By David Fikes, Vice President, Communications and Consumer/Community Affairs, Food Marketing Institute
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Navigating an interpersonal relationship is a tricky thing. In the beginning, it is a dance of knowing when, what and how to share information so that you come off as being sufficiently vulnerable and desiring a deeper relationship, without sounding desperate or sharing too much information too quickly and boring, scaring or creeping the other person out. If you survive those initial steps without crushing too many toes, the relationship can become a lifelong journey of making adaptations to those learned dance steps as your partner and you grow, change and evolve.

The same is true of navigating a brand relationship. There is much information shared today about how consumers want to be more aware, familiar with and engaged with their food products than ever before. Shoppers are looking for more than just a product, they are questing interaction, information and involvement. The inter-industry talk we use to describe this, usually refers to the sharing of information as the consumer’s desire for transparency, but this is not necessarily the language consumers use. The consumer desire for product engagement can also be just as readily identified as a negotiation of the brand relationship; knowing what information to share, when to share it and how to convey it. It is learning the relationship dance steps for the consumer who wants to know what they want to know, when they want to know it and in a way they can understand.

Research that FMI did with Label Insight recently revealed that consumers identify the ingredient label as the original sniff test about whether this relationship will have legs – the interpersonal-relationship equivalent of checking-out how the other person is dressed. In the brand relationship world, consumers scan the ingredients listed to see if they are in easy-to-read plain English and if they convey clear nutrient information. Additionally, almost one-third of consumers appreciate other label indicators bearing information about allergens, how the product was made, and how the ingredients are sourced.  On the interpersonal front, after the attire has been checked out, the next-level of relationship inquiries is usually a variation of “is there more to this person?” On the brand management front this is when customers go looking beyond the package for intel; they search websites, apps, and other people’s opinions to find out company values, positions on social issues, how they act upon their commitments and their level of follow-through.

Attention to transparency has immediate business implications because seven in ten consumers indicate that they are willing to switch from their usual brand to one that provides more in-depth information beyond what appears on the label. Trust and brand loyalty are hard to earn, but in truth, they are as difficult to maintain, requiring the brand to understand the consumer’s motivations and share relevant, clear, accurate and credible information that conveys honest disclosure. Failure to grow with your customer’s needs often results in a brand break-up.

More companies are recognizing the need to act upon this awareness. Even the alcohol industry-which has been a tad slow to address the consumer demand for more information and engagement with product values - has recognized the need to evolve more aggressively in this area. Anheuser-Busch recently announced that Bud Light Orange and Bud Light Lime are joining Bud Light’s recent move towards transparency and introducing secondary packaging with a Nutritional Fact panel.  When asked about this move, Brendan Whitworth, chief sales officer at Anheuser-Busch said, “Look in any grocery store and you’ll see ingredients labels displayed on virtually every product with one exception - beer, wine and spirits. The beer industry must evolve to meet changing consumer demands. We are proud that Bud Light was the first major U.S. beer to adopt an on-pack ingredients label. We believe strongly that providing consumers with the transparency they demand will benefit brands in the beer industry the way it has with brands in other categories.”

Psychologist Erik Erikson long ago pointed out that all relationships begin with trust. This includes the consumer’s relationship with a favored brand; shopper loyalty is rooted in a trust that must be nurtured, nourished and honored with relevant information. The customer must feel the relationship is going somewhere or they will go looking for the product that better addresses their want, needs and emerging values.