Once upon a time, things were simple. According to gurus such as Al Ries or Jack Trout, market success depended on owning just one word in the consumer’s mind. That word would frame and define perceptions of value, leading customers to always remember you and seek you out. Effective marketing was the art of extreme, brutal distillation and simplification to achieve cut-through, recognition and marketplace dominance.
To see how much things have changed, take a look at the new Coca-Cola Retail Research Council/Institute for the Future report on food and health (www.ccrrc.org). It identifies seven key trends. First, health is going mainstream as consumers filter more and more choices through a health lens. To do this they are having to sort through large quantities of information, which is becoming a major source of frustration thanks to the overwhelming amounts of contradictory claims they are presented with.
Second, we often need to do this filtering process on the move and at the point of choice. It’s not matter of leisurely research back home. Third, there’s a growing peer-to-peer element to this, with people sharing more information via social networks. Fourth, our definition of “health” is broadening beyond “not being sick” to positive wellbeing, which is fuelling demand for information. Fifth, it’s also driving intensified scrutiny of supply chain and production practices and processes which used to be invisible, hiding behind the brand veil. Sixth, things are complicated even further by the connections people are making between personal well-being and social and environmental well-being. Finally, expanding nutritional and scientific knowledge and advances in technology are encouraging people to customise their choices to their personal concerns and circumstances, which requires even more information.
The demand for information
In other words, demand for information is fuelling demand for even more “information service”, information at the right time, information at the right place, the ability to filter information to make it relevant, to share information, to customise and personalise it and so on. For brands, this is a major strategic challenge.
Consider some of the dilemmas. Marketers have always prided themselves on their ability to identify consumers’ wants and needs. But what happens when the path of “wants” (e.g. sugary, fatty foods) diverges from those of “needs” (fruit, fibre, exercise)? What is the dividing line between marketers as nannies telling consumers what they should be doing and merely providing them with the information they need to make choices? This not only relates to information content and style, but prominence, such as front of pack or back of pack. It’s not easy because useful information for some is perceived as nannying by others.
Then, of course, there’s the cacophony of different voices shouting different things and leaving everyone confused in their wake. Speaking at the Efficient Consumer Response conference in Berlin two weeks ago, Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck warned that consumer doubt and confusion could get worse before it gets better simply because the science (genetics, biochemistry and metabolism, connections to lifestyle etc) is still so incomplete. (Ditto when it comes to things like carbon emissions. If you want an explosion, just ask him what he thinks of “food miles” labelling.)
On top of this, there is conflict between short-term pressures and long-term benefits – on both sides of the equation. On the buyer side, human beings are notoriously bad at weighing long-term benefits against short-term pleasures – so retailers and manufacturers consistently get conflicting messages: a gulf between what consumers say they intend to do and what the sales figures tell us they do. On the seller side, marketers have to deal with sales realities, not good intentions. Meanwhile, any recognition of the need to build trust has to contend with the intense pressures of immediate competition for sales and market share, including the temptation to economise with the truth and inflate claims.
Overcoming the trust drought
Enter vested interests, which make things even more complicated. Too many marketers have seen “health” as just another claim to exaggerate when convenient and to ignore when not, leading to exposés by pressure groups, the media and regulators, which undermines trust. The net result in Europe is a trust drought, the EC’s director general for public health and consumer protection Robert Madelin warned the same conference. The latest research suggests that over a half of European citizens don’t trust big corporations, governments, NGOs or the media. “They don’t trust anyone,” he warned. Endless squabbling between these bodies does nothing to help the situation, he added. Every party needs to learn how to engage with “the awkward customers” – the people they disagree with – he argued. “You can’t move the needle on your own”. This points to a new role for brands: “to help consumers use their empowerment”.
Meanwhile, it looks as though the demand for more information will continue to explode. Gianni Ciserani, president of Procter & Gamble for Western Europe, noted how attention is shifting from “cure” to “prevention”, and how a large part of prevention lies in education as well as the right products and services. Dominique Reiniche, president of the European Union Group of Coca-Cola, talked about turning the point of purchase into a “point of wellness”, “an opportunity for information engagement”. In line with this, GSI, the Global Standards Initiative, is working on the concept of “extended packaging”. Simply point your internet-enabled mobile phone at a barcode to access everything you need to know about the product: its environmental and ethical supply chain credentials, its provenance and ingredients, processing practices and so on.
All this raises a fundamental question for marketers. Is the information they provide merely a tool of persuasion; or is it part of the service, part of the core value proposition? Right now, we’re tipping from the first under-standing to the second. While marketers bridle at perceived restrictions on their freedom to advertise, influence and persuade, their brands are actually faced with the opportunity to seize a new high ground: to extend their reach by adding “quality information” to their “quality product” foundations.
It’s a natural evolution. Producers are the natural home for superior product-related knowledge and expertise. In fact, their products and services are particular crystallisations of this knowledge. Expanding the realms of trust by earning a reputation for quality information may be long, complicated and fraught with dilemmas. But for most brands nowadays, not embarking on this journey is simply not a sustainable option.