Online article for Food Dive website
Be straight with me – a new era in ‘woke’ food labelling
Jonathan A. Finch
As a copywriter, there are few better ways to speak directly to your target audience than grabbing their attention from the supermarket shelf and making their mouths water. I know from my own professional experience how important the labelling, taglines and imagery are on packaging when I’ve worked with food start-ups. Getting heard above the noise of other products is crucial, and it’s difficult – in fact, it’s impossible unless you and your product really know what you’re doing.
We aren’t living in stable times; the world is changing, and what’s more, our priorities as consumers are changing. Gone are the days when a food shopper was usually a female looking for cheap and satisfying stuff for the family. Now consumers are of all genders, ages and demographics, and they have very different priorities. How these different priorities will impact on food packaging and labelling is really what I want to explore here.
First, and perhaps most importantly for brands, is the issue of sustainability. Those of us who take an interest in this type of thing have noticed the increasing prevalence of labels such as “no palm oil” or even “500g carbon footprint” on side or front-of-pack messaging. Often this comes before any flavor or quality claims. Sure, it may taste good, but if animals had to die or forests were destroyed to make it, be aware it may leave a nasty taste in your mouth.
Packaging is shrinking, thanks mainly to the anti-plastic movement, and countries are failing repeatedly to hit their recycling targets. This has created a double challenge for food producers and their marketeers; the space available to sell the sustainability benefits of their product is getting smaller, or even vanishing, because packaging is mostly unsustainable. Space is more at a premium than ever before, and you have less space to fit in your words and graphics. It’s the old adage that you have to do more with less.
The situation for marketers gets worse when we look at foods now sold loose in store. At the moment, at least in my neck of the woods, these tend to be mainly vegetables, pulses and rice, which have not traditionally been heavily branded. But we’re seeing more foodstuffs which would usually use branded packaging sold loose and this will most certainly continue apace. What we have is a shift in the relationship between product and consumer; you often don’t pick up a packet – you bring your own reusable container and fill it up. Therefore, you base your decision less on branding and more on past experience of the product — or simply on the fact that this product produces no packaging at all – so quality or taste is bumped down your list of priorities.
However, I have spotted more and more people really engaging with those products which are still traditionally packaged – lifting their glasses to read small print about Fairtrade supply chains; scanning QR codes with their phones to learn about avoiding palm oil; and checking the traffic light labels we have in the UK (sugar, fat and salt are labelled red for high, amber for medium and green for low). It’s a complex label we see now on our ready meal dinner – balancing health, responsibility, green credentials, brand history, quality and value.
Social media has a huge role here. Recently I called out a leading supermarket that had put, directly under the customer info heading ‘Great for all of us,’ the words ‘This bag is currently not recyclable.’ You tweet that image, with the appropriate Twitter handles, and you can sit back and wait for the tsunami of tuts from consumers and meek promises to do better from the retailer. Someone had taken their eye off the pan there.
Likewise, customers have zero tolerance for brands who try to skew the data or present it in a better light than it really deserves. Take soup from a leading brand, for example. Great, thinks the buyer, this can of soup I’m having for my lunch has only 20% of my daily allowance of salt. But wait, what’s that tiny small print, in white on a light background? Per half a can? This smacks of rank dishonesty and the customer recoils, replaces the can on the shelf and chooses one that doesn’t treat them like fools. The vast majority of us, and believe me I’ve done some (unscientific) research here, would open the can, handily containing one regular bowl full, and eat it all in one portion – therefore consuming a full 40% of salt allowance in one sitting.
Having said that, it can also work in the opposite way too, for the better. I tweeted a shoutout to an organic yogurt company that has started putting special dye in their black plastic lids so recycling machinery can sort and recycle them properly. I admit that I am someone who is so against black plastic packaging that I’d buy the yogurt purely on the strength of that alone – and my Twitter friends seemed to agree – but the point is you can be rewarded as a brand if you play nicely.
As someone who loves to handle products and is lucky enough to have a hand in writing for some of them, it’s a shame to lose this close relationship – and a challenge too, as I need to further distill what used to be written on the sides of large packs, or cellophane bags. Please don’t misunderstand me. The decline of single-use plastics and non-recyclable packaging in general is a great thing and a necessary step to saving the planet. My point is, unless we in the food and marketing industry understand this and adapt, we risk losing some of the tools in our box which have worked so well for us in the past.
Consider this: As a copywriter, am I trying to sell the product or its ethos? The taste of it, or the feeling it gives us inside when we buy sustainable and healthy products? Of course, it’s a mixture of all of these, but I would argue that our focus has moved much more in favor of an ethos or a feeling rather than quality or value. That’s important if you’re someone whose job it is to speak to people’s hearts and minds. Clearly, we need to understand their priorities and their agendas – and if they aren’t sure of them, to nudge them in the direction of some good ones.
We hear the word “woke” perhaps too often nowadays and it hasn’t yet achieved universal acceptance or understanding. At its most basic level it means an emerging (or emerged) awareness of injustice or inequality. I mention it here because I see us entering a new era of woke food labelling – whether we like it or not – and we must all move with it. We should all strive to not only keep up with its pace, but also to get ahead of things where possible by trying to shape the agenda and the journey that food marketing and packaging is on.
What do I mean by that? Well, our wording needs to be more transparent and honest; branding cleaner and clearer on products being handled and read less and less; and if we’re worried about the disappearance of packaging affecting saleability or loyalty, to be cleverer at what we do. What we in the industry need to focus on is finding new ways of keeping the dialogue going, whether it is on social media, using QR codes, or any of the other ways we use to talk to those people who keep us in business.
Jonathan A. Finch is a copywriter and blogger based in Leeds, England and on @TheWordofFinch