Marketers thought they had cracked the trust problem decades ago. Building brands is all about trust, they said. If you make a claim and fail to keep your promise, people won’t buy you again. But if you keep your promises, you build trust – and are rewarded with repeat purchases. That’s what brands are about.
This was wonderful as far as it went. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t very far. If I make a claim that my product is low-fat we might argue about what "low" means, but my claim says nothing about sugar content. Indeed, I may use my "low-fat" claim to divert attention away from the fact that my product is a ticking sugar bomb. The claim isn’t about helping the buyer make a better decision, or building trust. It’s about persuasion: influencing the consumer’s choice in our favour.
Quite often this works. Then marketers rejoice because they have been effective. Yes, they have made a promise and kept it, thereby building trust in the product. But in another way, they are destroying that trust. When consumers find out about that sugar content, they feel that they have been misled. Deliberately. That is why the words "marketing" and "ploy" are often presented together and why whenever marketers enter debates like this one, much of what they say is dismissed as "mere PR" or "They would say that, wouldn’t they?".
It’s also why, to the great irritation and chagrin of marketing companies, that their activities are subject to continual hostile scrutiny from countless third parties: the media, pressure groups, regulators and so on. These organisations have spotted a gap in the market – in this case, a market for trusted information – and rushed to fill it. (Whether they are doing this well or honestly is an entirely different matter.)
Marketers thus end up receiving mixed signals. Consumers evidently like a brand, because they keep on buying it. That’s proof of success. But at the same time, the brand is under constant fire from critics and campaigners, often with the apparent support of the same consumers.
In reality, both phenomena have the same source. They are both by-products of the persuasion paradigm. The more successful we are at influencing product choices, the less we are trusted when it comes to issues.
Is there a way out of this bind? Yes. But it involves letting go of the persuasion paradigm.
In a product-centric age, marketers interpret "identifying and meeting customer needs" in a product-centric way. They provide products to fit customer needs. They then provide information designed to persuade customers to buy these products. But the customer’s information needs – information needed to make informed choices and better decisions – have been ignored by marketers.
That’s the pressure that’s been building for decades, bursting out every now and again in spats like the food labelling row. But now it’s being intensified by a new factor: a maturing information age where consumers are focusing their attention on the value of information they are given.
In the age of top down push media, consumers were relegated to the role of audiences, passively receiving messages and exercising choice between them. In the emerging age of bottom up pull media, consumers expect to be able to search for, specify, configure and customise information to fit their purposes. Expectations about information are changing subtly but powerfully. The sweet spot of value is shifting from better products and services to better decisions – which includes better decisions about which products to buy.
In a world of better decisions, the direction of persuasion reverses. Under the persuasion paradigm, companies present consumers with information to influence their attitudes and behaviours. When the focus is on better decisions, consumers effectively use information to change companies’ attitudes and behaviours. If a better decision leads consumers to want X, the pressure is now on for the company to internalise this message and provide X, even if it’s bad news for its current product line or sales targets. The marketer’s core aim is not more powerful persuasion but better alignment.
Contradiction in terms
If only it were that easy! Do consumers never want to have their cake and eat it? Do they never say one thing and do another? Do they never have confused or contradictory objectives? Of course they do. All the time.
As a result many marketers feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. Consumers say they want healthier food, but sales figures show they often prefer the unhealthy stuff. This isn’t just about different segments. It’s about disparities between what people say and what they do."
In such a situation, pretending to be healthy – "it’s ‘low in fat’ but let’s forget about the sugar" – seems to be what consumers really want, but won’t say.
What this response misses is that what people want more than anything – more than low fat or great taste – is honesty. And despite their often contradictory ways, they aren’t stupid. Most times, they know dishonesty when they see it. And if they are fooled for a short while, they resent it.
The food labelling row is just a straw in the wind. Slowly but inexorably the pivot point of marketing and trust is shifting away from the persuasion paradigm towards alignment around "better" consumer decisions. The practicalities are horrendously complex. How it should be done is open to endless debate. It will be a long journey. But the underlying shift in direction is simple and clear. Persuasion can get you only so far before hitting its own self-created limits. Alignment is much harder, but it will probably take you much further.
Alan Mitchell, www.alanmitchell.biz