GMOs or no GMOs: The War of Labels

Today the United States doesn’t require food producers and manufacturers to divulge whether any of the ingredients listed on a product are genetically modified. During the election this month, we were watching California’s Proposition 37, because of the implications it could have had (and that a GMO labeling law still could have) on how food companies brand themselves and their products. What’s Prop 37? In a nutshell: It was created to require food companies to identify any GMOs – genetically modified organisms – on their food product labels. SPOILER ALERT: Prop 37 didn’t pass. But, if it had, Prop. 37 would also have prohibited food manufacturers from advertising any GMO food ingredient (with more than a few exceptions) as “natural.” Which has major implications for food companies AND anyone who does marketing for food products.

A war of brand definition, as well as GMO ingredients

From a vantage point in crunchy-granola Oregon, it’s easy to interpret Prop. 37 as a war about truth, justice, and food freedom waged by greedy multinational conglomerates on the one side, and crunchy, health-conscious do-gooders on the other. But for those of us in the marketing and advertising industry, the GMO labeling war is about how food companies define their brand in response to consumer perceptions, fears and desires. The GMO issue demonstrates how advertising and media coverage can shift consumer perception to create a new reality – one that brands must respond to if they want to stay in the game.

Exhibit A: GMO = Evil?

Media coverage and advertising have made consumers increasingly fearful about the chemicals that go into food. In fact, avoidance of pesticides is the single biggest reason why people turn to organically grown produce. Genetically modifying plant foods was initially viewed as a good way for poor countries to produce more food with fewer expensive – and harmful – pesticides. But over time, natural-food advocates – and companies – have shifted the perception of GMO food ingredients from beneficial to evil. “GMO” now sounds like something harmful… just like MSG, BHT, HFCS and other chemicals that can harm your health.

GMO labeling: A boon to natural food marketers

Food companies that already avoid GMO ingredients would have been instantly able to differentiate their products – and brands – as healthy, natural and free of ingredients perceived as unhealthy, artificial or even evil in the minds of some consumer. Could it be that, because Prop. 37 failed, natural food companies lost the opportunity to boost sales simply by having their competitors’ products labeled “unhealthy” in some consumers’ eyes? Advocates on both sides of Prop. 37 donated a lot of money – all told, more than $50 million to the campaigns for and against GMO labeling. Proponents of the bill, including well-known “natural” brands such as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Clif Bar and Co., Amy’s Kitchen and Nutiva, donated more than $8 million to the Yes on Prop. 37 campaign. The no-labeling side donated more than $45 million to the other side. Big donors against GMO labeling included brands like Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Heinz Foods, Kellogg Co., Campbell’s Soup and Kraft Foods. Because Prop. 37 failed, food companies that identify themselves as natural and healthy lost the opportunity to boost sales – and their claims of differentiation – simply by owning the GMO-free label. Had big, mainstream companies been forced to disclose the use of GMO ingredients in their products, natural food companies would have had their own brands positioned for them as a wholesome alternative to competing, “unhealthy” brands – without spending a dime.

You are what you think you eat

Increasingly, consumers want their food to be transparent, and food advertising has shifted to meet that demand. As people’s awareness of food allergies and the obesity epidemic grows, more consumers scrutinize labels to make sure they’re getting certain ingredients in their diets, and avoiding others. Food companies are aware of this, so they label their foods with health claims they think will resonate with consumers’ hopes and anxieties. But whether an ingredient is actually harmful or beneficial doesn’t seem to matter as much as a food’s perceived effects. What you see on the box is more than a list of ingredients. It’s a story about those ingredients, and how they’ll make your life better. Post Foods, for instance, has only recently started labeling Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles as gluten-free even though both cereals – which are rice-based – have been gluten-free since they were first created. Are these cereals actually healthful? Probably not. But it’s clearly worthwhile for Post to label these cereals as compliant with a certain kind of diet, so health-conscious parents can purchase them for gluten-intolerant children with a clear conscience. These days, you’re not what you eat. You’re what you think you eat. Labels like “gluten-free” tell us both what’s in the food, and how we should feel about it. But food companies shouldn’t heave a sigh of relief just yet. Prop. 37 isn’t an anomaly – it’s an indication of a cultural shift. Consumers will continue to demand greater transparency around food, as natural food companies and health advocates continue to talk about the health effects of GMOs and other “unnatural” ingredients. If a high-profile study finds a significant link between GMOs and health problems, another Prop. 37 could appear not only in California, but in other states, too. And next time around, public perception on the issue could shift substantially. Until then, the right to know – and to care – is in the hands of each consumer. Now it’s up to creative marketers to figure out how to differentiate their companies in an environment of increasingly transparent labeling that drives consumer perceptions. Do you work in an industry that’s dealing with shifting customer perceptions and expectations? Love to hear how you’re dealing with it….tell us in the comments below!

Post Date
November 20, 2012
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