Food Marketing and the Pursuit of Consumer Trust

by Chris Anderson on 28 February 2017

Building trust in a brand is a challenging process. Consumer skepticism and media overload are obvious barriers. In the food business, confidence in big manufacturers continues to erode as shoppers turn to smaller brands. But the little guys haven’t necessarily won anything. As a visit to the upcoming Natural Products Expo would show you, there are hundreds of upstarts vying for a fractional share of the public’s attention and loyalty. Social media is no magic bullet. And what can take years (and much $$$) to establish can be lost overnight with a food safety incident – especially if it’s publicly mismanaged.

Trust is something that food companies have to be committed to building from top to bottom in the organization, over the long-term. It shouldn’t be seen only as a marketing and communications concern – it must be integrated into company DNA.

I used to run marketing for a natural food brand that had an emotionally appealing founder’s story and dynamic, public-facing persona (Laura’s Lean Beef). I must admit that this made my job easier. Because of the powerful “Laura factor,” consumers believed in what we were doing – there was a sense of shared mission. Our marketing was essentially story-telling, regularly reinforcing trust by promoting a direct connection with the founder. When we dealt with crisis (it happens to even the best food companies), we had a bank of goodwill to draw from.

Not every food brand has the asset of a persona that naturally engenders trust. That’s OK. Consumers simply want to know and believe, and there are many ways to make connections. Putting the tactical stuff aside, here are four general tips to guide your thinking:

1. Define your brand’s promise – and live by it. What are the “reasons to believe?” Spell these out and make sure everyone in the organization is on board. Everything you put out to the public (product, branding, messaging, all of it) should be measured against the brand’s promise.

2. Open up the conference room. In making business decisions, ask yourself and your team the following: “If our consumers were in this meeting, how would we land on the decision? Would we even be having the conversation?”

3. Don’t be an ostrich. Food companies deal with the prospect of a recall constantly. Complaints are often public and social media trolls are common. The worst thing to do is to hide from problems. Be prepared and take ownership. Have a well-developed crisis communications plan, have your brand reps trained on dealing with the press, respond to social media complaints in real-time, and above all else – be transparent. Disaster can be survived and trust saved, but only if you face it head on.

4. Always tell stories – true ones. Focus more of your marketing around your company’s values and the culture you want to share with consumers, and less on your products. Have an ongoing brand narrative. What are the causes that your company is passionate about? Who are the people behind the scenes? Make your brand feel like a family that consumers want to be part of. But don’t fake it.