By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute

Getting ClarityIn our information craving age, each of us seeks transparency, but none of us seem to know exactly what it looks like. Or perhaps better said, we know what we want when it comes to OTHERS being transparent, but we aren’t so sure of its perimeters when transparency is expected of US. What's becoming more apparent by the day is that we will be required to grapple with the concept of transparency because the consumer expectation and thirst for information shows no signs of diminishing. In fact the opposite is true; there is every indication it will continue its exponential escalation. 

The range of questions food retail customers have about their purchases has grown far beyond the simple ‘how do I cook this?’ and moved into much more complicated territories. Shoppers may also want to know where ingredients originated; whether all its ingredients are healthy; whether the workers who made it were treated fairly; whether it's packaged in the most sustainable fashion possible; the kind of fertilizer the farmer uses; and the distance it traveled to get to the shelf. The list of consumer questions continues to grow. And if we don't supply that information in an easy-to-find place, they will seek answers from sources that may or may not be well suited to provide factual information. And we all must understand that customers want more than a Dragnet flavored “Just the facts, ma’am” response. 

All of this brings us to what I think is a critical component of transparency.

In Barry Unsworth’s book, Morality Play, a group of travelling actors are embroiled in a discussion when one utters the line, “I took this at the time for a true answer, but not fully an honest one, thinking that between truth and honesty there lay the hope of a replenished purse.”

I appreciate the distinction Unsworth draws between truth and honesty because in the space existing between the two is the heart of what consumers seek regrading transparency. According to Unsworth’s notion, one may spout true statements all day long, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being honest. One can share the truth without revealing what is really going on or actually touching where the real issues lie. And as Unsworth points out, the difference between giving a true answer and an honest one can be colored by the desire for profits.

Our friends at the Center for Food Integrity get at this same notion in their attempt to corral the concept of transparency. They claim that “Transparency may be rationally defined as truthful information, but perhaps more importantly, it translates to an emotional feeling of confidence.”

For them, transparent information is not just truthful; it also has an emotional tone to it that invites trust. Transparency must have that human element of relateability or it will fall short of touching the human center of our customers – the part of them that monitors trust, governs loyalty and adjudicates commitment.

Our industry is feeling the effect of the consumer skepticism spreading across our nation. Customer loyalty is becoming more difficult to achieve and even harder to hold. Consumer trust in larger companies is diminishing and is driving the demand for increased transparency - in operations, in supplies and in attitude. People buying food for their families want to know that those providing that food are doing the right thing and are worthy of the trust being placed in them. The larger the company, the greater the need for transparent communication that builds consumer trust and promotes customer loyalty.

The topic of clear, truthful and, yes, honest communication has become a critical consideration for the food retail industry. FMI will be diving more deeply into the mysteries of transparency in the year ahead. Our research work in U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends will concentrate on answering the question of what consumers are actually looking for when they ask for transparency. We are committed to providing our members with the tools they need to achieve the level of transparency their customers will find meaningful and engaging. I hope you'll join us on the journey toward transparency.