“People feel empowered by the ability to access information,” Arnot says. “The challenge for the food industry is that it might not be accurate information, and it might not be coming from the food system. That’s one of the places where as a food system we need to figure out where we can improve. We have to be in the places consumers go to find information.”
Arnot singles out Campbell’s and Hershey for their recent successes in making information available through SmartLabels and QR codes (a system also endorsed by Jones, whose FoodLogiQ sells software that generates such codes). This is effective in giving consumers one-stop information.
Also recently launched is the SmartLabel Sponsored by Mondelēz International app that makes in-store access to detailed product information on Mondelēz’s snacks possible from smartphones. More than 1,100 products across its U.S. snack product portfolio—biscuits crackers, cookies, chocolate, gum, and candy—are searchable through the new app as well as online at www.smartlabel.org.
For more complex information, however, consumers will likely contact the manufacturer. At that point, Arnot underlines, it is integral for companies to be ready to respond as quickly as possible.
“If someone decides they’re interested enough to send an inquiry to the Contact-Us button on your website, the expectation is that they’re going to get a response within eight hours,” he says. “If you don’t make that happen, then you begin to be perceived as less responsive, and that equates to less transparent. We know consumers are looking for ‘The information that’s relevant to me, when I want it, from the source that it want it from, at the time that I want it.’ That’s part of what creates the challenge for companies today.”
Arnot also encourages developing company websites that are simple, clear, and user-friendly. The CFI advises manufacturers to strive for websites that will not challenge consumers, leading them to become frustrated and give up. When the CFI has had third-parties evaluate company websites, he stresses, invariably, manufacturers believe they are far more transparent than they actually are.
“Companies would say, ‘It’s there! You really just have to know exactly where to find it! You just have to go six clicks in on this particular tab and stand on your left foot on Friday, and it’s there!’” Arnot laughs. “Really, the three-click rule applies, where anything should be available to you within about three clicks. That makes sure you’ve got your website organized in such a way so that people who are interested in your ingredients, where your products come from, your sources, your people, impact on the environment, can find whatever they’re looking for quickly and with a minimum of obstacles.”
Arnot reflects that during the battle over genetically modified organisms, the idea of “GMOs” became a shorthand for consumers to express distrust in industrialized food systems. For that reason, he and the CFI want to see manufacturers cultivating trust among their customers: If companies can encourage consumers to trust them, that means consumers will be more likely to get information from them directly, rather than going through blogs and social media discussion groups where the information shared may be less accurate and more shaped by ideology. However, in order to promote trust among consumers, manufacturers need to build practices consumers can have faith in.
“The primary driver of trust is the perception of shared values—that’s three to five times more important in building trust than providing factual information,” Arnot explains. “It’s about helping people understand: What are the values of your organization? What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Are those values consumers can align with? And how do you actually demonstrate those values in your organization? Above all, consumers want to know most about a company’s practices. Because the practices are what you do every day, they really are your values in action. They want to know what you do, why you do it, and your values. That level of transparency gives consumers a greater sense of confidence they can trust.”