Has “free from” marketing gone too far?


A brand’s core goal is to solve a customer need—and profitably, when you boil it down to the purpose of commerce. But addressing customer needs in your marketing is not the same thing as exploiting fears in pursuit of those profits. The proliferation of “free from” claims has reached such a fever pitch that consumers are pushing back and suggesting that brands are preying on the uninformed rather than fulfilling a true need.

The most recent example has been Triscuit, who were taken to task on social media recently for announcing their product line is now verified by The Non-GMO Project. The backlash focused on two related points: first, that the GMO-free claim was irrelevant since no genetically modified wheat is commercially available and that other, now-GMO-free ingredients like oil and salt were never a concern. Second, some consumers felt that the Non-GMO Project’s push to certify and label foods is more intent on fear-mongering than educating consumers about the facts. As Forbes put it this week in an op-ed, the claims rang hollow and the labeling was seen as “pandering to ignorance and fear.”                      

The long-term impact on the brand is likely negligible but the short-term impact isn’t great, and my heart goes out to the Triscuit brand team. I can imagine what might have led them to these supply chain, certification and labeling decisions—no small feat with a massive operation—given the prevalence of other brands with similar claims. But there are lessons to be learned by examining how consumer sentiment on GMOs has been changing, and considering improvements to the process of understanding our customers.

While every company’s process is a bit different, I can imagine the series of decisions that gets brands to decision points like these. Part of the motivation for such a certification was certainly boosting sales, yet I doubt it was as calculating as simply a way to capitalize on consumer fears. Perhaps it was spurred by a consumer insights group reporting GMOs as an ongoing consumer concern. Maybe an executive charged the division with addressing consumer worries about hot-button ingredients. It could have also been an insight provided by an agency charged with bringing trends to light to help them connect with consumer needs and desires.

Whatever the genesis, while such a claim might have been praised a few years ago, the tide is beginning to turn. It wasn’t so long ago that GMOs were one of the biggest controversies in food, and many still remember the headlines even if they can’t define what GMO means. Farmers were reporting finding genetically modified crops in fields where they never planted any, raising concerns about the impact of engineering plants to work with pesticides. Futuristic visions of lab-grown animals and meat were raising some pretty big ethical concerns among broader groups than vegans. The public became aware, with the media’s help, that GMOs were very, very bad.

More recently though, the conversation on GMOs has begun to change course. More people are becoming aware that humans have been modifying crops and animals for thousands of years by grafting plants, cross-breeding animals and introducing radiation and hybridization. In fact, a documentary was released this summer to shed light on the scientific truth about GMOs and clarify related terms like genetic engineering. And according to last week’s related Mashable interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the FDA has even ruled the term GMO “scientifically meaningless” because just about everything we eat has been genetically altered in some way.

These “free from” labels touting the absence of things gives brands license to differentiate at shelf and sell more, sometimes at a higher price point. Consumers are becoming more skeptical, and marketers are largely to blame. We’re the ones who put “gluten-free” labels on products that never had any gluten to begin with, and sell products that tout the absence of high fructose corn syrup when the same could be claimed by every competitor in a category. Food claims in particular have become downright outlandish: there’s now a gluten-free, GMO-free, kosher and organic water. In fact, some industries are pushing back on food labeling; a “Peel Back the Label” campaign from the National Milk Producers Federation that takes aim at dairy brands for deceptive practices.

While there's still a lot of value in highlighting healthy, quality products, perhaps we need to dial it back and refocus on real consumer needs. To that end, I think there are valid lessons for marketers and brand leaders in labeling and beyond, both inside and outside the food industry:

Be skeptical of data & insights         

Yes, I’m saying that as someone who specializes in consumer insights. Because regardless of the origin of the data point that people are concerned about GMOs in food, it’s also true that some portion of the population has shifted gears or is likely to in the near future. Insights, data, interviews, and even consumer complaints need to be tempered with a degree of skepticism, potentially by involving a dedicated role or outside player to your process. Even the most groundbreaking insights, forecasting and innovation processes can benefit from assigning someone to play devil’s advocate, question whether a move is wise, and ask what the nascent trends are.

Weigh factors impacting relevancy

Is the “free from” labeling craze reaching a tipping point in food? Will the same happen in beauty and other consumer packaged goods? How often is your target audience segmentation updated? How often do you routinely connect with those target consumers? Depending on the date and source of the inputs to your brand- and comms-planning processes, as well as the speed of your innovation pipeline, time to market, turnaround on packaging, and flexibility in creative and media, it’s possible to steer campaigns wrong. Scenario planning and creative testing will help your team envision alternate outcomes and mitigate risks.

Consider education as a tool

Thinking more broadly about industry leadership and current labeling practices, an old saying comes to mind: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Instead of following what your competitors are claiming, what would it look like for your brand to go out with an educational message about the facts? Would your target consumer appreciate the honesty, and could it help your product line break through the noise? Let’s think creatively about content marketing, influencer marketing, key partnerships, consumer experiences, and how brands could play the role of educator and trusted partner to consumers. By taking such an approach, industry leaders could form better bonds with consumers and create real value beyond volume.


< Back to the index