How Sustainable Food Brands Can Build Trust

November 2, 2021

Editor’s Note: this guest post was contributed by Shanan Powell, an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management.

I usually start my morning by scanning my LinkedIn and Twitter feeds to catch up on what I missed, making me part of the 42% of millennials who get their news from social media. As a graduate student interested in food sustainability, my feeds are mostly made up of journalists, scientists, research institutions, and sustainable brands.

But like 82% of Americans, I don’t entirely trust what I read online, despite the curated communities I’ve built in my feeds. We’re living in an era where false information has invaded every facet of our lives, ranging from politics to health to technology to food. And it’s not only intentional disinformation consumers need to keep an eye out for, accidental misinformation or information presented through a biased lens can be just as harmful. Advancing technology, such as deep fakes, conversational AI, and coordinated information campaign attacks, pile on to the problem.

For example, a 2019 study found that distinctive patterns in Russian news indicated evidence of a coordinated information campaign that could sway public opinion against GMOs. Another instance was the backlash around the usage of a deepfake, “a specific kind of synthetic media where a person in an image or video is swapped with another person’s likeness,” in a new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. While the director had obtained permission from Bourdain’s estate to use artificial intelligence to bring words Bourdain had previously written or said to life, coverage about the ethics of this situation dominated the conversation because the audience’s trust was shaken.

We’re now seeing this consumer wariness and mistrust play out in conversations about sustainability in the food industry, as food issues continue to be highly politicized, new technologies and categories of foods challenge the status quo, and food safety and reliability remain a universal priority.

With only 47% of brands seen as trustworthy, food brands face an uphill battle to earn trust from consumers in conversations about sustainability. Fortunately, they don’t have to start from scratch — there are many strategies that are successfully being used within and outside the industry to overcome consumer mistrust, counter wariness, and stand out as an authentic brand. So, where to start?

Genuinely Educate & Add Value to Customers

Have you ever been at a networking event or a party and got stuck talking to someone who just went on and on and didn’t really seem to be interested in asking you questions or hearing your perspective? That can be how some traditional educational resources from brands feel: one-sided and, honestly, boring. Consumers are certainly asking for more “helpful content,” but almost half (48%) of all content from brands is not meaningful to consumers. While there will always be a temptation to sell, the power of educating and adding value as an avenue of brand building cannot be underestimated.

In early 2021, KIND Healthy Snacks kicked off KIND RD Connect, a program giving away over 3,000 free sessions with registered dietitians (RD) to consumers who are looking for nutritional support. In their press release, the brand recognizes that “80% of individuals want to practice more self-care, yet 41% of U.S. adults are avoiding medical care” during the pandemic so their program “help[s] solve these challenges by offering access to RD nutritional sessions to Americans seeking support in a convenient, no-cost way.” This campaign effortlessly fits in with the brand’s overall mission of not having to compromise between taste and health.

In campaigns like this, brands must prioritize authentically educating and adding value to customers over just trying to make a sale.

Tell A New Kind of Story with Your Supply Chain

With increased scrutiny on every component of the food supply chain, ranging from ingredient sourcing to fair labor practices and animal welfare, transparency is key in building trust with consumers. But how much transparency is the right amount? With new technologies further enhancing an interconnected system of digital capabilities with more data collection and sharing, a vast array of new opportunities across the agricultural supply chain is opening up. Brands will have to find the right balance between providing evidence to underpin sustainability and ethical sourcing credentials, and content that engages consumers rather than overwhelms them. To bring it all together, the brands must then weave all of this data into a compelling and cohesive story that will bring consumers along the journey.

One Degree Organics Foods has built their whole brand around this concept. Each box has a 6 digit code that, when entered on their website, takes you to a product page (like this) that lists out each of the ingredients, the name of the farmer or producer of that ingredient, and a video of that farmer or producer talking about the ingredient.

Another example is Red’s Best, a seafood vendor that promises an “unbroken chain of custody of the fish through processing, packaging, labeling, and shipping.” Scanning a QR code on your seafood purchase will immediately bring up information about the fisherman, species, vessel, gear type, and port of origin.

Do I, as a consumer who knows nothing about fishing, really need to know about the vessel that caught my fish? Probably not. But, I like knowing that Red’s Best values their traceability data so much that they provide it as an option. And that makes me trust them more as a consumer.

As an added bonus, research from MIT Sloan School of Management found that consumers may pay 2–10% more for products that provide greater supply chain transparency. I’m curious to see how this plays out in the future — will QR codes with the full history of the product become the norm or will this continue to be a brand differentiator?

Turn Customers into Brand Advocates

Have you used a product or a service that you loved so much that you couldn’t help but rave about it to your friends and family? If so, you’ve served as a brand advocate: a customer who loves a product or service so much that they want their network to experience it too.

I personally had an experience like this with Peloton, an interactive fitness platform & equipment manufacturer. A former coworker of mine was a long-time Peloton user and often mentioned how much she loved it. During the pandemic, I needed some form of fitness, so I ordered my own to see what all the fuss was about. In less than a year, I had raved about it so much to my community, that four of my friends and family bought their own. With a net promoter score of 94 (a global benchmark is around 32), Peloton has struck a unique balance between hardware (the fitness equipment itself), technology (the digital platform), production (curated fitness classes), and influencers (instructors essentially double as social media influencers) that their customers spread the word about their products for free. Adding one more layer, these consumers love Peloton so much that they’ve now built their own communities on Facebook and Reddit.

How can sustainable food brands take a similar approach to turn the majority of their customers into brand advocates and generate that excitement? The movement can be influenced by famous individuals, such as Robert Downey Jr. investing in plant-based bacon startups. Another route is to heavily invest in ‘deep social listening’ like Danone to stay in sync with what their consumers prioritize and value during unprecedented times. Known for their activism, Ben & Jerry’s launched a new ice cream flavor to honor Colin Kapernick for his “courageous work to confront systemic oppression and to stop police violence against Black and Brown people.”

Additionally, sustainable food brands can earn their brand advocates by revolving their brand around a strong mission, which will be naturally aligned with the ethos of their products. An international study found that when a brand had a strong purpose, consumers were 4.5x more likely to recommend the brand to family and friends and 6x more likely to protect the brand in a challenging moment.

Conclusion

There is no one playbook that will work for all brands in conversations about sustainability, especially as our society navigates these unprecedented times where everything feels uncertain. While sustainable food brands certainly have a tough challenge ahead to earn consumer trust, the world is their oyster. Consumers want more from brands and the sustainable food ecosystem has the potential to deliver that with educational experiences, transparent supply chains, and brand advocates. While these steps won’t combat or prevent all misinformation, they set brands on the right path to providing meaningful and authentic experiences for their consumers — an important step in building and maintaining trust.

Editor’s Note: this guest post was contributed by Shanan Powell, an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management. With six years of experience in change management and strategic communications, Shanan is focusing on building a more sustainable and equitable food system. She’s also passionate about helping end food insecurity and serves on the board of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

For more insights on misinformation and other forces shaping our food system, check out this report we wrote, commissioned by AgriFutures Australia, and subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter.