Research Perspective: Radically Transparent as a Clamshell

Research and Data

Erica ChanceWhen consumers walk through the produce section of their favorite grocery store, they experience the bounty of each harvest with absolute transparency — they can see everything. Some will carefully examine potatoes, apples and oranges, finding just the right ones for their family. They’ll select the trio of stoplight peppers or a clamshell of berries that are most appealing. You’ll even see some not only inspecting watermelons and cantaloupe to find the one that looks best, but tapping them for the one that “sounds” ripe.

While the produce category has historically been “transparent” in its lack of cumbersome packaging, consumers want more. They want to know where their food comes from and that it was produced in a way they trust.

Unfortunately, today’s food system is not as transparent as it should be in communicating with consumers to earn this trust. In fact, our proprietary Sullivan Higdon & Sink (SHS) FoodThink research tells us that only 37 percent of consumers believe the agriculture community is transparent in their communications about how food is produced, while only 34 percent believe food companies/manufacturers are transparent. That same research tells us that 65 percent of consumers say it’s somewhat or very important to know how their food is produced.

This relative lack of transparency and consumer desire for more information, coupled with a number of high-profile food safety incidents in recent years, has prompted increased interest and even scrutiny in food production processes.

In response, companies and organizations across the industry should publicly affirm their commitment to earning consumer trust by becoming as transparent as produce packaging — radically transparent. It may be uncomfortable. It will most definitely be a departure from “the way we’ve always done things.” But by doing so, the industry can earn the trust and confidence of consumers who will actively look for, purchase and support its products.

So what is radical transparency? For companies and organizations across the produce industry, it is a call for communicating more openly and honestly about the production processes used to bring fruits and vegetables from seed to store. We recommend five actions marketers can take to become radically transparent:

Engage in an open dialogue: By actively listening to consumers, you can better understand why they don’t trust agriculture, and specifically, produce. Their input provides opportunity to engage in the conversation, demonstrating the industry’s long-standing commitment to the values most important to consumers — access to safe, nutritious and affordable produce.

Align industry partners: While individual companies and organizations can tell their stories, there is greater impact in collaborative partnerships across the industry. Such shared alignment in messaging and approach can help earn trust, regardless of the product or brand. Our research shows that retailers, government regulatory parties and the academic community are all resources for consumers, so broad involvement could be beneficial to communicating effectively.

Feature the farmer: Featuring the oft-forgotten farmers in branding and as a messenger elevates their presence as a voice and face for the brand. As our SHS FoodThink research shows, farmers can authentically and credibly carry the brand’s message because 60 percent of consumers believe they are a trustworthy source for information about food production.

Invite consumers in: Opening the farm doors to consumers, bloggers and media provides them the opportunity to look behind the scenes and ask questions. They can then share those positive experiences, building trust through their broad reach and influential voices. According to our research, blogs especially are emerging as a more trusted, mainstream and legitimate source of information for many consumers.

Clarify confusing topics: With a channel of transparent, values-based communications established, it becomes more productive to then engage in an informed conversation about topics of possible consumer confusion. Those that may serve as barriers to earning trust in the produce industry could include GMOs, pesticides and “natural.” Marketers seeking transparency need to be straightforward and seek clarity in communications to consumers.

Many in produce and across food production have already taken a more active role in communicating transparently about how food is produced. The result: trust is improving. These and other efforts to be more forthright are beginning to pay off. Perceived trust in both the agriculture community and food companies is on the rise, increasing more than 15 percentage points since SHS FoodThink began tracking this issue in 2012. That’s likely due in part to companies and organizations being more open in talking about how they produce food.

That progress is encouraging and demonstrates the benefit of increasing transparency. It also shows there is still work to be done to make the produce industry’s communications as radically transparent as the retail experience, earning the trust of today’s consumers.

Erica Chance is associate director, brand strategy, for Sullivan Higdon & Sink, a full-service integrated advertising and marketing agency with offices in Wichita, KS, and Kansas City, MO.‬