How the food industry can navigate the challenges of marketing sustainability

Gone are the days that food companies compete primarily on taste or the healthiness of their products. Today’s consumers increasingly care about the social and environmental impacts of their food — and for good reason. Specifically looking at environmental impact, over a quarter of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production.

In response to consumers’ demand for action and the adverse effects of climate change harming the long-term health of their business, food companies have ramped up their sustainability strategies. From Mars committing to a 27% reduction in emissions by 2025 to top food conglomerates forming coalitions that address climate change amplifiers like One Planet Business for Biodiversity, the majority of food production companies are taking big steps towards climate action. However a strong sustainability strategy is only half the battle, and many food brands are failing to effectively tell their sustainability story.

Every strategy needs a story

Storytelling around sustainability strategy is important for all businesses, and especially vital for food companies. By communicating sustainability impact, a company can garner support from stakeholders in the form of increased sales, investment, or higher retention of top talent. This, in turn, allows the business to prosper and creates a positive feedback loop for impact and shared value creation.

Yet the food industry’s strong connection to the climate crisis coupled with the inundation of information and declining consumer trust makes marketing sustainability to consumers more difficult than ever.

Complicated communications hurt trust

As concern for climate action heats up, consumers are beginning to realize how their purchase decisions play a role. To lessen their impact and guilt, more consumers are willing to pay a premium for ‘sustainable’ products that are touted as “environmentally friendly,” or use recycled packaging. In fact, consumers are predicted to spend $150 billion on these products by 2021. An example of this is the meteoric rise of the plant-based food movement, where companies like  Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are experiencing double-digit sales growth, compared to 2% growth for all food sales. 

A Neilsen survey revealed that 67% of American consumers want to know everything that goes into the food they buy, and just under half (46%) say that claims on food products have a direct influence on their purchase decisions. With this increased sustainability awareness and consideration in the eye of the consumer, the sustainability marketing floodgates have opened. Companies are vying to prove their sustainability prowess and drive sales — from promoting  recyclability and reusability of packaging, to lauding the elimination of controversial ingredients like palm oil, to stamping the product with topical seals and certifications. And while certifications and claims in their purest form are important and necessary, their sheer volume paired with the somewhat contradictory messaging has resulted in a complex pool of information for consumers to wade through.

The flood of sustainability marketing has created confusion among consumers and  a decline in trust. A 2018 study from the Center for Food Integrity found that only a quarter of consumers trust the food system, a drop from 37% in the previous year. Given that the majority of US consumers incorporate their level of brand trust into their purchase decision, this is bad news for the food business. In the same study, 80% of consumers stated that they moderately or strongly agree that they are more concerned about global warming and climate change than they were a year ago

There is no single solution for more effective sustainability marketing that helps break through the noise while earning back trust. However, companies can improve by embracing transparency, remembering health, being bold, and tapping into the power of partnerships.

Transparency without self-promotion

Transparency allows food brands to have their sustainability marketing stand out while gaining consumer trust. This might seem contradictory to the earlier point about information overload, but instead of forcefully promoting transparency to consumers, food companies can peel back the curtain to reveal where their product comes from, how it’s made, and the impacts related to its production. This, in turn, helps appease the hyper-environmentally conscious influencers’ desire for detailed information before making a purchase, which cascades down to the larger follower group of consumers. For example, Vital Farms, an egg and dairy farm, approaches this form of genuine transparency by allowing its shoppers to enter the name of the farm their eggs originated from on their website and view a live webcam of the chickens milling about.

Make the health connection

Another challenge faced by the food industry when communicating sustainability to the consumer is the close connection the industry has to the health of the planet. 

Healthier food choices almost always benefit the environment according to University of Oxford. It’s also much easier for shoppers to associate their food with climate impacts than it is to associate with their iPhone or watching cat videos on the internet. Balancing the messaging between “good for the planet” and “good for the consumer” and articulating the connection between the two, builds trust and appeals to the consumer’s chief concern — their family’s health. Nature’s Path is a perfect example of this with their “Eat like the world depends on it” messaging. 

In a  slightly different approach, Annie’s addresses this connection in part in how the company packages its Mac & Cheese products – one more focused on health, the other more on the planet. Health is still the lead in Annie’s product messaging, however the sustainability marketing of a neighboring box, helps position them in the consumer mind as also environmentally-conscious. 

The bolder the better

One powerful way to help break through the noise and increase trust is through bold strategy or goals, with the caveat that there must be substance behind the boldness. Audacious goals with a reasonable strategy and investment for tackling them, amplified by effective storytelling, can help a brand stand out from the pack. Boldness helps convince the audience of the company’s commitment, while also providing a powerful story that the brand can stand on and distinguish itself by. For example, Chobani has committed to several “north star” goals including sending zero waste to landfills, becoming water neutral, and making all packaging either fully recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, or made from recycled content.

Don’t do it alone 

Food companies too often make the mistake of telling their sustainability story exclusively about themselves, and rely solely on their marketing team for communication efforts. The more brands can embed their other stakeholders into their story, the more genuine and trusting it comes across. For example, Chobani proudly celebrates key NGO partnerships like its work with the World Wildlife Fund around the “Future of Dairy.” Similarly, partnering with customers or suppliers can help increase credibility especially if the partner has strong brand equity with consumers. An example is General Mills who partnered with natural grocery chain Sprouts to tell its sustainability story in the retailer’s weekly ad.

Brands also should not solely rely on the corporate or brand voice to spread its sustainability story and should tap into the immense potential of their employee base. Employees often have a greater reach (up to eight times more) than corporate social media handles, and in the eyes of consumers, a higher level of trust than that of the company’s CEO, Founder, or PR department

Long but necessary road ahead

Of course there are many more challenges food companies face in marketing sustainability —from greenwashing, to FTC regulation on environmental claims, to sugarcoating reality, or being perceived as disingenuous. And while climate change might currently be the most topical issue in the eye of the consumer, other ESG issues still must be managed and communicated. The bottom line is, the better a food company can tell their sustainability story, the better they can win back consumer trust, drive sales, future-proof their business, and fuel positive impact for society.