During a recent walk down the bread, bakery and cracker aisles of my local supermarket, I was greeted with hundreds of tiny voices jockeying for my attention. "NO TRANS FATS," some shouted. "May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease," others boasted. "Good Source of Whole Grain," some whispered.
Are these claims really making an impact? How do you know if consumers really are listening?
Contrary to trends, a bakery food brand strategy that is built around health claims may be a brand weakened by its single-mindedness. This is supported by recent research done by The Hartman Group, a market research firm that specializes in analysis and interpretation of consumer participation in the health and wellness arena. The study says that by emphasizing health claims, you may risk making your product seem unnatural, especially if you are highlighting an element that is not normally associated with the food. Highlighting whole grains in a bakery food is fine, but to add a functional ingredient that is not normally associated with the product could backfire— even though the ingredient may have a compelling health benefit. An example of this is the recent trend to add omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil to breads, which consumers may not find appealing as an ingredient in their morning toast.
Consumers are attracted to a product on the shelf for many reasons. Some consumers are health driven, whom The Hartman Group calls the "core consumer," and for that group nutritional content, a simple ingredient list, and production standards seals and certifications make a big difference. Health claims are at the bottom of the list of factors that influence their buying decisions.
For most consumers, whom the research calls "midlevel" and "periphery" consumers, product description, nutrition facts and brand allegiance top the list of important label components. These same consumers are the most likely to experiment with functional foods.
Instead of focusing on health claims, this research shows that giving consumers factual, easy-to-find information should be the main focus. Trained to turn a deaf ear to the traveling salesman's hawking claims, consumers want to know the facts: what ingredients are included (fiber) or excluded (trans fat), not what the product might be able to do for them. This does not mean consumers can take on a laundry list of additives—too much and they may surmise your product as overly processed. Similarly, the terms "Lite/Light" and "Natural" cause suspicion, especially for consumers who are very knowledgeable about health and wellness issues.
It also is important to understand the roles cultures play in consumers' buying decisions. Another study conducted by this same research group found that most people, with the exception of the Latino and Mexican cultures, have stopped thinking of food as medicine and are wary of using it as such. Many years ago, our grandmothers taught us to use folk remedies for ailments. Prunes, for digestive health, may still be a widely held belief, but for the most part, consumers seek pills rather than food to address specific health concerns.
No matter what claims you decide to implement, make sure they are not in conflict with the overall visual positioning of the packaging design. A decadent dessert product must have claims designed so that consumers feel good about their buying decisions without contradicting the promise of indulgence and delicious taste. A product with its package designed for kid appeal should have claims presented in a device that supports the playful positioning, but serious enough for the parent to feel good about giving it to his or her children. Health claims can be a bit of an added bonus, but solid brand positioning created by healthful, delicious products that are reflected in its packaging design, is still much more important. Today's trendy new claim cannot build that always critical strong sense of brand allegiance over the long haul.
Dan Mishkind is principal of Pure Design Co. LLC, an award-winning agency that specializes in branding and packaging design for natural products. Prior to founding Pure Design Co., Dan was a design director for The Walt Disney Co. and he taught publication design at Harvard University. For more information, go to www.puredesignco.com.