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  • Writer's pictureMeyrick Consulting

The Not so Clean Label Food Industry - Where did we go wrong?

Clean label is not just new buzz word for food manufacturers around the globe, food companies have been trying to adopt clean label principles in their products and offering more transparent, natural and organic food options for a long time and whilst some of the more established food brands have built a following amongst clean label consumers - there has been a clear lack of focus on this side of the food and ingredients industry for almost 5-years now.

The shift towards developing clean label could arguably be attributed to the rise of organic foods several years ago. Still, one thing is certain, consumer demand for clean label foods coupled with increasing awareness about nutrition, health, artificial additives and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is one of the main contributors behind a consumer's buying decision.

It would, however, appear there are some roadblocks which have halted clean label development among manufacturers and suppliers. So let's discuss what could possibly be holding up one of the main driving forces behind consumer purchasing.

Consumer Awareness Gap

People are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of clean label foods, but not everyone knows what it really means, which has led to some unscrupulous branding and misleading marketing. As a result, people began to lose trust in the 'so-called' clean label branding. In the past, consumers were more likely to prefer non-organic food items with clean label branding.

But, Organic foods are not allowed to contain any artificial additives, GMOs or chemical pesticides. On the other hand, clean label foods are not bound by any restrictions and can contain artificial ingredients, GMOs and chemical pesticides. While organic and clean label foods are not the same, it makes sense for food manufacturers to adopt a clean label approach in their products, especially as research has shown consumers are willing to pay a premium for them.

What is concerning though is that the initial surge in demand for clean label was met by nothing more than clever marketers taking advantage of the huge opportunity for food manufacturers to make the most of the clean label trend and drive their sales.

At least by some...

Lack of Trusted Brands in the Market

Whilst consumers may have blindly chosen any product with clean label branding in the past - this isn't true today. Consumers need to see a reason why they should prefer a certain product over others. The best way to overcome this challenge has been to become the trusted brand in the market by creating strong brand equity. This brand equity has become questionable in value over the years as Gen-Z joined the consumer markets and is much more open to trying new products.

Think about this - branding is an essential part of any product marketing strategy and can help manufacturers capture a significant share of the market. It has been said that consumers will always prefer to buy products from a trusted and reliable brand as this makes it easier for them to trust the benefits of clean label products and make the purchase decision easier. Although, we continue to see new and exciting food brands achieving prominent placement in stores across the globe quickly followed by expansion and growth of these companies.

So is brand equity a real thing anymore, or is it a constant battle to the death for new and more established food brands? - give me your opinion in the comments.

Shifting Consumer Demand and Behaviour

So we know consumers are increasingly moving towards clean label foods. Consumers want to feel like they are making the right decision, the healthier, cleaner option - and whilst this may or may not always be true when selecting foods with clean label branding - times just got more brutal, and so we could be witnessing a case of blissful ignorance by consumers.

Are food manufacturers just giving consumers what they want? - a cheap, 'clean label branded' product to make them feel good about the purchase or is there deception on a grand scale?

If consumers really wanted clean label food products, they would surely opt for the high-end organic products that are regulated and follow strict production guidelines, no?

Limitations in Supply Chain and Manufacturing Processes

We can't keep poking at the manufacturers as they collate more data and research than we would ever have the time to read, let alone actually interpret, so let's look at the challenge from their perspective.

Limitations in supply chain and manufacturing processes would certainly play a part - if food manufacturers don't have the resources and/or capabilities to adopt clean label practices or develop their products in this way then we shouldn't expect this. Not every food company should be fighting to develop shorter lists of ingredients or commit to producing unprocessed foods. Sometimes food is food and people will buy it because it tastes good and is priced right for them.

What we do know, is producing processed foods with long lists of 'chemical-sounding' ingredients can be easier or at least quicker to develop when considering the sensory expectations of consumers. Hence why creating truly clean label products might not be in the real interests of consumers right now as purse strings are tightened.

Wrapping Up

Exploring different factors that have tarnished the clean label movement over the years, leaving many manufacturers without a 'clean label game-plan', has raised more questions than it's answered:

  1. Are food brands purposely using misleading branding to coerce buyers into making a 'false' investment, or are they simply allowing consumers to feel good about their purchasing decisions?

  2. Why have new food brands abandoned the development and marketing under the clean label initiative? - have consumers wholly lost trust in this style of branding?

  3. Does brand equity have any value in today's consumer markets?

We will almost certainly be following up on these questions next week but I would love to hear your thoughts!


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