Private label trumps brands over negative feedback - but can brands afford to become complacent?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

While established food brands can depend on consumer loyalty up to a point they should beware of becoming complacent to negative feedback, says consultant Steve Osborn.
While established food brands can depend on consumer loyalty up to a point they should beware of becoming complacent to negative feedback, says consultant Steve Osborn.

Related tags Albert heijn Consumer protection Marketing

Retailers pledge to change misleading products as 13,000 Dutch consumers vote for the worst offender of 2015, but as branded manufacturers have remained silent experts warn they should not become complacent.

Consumer rights campaign group Foodwatch is claiming a (partial) victory as retailers agree to change their products’ misleading claims, or remove the products from shelves, following an online campaign which received 13,000 votes. But so far no manufacturer – Friesland Campina, Liga or Rude Health which also featured in the awards' firing line – said it would change its product or labelling, says FoodWatch.

When the nominees were announced at the start of December last year​, a spokesperson for Friesland Campina told us the company was surprised at the nomination as it had conducted extensive consumer researcher on the product’s name and value before the launch.

Rude Health said it found the accusation of misleading consumers strange, as the 1% almond content of its almond milk was clearly communicated on the pack. Liga did not respond to our request for comment in time for the publication of this article. 

And the ‘winners’ are…

Dutch retailer Albert Heijn was awarded the unenviable first prize of most misleading product for its dried cranberry snack, sold as a superfood, which contains just short of 70% sugar. The supermarket has pledged to increase the cranberry content to 60% and use apple juice instead of pineapple juice as a sweetener by March this year.

FoodWatch campaigner Sjoerd van de Wouw told FoodNavigator it saw the retailer’s reaction as a mixed result. “It's a success that Albert Heijn will change a product due to consumer concern. Retailers should do this more often. The new product will be more in line with the expectations of the consumer and this is positive,” ​he said. 

“But we are not sure Albert Heijn will communicate on the front package that the cranberries are sweetened. We think they should and if not, they are still misleading consumers. We are currently waiting on an answer to this question.”

Meanwhile German hard discounter Aldi, nominated by consumers who scorned the truffle content of its Mama Mancini pasta – a mere 0.0006% – has now indicated that it has taken this on board and will adapt the product’s packaging by removing the truffle reference from the front of the pack.

The supermarket Plus has said it will remove its private label ‘light’ peanut butter after it received more than 20% of the votes. Plus’ Light Pindakas had boasted a 30% reduced fat content – without mentioning that this came at a cost of 451% more sugar than the regular brand.

Other Dutch supermarkets, Dirk, Dekamarkt, Co-op, Deen, Hoogvliet and EMT, which produce and sell similar ‘light’ peanut butters have also said they will stop selling them or will switch to healthier formulations.

Can brands afford to remain silent?

The benefit of responding to consumer needs for private labels is clear, says Naomi Diaz-Osborn, joint principle consultant at food innovation consultancy the Aurora Ceres Partnership (ACP).

Whilst the competition from private label is strong they still have some way to go to shed the me too tags – this means they see a positive commercial gain in reacting to consumers’ needs – they also have the wider retail context and the consumer trust they need to build.” 

According to Diaz-Osborn, brands often trade off their unchanging legacy which means that to change the ‘tried and tested’ method could actually damage their number one position.

“You only have to look at some of the disasters in the past where leading brands have changed their recipes to ‘new formulations’ only to change them back again as the consumers reacted badly. The consumer feels they ‘own’ the identity of those brands, and any change, in effect, requires their permission.”

Such loyalty allows brands a little leeway in responding to negative consumer feedback – but this comes with a caveat, says Steve Osborn, also a consultant at ACP. 

“[They] will let the furor blow over knowing they shall still have the number one slot tomorrow. However, they should be aware of complacency as the growth of private label is showing no signs of abating.”

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