Consumer Pressure on Big Food Brands

Big food brands have a problem. Consumers increasingly don’t trust them. Consider this description of the situation:

Most of our food supply comes from factory farms, is dependent on GMOs and chemicals, and is not sustainably grown or raised.

This observation comes not from radical food policy activists, but rather from the Kashi division of food industry stalwart Kellogg. It is part of a request for proposals (obtained by Ad Age) to strengthen the Kashi brand within the natural foods movement.

Big food is increasingly finding that younger consumers are alienated and distrustful of their biggest brands. A new report from the Reputation Institute indicates that Campbell, Kraft, General Mills, Coca-Cola, and Dean Foods have all seen their corporate reputations erode when compared to other consumer brand companies since 2013. Likewise the reputations of Chipotle and Panera have risen while McDonald’s has dropped.

One response has been to acquire and cultivate new brands that connect with growing consumer preference for authenticity and health. Kellogg has had a mixed experience with their acquisition of the Kashi brand. After some initial success, the brand suffered in a controversy regarding GMO ingredients. Mondelez International has pledged a hands off approach to its acquisition of Enjoy Life Foods — a snack company making allergen, gluten, paleo, and vegan claims for its products.

Another response is action to eliminate problematic aspects of a company’s food products. McDonald’s garnered praise when it moved to eliminate antibiotics from its chicken. Even Taco Bell got into the act by announcing the company would remove artificial colors and flavors from its products by the end of the year.

Such movement comes in fits and starts. Activists distrustful of big food find loopholes in their pledges. Reputations tend to build more slowly than they are harmed.

Behind all of this is a simple fact. Consumers are confused about what is healthy and authentic. “We’ve never seen the consumer as confused as they are today,” said PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi in a recent briefing.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of blame to go around for all this confusion. Overstatements about food and health — from scientists, from advocates, and from big food — compound the problem.

Discipline, integrity, and time will be needed to resolve the confusion. We hope the result will be smarter consumers and a healthier food supply.

Click here to read more from Ad Age and here to read more from the Fiscal Times. For more on corporate brand reputations, click here.

Campbell’s Soup, photograph © Roadsidepictures / flickr

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2 Responses to “Consumer Pressure on Big Food Brands”

  1. June 16, 2015 at 8:39 am, Susan Burke March said:

    The Kashi Brand is one of my greatest disappointments – before Kelloggs took over the brand, it was a low-sugar, whole grain cereal that I could trust to fit into my kind of eating plan. I just ‘googled’ “Kashi Cereal” and the first URL contains this language: “crunchy”, “sweet” – sugar, sugar, more added sugar- if you look at their roster of cereals they’re weighed heavily toward “crispy”, “crunchy”, “honey”, “clusters” – all code for added sugar.

    Kashi Cold Cereal – Whole Grain Cereals from Kashi
    Crunchy clusters, sweet squares, flakes and granola — we’ve got breakfast covered. And our cereals come with real nutrition, whole grains, toasty good taste …

    • June 16, 2015 at 10:31 am, Ted said:

      It’s real tension between selling what people will buy on impulse and building a brand that people will have good reason to trust. The temptations for short-term sales that will kill a brand’s integrity are intense.

      Thanks for your perspective, Susan.