‘An endless cycle of re-evaluation’: How the food sector can win trust in the era of fake news

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Caiaimage /Sam Edwards
GettyImages/Caiaimage /Sam Edwards
Trust is an important currency for food brands. But in the era of social media, fake news and information overload, gaining consumer trust has become challenging. How can food businesses build trust in – and therefore loyalty to – their brands?

With reams of information at their fingertips, consumers have to look no further than their smart phones to dig the dirt on any given brand. They are bombarded with opinions, often presented as fact, on social media. The 24-hour global news cycle means that the number of breaking events are so pervasive that trust has shifted away from conventional sources, such as the mainstream media.

This cultural context has prompted a fundamental shift in the way brands and consumers interact, according to Edelman executive vice president Courtney Miller. Winning trust has become “less of a slow build to loyalty”​ and “more of an endless cycle of re-evaluation,”​ she told FoodNavigator.

Value in values

The consequences of losing consumer trust can be significant. According to recent research from Edelman, one in two people globally are “belief-driven buyers”,​ meaning the chose to switch, avoid or boycott brands based on the stand companies take on societal issues. The group’s large-scale consumer survey found 65% of shoppers said they will not buy a brand because the business has failed to address an issue.

There is an upside here too: 67% of belief-driven buyers purchased a brand for the first time because of a position it adopted on a controversial issue.

“Consumers are demanding value. Not in the sense of just price. What are a company’s values? That is intrinsically linked to trust. It has really become part of a brand’s currency,”​ Miller explained.

The consumer insight expert suggested that the biggest issues driving trust – or mistrust – in food businesses can be categorised as “functional drags​” and “emotional pulls​”.

“The functional drags are very tangible things. People want to know the farmer care that goes into their products, the process that the industry is putting into their food. But we are also seeing emotional pulls – the values and beliefs that a company or product demonstrates that works well for building trust.”

Edelman found that not only is belief-driven buying now "mainstream" globally, it also spans generations.

  • 69% of 18-34 year olds are belief-driven buyers
  • This compares to 67% of 35-54 year olds
  • And 56% of those aged 55+

As an example of building trust by appealing to emotional issues, she pointed to an initiative that Edelman is working on with Dairy Management Inc. to build trust in the category. This month DMI will launch a campaign to “close the hunger gap with kids”​ as it relates to dairy.

Chasing net zero

Sustainable world sun shining

The environmental impact of food production is an area that is vital to building trust through values. Issues like climate change have shot up the agenda, particularly among Generation Z and millennial shoppers. CPG brands that want to associate themselves with these consumer groups therefore need to prove their worth when it comes to environmental standards.

Miller suggested that shoppers are making a stronger connection between their own purchasing decisions and the broader environmental context. “People aren’t just making decisions about food. We call it ‘impact on me and my impact’. They are making decisions as much about the environmental impact of their food choices as they are about the health and wellness benefits that it can offer them and their families.”

This switch is a paradigm shift that will impact everybody across the value chain as consumers start to demand ‘net zero’ impact, Miller predicted.

There isn’t anybody across the value chain that isn’t impacted. Net zero is going to become one of these catch phrases we are seeing come through that is as much for the packaging, through to how food is made, what animals​ are fed, how they are cared for. Everybody will be impacted by this in the very long-term.”

But hitting net zero – and a company’s ability to communicate this achievement – are big asks. This makes fostering a relationship of trust more important than ever, Miller asserted. “To me, that is the single biggest thing industry can do to get ahead of this.”

Transparency will also be important here. And while Miller observed technologies like blockchain are “a little way off​” hitting the mainstream, she does believe they will play a greater role in the future.

“We are going to see technology disrupting at the supply chain level as consumers are demanding transparency not just in the products that they touch but in the process behind it. We are seeing some of that happening how, I expect it to pick up in the next couple of years.”

Hard won, easily lost

Consumer trust is harder to win than it is to lose. It requires constant diligence alongside clear, transparent communication as food makers navigate the shifting sands of consumer opinion.

“It is not as if brands can use their values and create trust, mic drop and leave. There are so many things that will cause stakeholders or consumers to re-evaluate. It requires vigilance on behalf of brands to build trust.

“Just because you won it in this day and this moment doesn’t mean you are going to keep it. Trust can be broken in a heartbeat but it needs to be built and re-built over time.”

So, how should food brands and marketers go about winning and maintaining trust?

First of all, Miller said, understand the “basic psychology around growing trust”​ things like benevolence, competence and honesty.

Edelman’s category research has also identified three further golden rules.

“One, be clear on what you say and have focus. Define what you don’t stand for as much as what you do. Two, make action match words. That is how brands today can demonstrate competence. The third is one of the more interesting areas given the shift we are seeing culturally: work to establish a very tangible, kinesthetic experience with consumers. Allowing them to see feel touch and believe for themselves. Consumers today do some of the legwork to find out what is behind a brand or product, giving them the opportunity to have that multi-sensory experience has become so much more critical.”

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