Consumers make a good number of demands on their food: it has to be tasty, safe, healthy and preferably sustainable as well. As a producer, you can make all sorts of claims about your food, but if consumers do not trust you, they are of little use. Professor Richard Bennett explores consumer trust and support for the food supply chain in his most recent research project for EIT Food.
The agricultural economist and social scientist at the University of Reading shares his insights on how the food industry can gain consumer trust by:
making information on products easily accessible;
offering transparency in the process of food production;
ensuring that prices are fair to consumers and all links in the food chain;
providing reliable independent certification;
engaging with consumers;
and being honest, even when things go wrong.
We’ve also seen this in our Taste Tomorrow consumer research, which showed that 90% of consumers read packaging information. One in three consumers also looks at the origin of the product. The research also reflects a need for openness from industrial producers. Food brands will have to be transparent about every step of the supply chain, from the ingredient sourcing to the baking process. Authentic, real-life storytelling around those themes is crucial to consumer engagement and by extension: sales.
More trust since covid-19
“The trust in the food industry has increased since covid-19”, states Richard Bennett. “Consumers have primarily gained more trust in farmers and food retailers. We think that is because, despite the disruptions of covid-19, both the farmers and the food industry retailers have managed to keep food on the shelves. That has given consumers greater trust in them to supply food no matter what happens.”
Consumer trust in the entire food supply chain
Bennett's research project isn't just about understanding consumer trust, his team actively works together with food companies to come up with practical solutions. “We want to set out new initiatives that will increase consumer trust. Initiatives that consumers actually want to see, not just initiatives that food companies and others think is good for their company. That’s why we started with a gap analysis to find out what consumers would like to see to increase trust and what producers would like to do and what they think consumers want. You might not expect it, but there’s actually a remarkable amount of agreement between companies and consumers. The outcomes all revolve around transparency, being honest and listening to – plus engaging with – consumers. That is what both sides want. I think as usual the devil is in the detail. How can the food industry actually engage with consumers and take them onboard that in a way that fits in with their busy lives?”
Making information easily accessible
Together with partners such as Sodexo and the Israeli Strauss Group, Bennett and his research team are examining how the food industry can increase consumer trust. “A project that’s proving to be very successful is our collaboration with the Spanish Grupo AN, an agri-food cooperative. They have started to implement ‘smart labels’ on their products. Consumers can scan those labels on their smartphone and directly get information about for instance the sustainability of the food, the provenance of the product, healthy recipes and so on. Consumers don’t have to go onto a website and look for information. If they want to know something on let’s say sustainability, they can just scan the code and up will come the information they need. The food sector has to actively bring information towards consumers, targeted information that can be accessed at the touch of a button. To achieve that, companies first need good recording mechanisms and monitoring mechanisms in relation to their production activities.”
What goes behind closed doors?
Consumers don’t just want to know how their food is composed, they want insight into the production process as well. “A lot of the food industry is hidden for consumers. That’s one of their concerns. ‘We don’t know what food manufacturers do’, they told us. Food manufacturing and processing is a bit of a black box to most consumers. They have no idea of what goes on in a factory ‘behind closed doors’ as they describe it. That concerns consumers. To reassure consumers, food producers can share videos and possibly even real-time footage of the processing of food products.”
Pricing is a key issue
“Honesty about pricing was a key issue for consumer trust in five out of the six countries in the research (Spain, Poland, Finland, Italy, Israel and the UK). Fair and transparent pricing is going to be a real challenge for the industry. Consumers want to feel assured they are not paying more than they should, that’s why they like initiatives such as price matching and price information. But they also told us that they wanted information on how prices are made up. How much did farmers get? How much money goes to food manufacturers? And what part of the product price goes to food retail? It’s almost impossible to say what is a fair distribution of money across the food chain, but that is what consumers have in mind. They would like a fair distribution and a fair price at the end.”
Importance of independent certification
“Consumers are very keen to have independent certification. There’s a big need for people that can police the food industry and make sure companies actually do as they are saying. In all six countries, consumers told us, for instance, that animal welfare was their top priority in terms of their trust in farmers. Farmers should look after their animals well and of course consumers want proof that that’s done. They, therefore, wanted certified proof from an independent body that farmers are looking after their animals. That concept of having independent certification went across the food industry. Surprisingly, out of all the actors in the food chain, people seem to have the least trust in the regulative authorities. That was something we did not expect at all.“
Engage with your customers
Bennett has a simple piece of advice for companies who want to start working on their consumer trust: engage with your consumers. “Engagement is the big thing. It’s important to have platforms where you can have a two-way conversation with your consumers and listen to them so you really get to understand them. Consumers appreciate being able to have an informed discussion about the food that they eat.”
Consumers hate cover-ups
When you have that highly coveted trust, be careful not to lose it by not being honest. “We’ve seen consumers specifically asking for honesty in companies. Even key industry bodies themselves stated the need for the food sector to be honest. If something goes wrong for example, then tell consumers about it. Explain to them why things are going wrong, what’s being done about it and what’s being done to make sure it never happens again. Consumers hate cover-ups. That makes them even more suspicious towards the food industry, even towards actors that weren’t directly involved in the incident.”
Excited to focus on transparency in order to gain consumer trust? Get inspired by 10 plant-based concepts that focus on transparent sourcing.