Let's Take The B.S. Out Of Food Marketing

As I stared at a seemingly endless array of packaged chicken parts in a high-end grocery store recently, a mother of two strode up to the refrigerated section and decisively grabbed a package that promised “All-Natural Free-Range” chicken. “Yes!” she exclaimed to her kids. “Here they are!”

“Why those?” I couldn’t help but ask her, intrigued by her unbridled enthusiasm. She wanted this brand and its chickens, she told me, because these hens were humanely kept, free of hormones, antibiotics and other bad stuff. What’s more, she said she believed the parts in the package came from the same chicken. Clearly, in her mind, the chicken parts had come from a happy, healthy hen roaming a rural field before being humanely butchered and gingerly tucked in the packaging she held. 

Amazing. This articulate, educated woman was paying a premium for a “natural” product because of a dream in her head. As a marketing professional I was delighted — and more than a little dismayed. I politely let her move on without explaining that the breasts were undoubtedly from different chickens, that “free range” simply means the poultry had been allowed access to the outdoors, that federal regulations prohibit the use of all hormones in poultry, and that the only substantial requirement for “natural” chicken is that they contain no artificial ingredients. Indeed, this bird and others like it probably ingested antibiotics. At any rate, there is no process to verify most of the claims on food labels. So who knows?

Not consumers. Shoppers are shelling out a lot of money for products they believe are good because of clever marketing, labeling, and claims they don’t understand. Some of them may be as happy as my fellow shopper to pay more for products they believe to be better than others. It helps them feel good about the choices they are making for their families. And it helps keep food companies fat. But this isn’t going to last. 

Recently, we asked 300 consumers around the country about their knowledge and understanding of the foods they buy. To my surprise, 76% of respondents said they were more concerned today than they were three years ago about the food they eat. But only 30% of them could define the meaning of an “organic” product. A majority said they were concerned about GMOs — and those who buy non-GMO products pay a premium for them — but only 24% knew the meaning of “GMO,” or genetically modified organisms. (By the way, all certified organic products are non-GMO. But a product labeled “non- GMO” isn’t necessarily organic.)

Is ignorance bliss when it comes to food buying? Not necessarily. There are signs of growing skepticism and label fatigue in the market. We found that 72% of shoppers believe some food labels and terms are meaningless. Twelve percent are outright disbelieving of company claims. Marketers beware: How much longer will consumers continue to pay a premium for products with an unclear or, worse, a misleading promise?

With all the talk of educating and engaging consumers in a transparent world, I believe there is an opportunity for smart food companies to inform consumers more honestly about the products they sell. 

This won’t be easy. Companies will resist. But shoppers like that woman clutching the chicken parts in the grocery store? They want to be informed and will appreciate being enlightened. And they will reward honest companies by buying and recommending their products again and again. Bullshit-free food marketing. Isn’t it time?

9 comments about "Let's Take The B.S. Out Of Food Marketing".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, January 12, 2015 at 9:54 a.m.

    Good points here. But. While consumers say they want honesty and transparency, they will hold on to their beliefs no matter what they may read or be told. When one piece of half-baked science appears in a magazine, or some celebrity espouses it, consumers believe that, no matter what facts are presented. It's this type of faith that your chicken-shopper probably brought to the store with her, and nothing you said or did would change her mind.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 12, 2015 at 10:46 a.m.

    Not everyone is a scientist so it is hard for everyone to believe in science. It's better to believe in labels when there are higher profits to be made for the oligarchic food manufacturers and no laws to stop them. The lemmings are winning according to marketers. It's not new. Sometime about 2000 years ago, marketers proved if they said the same thing enough times to scare enough people, they would believe.

  3. Grant Ingle from Grant M. Ingle and Associates, January 12, 2015 at 12:15 p.m.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment to take the B.S. out of food marketing. Have you seen this video on the topic?:

    Recently Consumers Union (CU) tested 80 different processed food products, many labeled as "natural" and found almost all of them contained GMO food ingredients:( . Based on these results, CU is now lobbying for legislation that would prohibit food products with GMO ingredients from being labeled as "natural."

