Atalanta RaffertyAtalanta Rafferty

When it comes to food and social responsibility, few issues today remain so personal yet so complex. Consumers care deeply about how and where their food is made, and by whom. Manufacturers have been assigned increasing responsibility in creating products that not only taste great, but are also crafted with purpose. Sophisticated consumers are carefully choosing how to stock their pantry, with products from thoughtful, inspiring brands they trust. The question is: how do brands build that trust?

O'Dwyer's Mar. '16 Food & Beverage PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '16 Food & Beverage PR Magazine

As consumers’ needs evolve, food companies are now deeply challenged to answer a growing number of questions: How are we supporting the communities that provide us our ingredients? What is our purpose? What impact are we having on people and on the planet? The answers must go beyond profit, and consider how any given food product can provide a meaningful impact on the world, and the people within it. Perhaps even more challenging is crafting the story of purpose to consumers, communicating a mission and vision that are both genuine and authentic, but also tangible.

The issues at hand

Today, consumers have two primary concerns: the safety and health impact of the products they consume. They want to be able to see exactly what they’re eating, and how it will impact their health. According to the “Nutritional Labeling and Clean Labels” study by Packaged Facts, 87 percent of customers analyze nutrition labels, with a significant number of Americans separately seeking out general nutritional guidelines and information. Additionally, 67 percent of American consumers preferred to buy groceries that have simple and few ingredients.

As a result of this sprouting desire, food companies of all shapes and sizes are responding with claims like “GMO-free” and “Zero Trans Fat” on labels, spending billions on advertising that tout cleaner labels, “antibiotic-free” foods or removal of all artificial preservatives and colors in their products. The smartest brands know that they must go one step further, providing substantial evidence and proof that their products are not only safe, but can have measurable, tangible impact on a person’s everyday nutrition goals.

Consumers are also paying more attention to the impact brands have on the environment, considering the use of land and natural resources, and contributions to reducing pollution and food waste. Thanks to the 2010 Mintel report, we’ve known for some time that consumers are more likely to spend money on products produced with environmental responsibility in mind. Survey results said that 35 percent of shoppers would pay more for environmentally friendly products, according to 2015 research on green living from Mintel. More recently, a 2015 study from the Center of Food Integrity showed that 60 percent of consumers are seeking information on environmental impact on brand websites and on packaging. Other hot button topics related to company’s CSR practices, such as animal welfare and labor and human rights, are also key factors given considerable consideration prior to purchase.

These results support what is referred to as “strategic CSR,” where consumers or employees may reward companies for their CSR activities by paying high prices or accepting lower wages for their CSR activities. Today, the economic climate is such that investors are backing smaller, socially responsible companies, in light of consumers seeking out products with sustainable, environmentally sound products and policies.

Making it matter

Beyond identifying the impact of any given brand, a much more difficult task is effectively communicating the message. That’s where PR comes in, as a star player in building consumer trust. Now more than ever, we as public relations professionals are needed to ensure that a brand’s mission is meaningful, as consumers seek out strong, authentic messages that outrun traditional advertising tactics. Our recent work with food and beverage clients have confirmed the three clear contributors that are key to making an impact on consumer perception, and to truly win consumer trust.

Make the impact clear. Today, being lauded as a “trusted brand” or “brand with purpose” among industry experts and consumers is considered the holy grail of marketing. That said, the number of brands that effectively convey their impact is, sadly, far and few in between. Many have struggled with how exactly to convey their message to consumers — and while a brand may have all the tools for claiming health and sustainability impact, crafting the cohesive story is what’s truly important. As storytelling experts, public relations professionals must tackle this task, by building a brand narrative that is clear, concise and quantifiable. Don’t muddy the waters with details—pick those core over-arching themes that will convey something “real” to consumers, without being overly complex or verbose. A great rule we live by at RF|Binder is being able to answer in no more than three short sentences — ideally in one sentence — what a company does to better this earth, and the people on it.

Start a conversation. The medium is just as important as the message. Consumers, particularly Millennials, are placing less and less trust in messages that come straight from brands via advertising or paid mentions. Instead, they seek out the opinion of their peers and relatable, aspirational influencers to find brands they should believe in. The power of third-party influencers and advocates has never been so strong, and it is essential that any brand leverage influencers to create an authentic, organic conversation, that feels natural and unforced. Opening up an organic, meaningful conversation with third-party advocates is essential to unlocking powerful brand trust and recognition among consumers.

Don’t just say it, show it. Once a mission is crafted, and core messaging pillars are designated, it’s essential to ensure the message is in some way present across all events, activities, packaging, websites, platforms, etc. In fact, PR professionals must take a message, and turn it into a “look” or a “feeling” — the message should have a physical, visible, and transient pulse across all communications tactics and platforms, in order to truly convey the mission the core defining factor of the brand’s essence.

It’s an exciting time in the food industry for PR professionals, where we have the power to help brands combine profit with purpose, creating a message that truly inspires trust and advocacy from consumers. Hopefully, we’ll be able to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems along the way.

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Atalanta Rafferty is Executive Managing Director at RF|Binder.