Transparency: It’s obviously important, but for companies recognizing the need to make it a part of their brand, the best way to proceed is—ironically—not that clear. Customers want transparency, and manufacturers want to deliver it. But figuring out how to make processes transparent, how to build consumer trust, and how to make sure your customers retain their confidence in your organization in an atmosphere of polarized discussion is a complicated set of decisions to make.
“Transparency is no longer a ‘nice to have’ quality for food companies—it really is mandatory in the eyes of the consumer,” explains Katy Jones, chief marketing Officer for FoodlogiQ. “Building a culture of transparency focused on safety and quality is critical for food companies.”
Putting it in even starker terms, Prof. Ravi Jadeja, food safety specialist at Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center, frames transparency as a consumer right.
“Consumers are entitled to accurate information about their food,” he says. “They should be empowered with as much information as possible related to food safety, quality, origin, and sustainability, so that they can take informed decisions related to their food.”
As well, adopting transparency creates new customers while making old customers happy, notes Reid Paquin, industry solutions director, food and beverage, at GE Digital. “The data shows that product transparency impacts purchasing decisions,” he says, “and those brands that take advantage can increase their market share. Companies that believe food transparency is not a top consumer priority are putting themselves at risk.”
The Challenge of Change
Companies who are arriving late to the transparency game have perfectly good reasons for being behind: When an aspect of manufacturing that has never previously been a priority suddenly comes to the fore, the shift in focus demands an enormous investment in change.
Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), is happy to see manufacturers turning toward transparency, but he notes that sending out the internal memo announcing the decision to become more transparent is only the first of a long series of actions, each increasing in complexity.
Arnot explains, “The procurement department gets that memo and they say, ‘We’re going to start sharing a lot more information about where we get this product. But do we know how those vendors get their products? How far back do we have to go?’ Someone in corporate social responsibility will say, ‘This is a great move and we applaud it, but have we established what we’re going to talk about and what our values are?’ The first thing you have to focus on is getting internal alignment and making sure you’ve got buy-in from the entire organization. Then put together a process that allows you to say, ‘Here are our values. Here’s our commitment to transparency. Here’s the information we’re going to be willing to share.’”
Jones agrees, noting that transparency is ultimately about communication, and it needs to reflect supplier onboarding and effective internal communication in order to work properly when made plain to consumers.
“Open and transparent communication with your suppliers is a must for addressing these issues,” she notes. “After all, you can’t offer consumers the information they crave about your product and processes if you aren’t getting that information from your suppliers and brokers. And you cannot expect a supplier to fulfill your requirements around safety and brand promise if you aren’t open about your expectations. It’s a two-way relationship that can make a huge difference in your business.”
Yet even gathering the information that the company will now make transparent can be a challenge, because if transparency has never previously been a goal, the information may well be stored in a manner that will be laborious to bring into the light.