    Your assertion that non-GMO food products are more costly than products with GMO ingredients doesn't hold up, however. Go to a conventional supermarket and pick out ten foods you regularly buy that have likely GMO ingredients -- soy, corn, canola oil, sugar beet sugar (not labeled as cane sugar) and/or cotton seed oil. Then check a Whole Foods for hose brand equivalent non-GMO products. What you'll find is that supermarket brand name products and even many store brand products are priced higher than house brand products at a Whole Foods. Take mayonnaise for example. At my local supermarket, Cains sells for $4.99/30 oz. and Hellman's sells for $4.29 for 30 oz. Down the street at Whole Foods its 365 Non-GMO Verfied mayonnaise sells for $3.99/32 oz. You'll find similar results for many other prepared foods. The notion that non-GMO food products will always be more expensive than GMO products is also the result of B.S. marketing. Big food doesn't want consumers to know about this deception or know when GMOs are in their food...

  4. Michael Selz from Hummingbird Strategy, January 12, 2015 at 12:37 p.m.

    Well said. And those who observe that consumers are complicit in their own deception may be missing the point, or at least the opportunity. Cynicism is a very lazy, low-energy state. Give a consumer a reason to shed it and they are engaged, and frankly, empowered. You build something rare nowadays -- brand loyalty.

  5. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, January 12, 2015 at 2:54 p.m.

    Consumers who choose to believe as they see are not cynical. On the contrary, they are very passionate about their positions, to the extent that a rational explanation does not hold up to a fervent belief. In many cases, science doesn't stand a chance vs. belief, in food choices or other areas.

  6. Steve Savage from, January 13, 2015 at 11:41 a.m.

    Thanks for a well written summary - I'll mention you encouraging stats about some consumer push-back later this month in a talk for Alberta growers about "Navigating Food Marketing Trends." I think the absurd thing that we often miss because it is so common is that so much food is marketed for what it is not rather than what it is. "The marketing of non-existence." Its a symptom of a rich society more easily manipulated by fear than informed by knowledge

  7. Marc Brazeau from Food and Farm Discussion Lab, January 13, 2015 at 4:43 p.m.

    Grant Ingle:
    I just made a little trip to my local Whole Foods and my Fred Meyer for a little comparison shopping.

    This is what I found:
    All WH products were NGMO and noted when Organic. In cases where package sizes were different I have calculated unit price and equalized the price per package. For soy milk, all the WH offerings were organic, so I compared the one NonGMO Project certified soy milk at FM to the cheapest soy milk at FM.

    WH $3.74 FM $2.39 - 36% more
    Canola Oil
    WH $3.12 FM $2.29 - 26% more
    WH $4.99 FM $1.99 - 60% more
    Corn Tortillas
    WH(O) $5.31 FM 1.79% - 66% more
    Corn Tortilla Chips
    WH(O) $2.99 FM $2.19 - 26% more
    Soy Milk
    Silk $2.49 Pacific $1.99 - 20% more

    These were the products where the GE crop is the main ingredient. It is pointless to try to detect a 5% difference across a basket of items comparing just two stores and trying to match one frozen dinner to another in terms of quality and certification.

    Given the greater costs of pesticides, lower productivity and costs of segregation and certification, how could Non GMO certified products NOT be more expensive on balance?

  8. Grant Ingle from Grant M. Ingle and Associates, January 13, 2015 at 5:14 p.m.

    That may be the case in your market area. Here in New England it's not the case I have done comparisons of prices at Whole Foods, Stop & Shop and Big Y and I find. There are no Fred Meyer stores in New England that I'm aware of.'s not clear what you are comparing to what. For example, organic will almost always be more expensive than Non-GMO Verified. I examine food products weekly, comparing private brands made with GMO ingredients versus Non-GMO Verified Whole Foods 365 house brand...and I take photos to document the prices and products I find. I almost always find the WF Non-GMO Verified house brands to be cheaper than private label brands in nearby supermarkets, and occasionally the same price. The assertion that Non-GMO Verified is more expensive than equivalent GMO foods is not substantiated in my experience.

  9. Pete Healy from gyro, January 14, 2015 at 5:55 p.m.

    Great post, Kevin, and great comments. I regret that, as a long-time food marketer, I've come to share Jonathan Hutter's POV on what drives so many consumers: in essence, the attitude that "I've made up my mind, so don't bother me with the facts." Hard to fault them, though, when we're so deluged every day with misleading label claims and marketing hype, not to mention food-related news stories written by "journalists" too lazy to fact-check - and all amplified by uninformed social media chatter. Whew. Where does that leave us? Right where you describe, Kevin: the opportunity - the obligation, in my view - for us food marketers to stop "spinning," stop playing off "food fears," and and get honest in our messaging.

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