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How to make ethical FMCG branding personal and relevant

How to make ethical FMCG branding personal and relevant

By Tom Ellis, Client Development Director of Research and Strategy, 1HQ.

As marketers we are constantly challenged to understand our consumers, particularly how they look at the world and our brand / product’s place within this. Undoubtedly over the last decade there has been a huge surge in the consumers awareness of ethics in food and drink in its widest sense, from global poverty, to ‘food miles’, to organic produce.

To this end marketers must understand the role ‘ethics’ now plays in consumption decisions, many of which were untouched by such considerations not that long ago, and how they can either make more of a currently hidden differentiator or change their own behaviour for the better.

Although still driven by a vocal minority, this new tide of active consumerism has been regularly seized on by the press and brands have been trying to smarten up their act.

However, many more mainstream consumers have been influenced and, whilst taste, health and of course cost are the key factors in most decisions, many are looking for ways to do a little bit of good at the same time.

1HQ has looked into the role of ethics in food and drink, exploring this through conversations with consumers and also by looking at the semiotics of the category – the unspoken elements that drive so much of our behaviour.

In some respects the industry has been its own worst enemy; the ever increasing multitude of messages and logos (eg. Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Red Tractor etc) often seems contradictory and confusing to less engaged consumers, who are bombarded by uncoordinated information from different sources. Instead of being engaged by the messages they are instead left wondering what the point of most of these ideas are.

Equally, many of the ethical ‘outcomes’ brands boast at present lack relevance for the consumer.

Our study found that the ethical messages and ideas resonated best when consumers could personally relate to the ethics being discussed, for any reason. When this connection is made they quickly move through the ‘ethical’ gears to become highly motivated.

Media coverage that has “personal impact” has clear and immediate recall when compared to a laborious recall of more general news about ethical trading. Until this personal connection is made, consumers are likely to remain disengaged.

Another key to success for brands to understand is the tension between the ‘Realist’ and the ‘Idealist’ consumer. The ‘Realists’ find that money, time and access cause a constant tension with more lofty goals.

Whereas at the other end of the spectrum are the ‘Idealists’, who will go out of their way to keep to their principles and who influence behaviour and perception through their disproportionate voice in the media.

It is the ‘idealists’ who will drive change, but the ‘negotiations’ are conducted by the realists; brands have to find their own sweet spot between the two.

The key for all brands and ‘ethical labels’ is to provide consumers with a much stronger incentive to buy than is currently the case. Our study showed this can be best driven in the following ways:

•    Total transparency on who and what they are, what they do and their goals, for example, don’t wait for your shortcomings to be found out, admit them and set out what you’re doing to change

•    Clarity on outcomes of a consumer purchasing the product, rather than a more generic benefit. For example, Pampers link up with Unicef to provide vaccinations; One Water’s link to water pumps in Africa

•    A message that connects personally with the consumer rather than remaining at a corporate or generic message, by making the message as tailored and relevant to the target as possible

•    Don’t preach ethical messages may well not be motivating or interesting to all (or indeed the majority) of your more ‘realist’ consumers – after all they’re buying food / drink, not trying to solve world peace.

Above all its important to remember that the consumer can yo-yo between different ethical ‘attitudes’ when buying food / drink depending on a range of factors such as category, occasion, price (and even where they are shopping), in a constant tension between realism and idealism; few people are consistent in their approach across all purchases.

While many are interested in ethical factors, it is not a prime driver of purchase; but it can be a differentiator and, for some, ethical labels are key when they purchase certain products (eg. chocolate, tea, coffee, meat).

Having understood this marketers need to focus on 2 key areas if they want to play more in this arena – identifying the strongest ethical areas for your brand to communicate on and work out how to do this well:

What to communicate

•    Your ethical message must fit with your brand and build consistently over time
•    When teaming up with any ‘ethical label’, consider the strength of their ‘brand’, category relevance, clarity of message and fit with your own brand
•    Assess how much you need to communicate – generally the more consistent the ethical message is with your brand the less you need to do on pack (but consumers still value supporting messages via different media such as websites etc)
•    Finally, remember taste is still the biggest motivator in most purchases of food and drink – which can also sometimes clash with more ‘ethical’ positioning – so make sure that any packaging gets the taste-buds going first and foremost

How to do it well

•    Most consumers don’t have time or interest to seek out ethical labelling once in the shop, so any label should be clearly visible on front of pack
•    If you decide to use a new ethical label or a less established on, make sure it is crystal clear about what it means - further clarity on back of pack is a great support
•    Finally, don’t try to do too much – less is more in many cases – and making one strong commitment rather than many minor ones is always clearer and more motivating.

Overall, brands and marketer need to give this whole area a lot more thought: too often a brand’s ethical vision seems an afterthought or s smacks of ‘greenwash’, consumers can spot this a mile off.

But done well and when the messaging works together with your positioning, it can support and strengthen core brand messages, differentiate the brand and actively attract ‘ethically minded’ consumers.

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