Negative labelling does fresh produce industry no favours

VIDEO: Dr John Stanton pleads with the produce industry to "say something good" on product labels

In an entertaining presentation to the recent London Produce Show and Conference that took in references to My Fair Lady, and tales of falling from a stage, Dr John Stanton, Professor of Food Marketing at St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, argued eloquently why placing claims such as “No GMOs” and “No Pesticides” on labels may actually have an adverse impact on the fresh produce sector

Why do consumers choose one product over another in supermarket aisles? What is the psychology behind picking up a tin of soup rather than a bunch of bananas? Getting into the minds of customers is a multi-million-pound industry with countless papers and focus groups dedicated to unlocking the secrets behind consumers’ intention to buy.

A new research study carried out by Professor John Stanton and his team at St Joseph’s University has discovered that packaging statements and label claims have a significant impact on consumers’ purchasing decisions. No real surprise there then. But what the study did find was that negative statements – “No GMOs” and “No Pesticides “for instance – can not only dampen enthusiasm to buy, but they also cast less than positive aspersions across the entire product category.

Consumer sophistication

So, in essence, Professor Stanton believes the food industry – and by implication the produce sector – is shooting itself in the foot when it insists on placing ‘no this’ and ‘no that’ on its labels. Consumers, he concludes, aren’t sophisticated enough to evaluate the negatives.

Speaking to a packed Buckingham Suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Stanton explained that his research was prompted by his analysis into the on-going decline of milk sales. He wanted to know why this was the case and whether the proliferation of negative information on milk labels – “No Hormones” for example - rather than positive claims – “Builds Strong Bones” – was a factor.

However, while the primary research centred on dairy, apples and tomatoes formed part of the secondary research. And it’s here where Stanton argues that the fresh produce sector is indeed self-harming because the lack of any additional information on produce labels is worrying. 

“The produce industry tells them the only thing they know – it’s asparagus,” he pointed out. “We need to tell the customers more. Many fresh fruit suppliers don’t use any descriptive words,” he said as he showed delegates two funny descriptions of bananas. “But it’s like adjectives are unknown to the produce market.”

He then noted a statement used by McDaniel and Baker in 1977 when they declared that, “the label on the packaging provides the manufacturer with the final opportunity to persuade prospective buyers prior to brand selection”.

And yet, Stanton despairs about the paucity of persuasive information on fresh produce labels. “Every prepared product uses words like ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’. We don’t say ‘wonderful apples’, or ‘the best tasting apples in the world’. Someone said ‘but people might object to that’. But you go to coffee shops that claim to serve the best cup of coffee.” 

Purchasing decisions

St Joseph’s research then was most interested in the impact labelling statements – with particular emphasis on negative claims – have on awareness and intention to buy. In what way do two contrasting statements, but with the same message (“All natural” or “No preservatives’”, alter consumers’ purchasing decisions?

In an unaided study St Joseph’s asked consumers to talk about their feelings towards milk, apples and tomatoes. Almost everything they said was positive. Unsurprisingly taste came out top. As Stanton pointed out since he began research into food 40 years ago, one thing has not changed. He said: “Taste is king. You can make low sodium, you can make low fat, you can make whatever you want but if it doesn’t taste good it won’t be successful.”

However, despite all these positive connotations associated with fresh produce, the labels and packaging still don’t play up these thoughts.

“Tell them something for God’s sake,” he urged those in the produce supply chain. “Everyone else does it. Soup companies make a virtue of the healthy properties in their cans. The meat people are saying it has protein and all these things and then we turn the corner into the produce section and it tells us the name of the food. We’re in a category that has seemed to think that it has no obligation to convince people that what we’re delivering them has the kind of attributes that they said they value.”

What the study then found was when you bring negative labels into play - even those that are attempting to spin a positive message – for example “No GMOs” –there is a depressive impact on intention to buy.

Stanton wondered why this is. What are people reacting to? Is it that they understand GMOs and they really don’t want GMOs? Or is it the word “no” they are reacting to? So he carried out another experiment, this time creating a made-up factor - in this case the claim “No Phylecomides”. Again this had a negative impact on the intention to buy.

‘Say something good’

He concluded that it’s not the attribute consumers are concerned about, it’s the fact the word “no” is on the label or that the label has taken a negative position.

“The biggest dilemma, we believe, is when you tell people that your product doesn’t have something,” he said. “The assumption is that GMOs must be bad for you. Why would you tell people it doesn’t have something unless it’s meaningless? So what does that say about the rest of your products?”

He pleaded with the fresh produce sector to say something on its labels “and say something good. What’s most shocking is that the majority of fresh products don’t have any attributes or benefits listed,” he noted. “We don’t tell them why our products are good for them. We don’t even tell them how good they taste. Everyone does that. The produce industry is going to have to use every available media to remind consumers whether it’s online or in-store and tell them about it.”

Summing up, he felt there is good news among the bad. The good news is that consumers generally have nothing but positive feelings towards fresh produce. “They actually love the products,” he enthused.

The bad news is that the sector is not doing the public justice in keeping them informed and knowledgeable on how good it really is, and reinforcing what they believe, as opposed to telling them the things our food doesn’t have.

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