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What’s Causing So Many Brands to Start Cleaning Up their Labels?

Author: Rebecca Miller, Smoothie King Chief Marketing Officer on: Mar 13, 2020

Clean food and product labeling was arguably the top trend in the food and beverage industry in 2018. There is a growing body of research demonstrating just how important clean labels and product transparency are to consumers. For example:

But how did we get to this point?

The Main Contributors to the Shift in Consumer Behavior

On one hand, consumers – or at least a certain subset of consumers – have always cared about what they put into their bodies. But this era of always-connected consumers through social media and mobile technology has helped push awareness into overdrive.

Nearly everyone is walking around with a smartphone with immediate access to friends, family members and health and wellness influencers through social media. As opposed to previous eras when consumers had to actively search for food label and ingredient information, they now simply have to scroll through their newsfeeds and the information virtually flows to them. It’s created a hyper-informed public when it comes to clean-label consumption.

It’s not surprising that each generation has a different impact on brands cleaning up their labels.

Generational Shifts that Are Spurring a Greater Push for Cleaner Lifestyles

Millennials are leading the charge for cleaner labels. Identified as those born between 1981 and 1996, this consumer demographic is firmly in the driver’s seat. Alongside their generational successors – Generation Z – they are more willing to pay for better-for-you food options. As millennials have started achieving personal milestones like purchasing homes, cars and having children, they’re beginning to have an impact on future generations. Their consumption habits are influencing their children and families, which will likely sustain consumer demand for cleaner labels and transparency far into the future.

What Are the Challenges Posed in Cleaning Up a Brand’s Label?

There’s a lot at stake for food and beverage brands operating in the health and wellness space when they make the decision to clean up their labels. First, they need to maneuver around customer expectations for providing better-for-you food options that still satisfy taste buds. Meanwhile, there are supply chain issues in being able to source ingredients that allow them to clean up their labels without disrupting operations at the store level. Additionally, you have to meet legal standards for any claims the brand makes through sales and marketing materials with respect to ingredients.

Just the sheer size of the initiative can be daunting for most companies. It impacts every department in the organization, so it requires commitment across the board.

Cleaning up your label is a long process. You have to work with manufacturers to change ingredients and make them proprietary to the brand. Years of product reformulations, testing and legal vetting add up from resource and cost standpoints. At the same time, you have to ensure you’re maintaining the same great flavors your guests have come to expect. Only then can you start to work on implementing it in the stores and crafting consumer messaging to reap the benefits of the hard work. It is a significant investment in the future of the brand.

Smoothie King has first-hand knowledge of this. We invested more than five years and 15,000 hours of research and development into making adjustments, additions and reformulations to our smoothie ingredients all in the effort to achieve what we set out to do with the Cleaner Blending Initiative. In fact, we made over 150 changes to our ingredients over that time frame – and keep in mind, we operate a pretty straightforward business model with one core product.

But ultimately, it pays off. We can gain and maintain our guests' trust in our smoothies, equipping them with all the facts about what they’re putting into their bodies. This breeds brand loyalty and helps franchisees on the local level.

How do Brands Determine Which Shifts in Consumer Behavior to Act on?

For the long-term health of the business, it is best to focus on movements or behavioral consumer shifts versus short-term fads. Brands can insert themselves into the conversation around fads to get a short-term bump, but it can be fleeting.

With respect to clean labels, we’ve seen continued demand from the consumer regarding product and ingredient transparency. Consumers today want control, customization and choice, and we continue to push forward as a brand to meet those needs.

As a restaurant brand focused on cleaner blending, we approach it holistically. We look at the social, ingredient and environmental aspects of making changes toward transparency and how we can make an impact with respect to each of those priorities.

Getting Clean Label Initiatives Kick-Started at the Local Level

For a brand like Smoothie King, with more than 1,000 locations domestically and internationally, we recognize that marketing has a huge role to play in ensuring the changes we’ve invested thousands of hours into have an impact on store owners. Having clean products doesn’t help the business if the guests are not aware of it.

We’ve invested heavily in digital initiatives that highlight the changes we’ve made to our label to bring a new level of transparency. At the same time, we’ve revamped our in-store marketing materials, including signage and brochures, to emphasize the Cleaner Blending Initiative.

Meanwhile, it is equally important for the store teams to know the product and benefits, so that they can effectively communicate them to the guest. It’s why we’ve reinvested in our field support teams to help franchisees become fully invested in the initiative.

At the end of the day, brands – including ours – have to ensure they’re not only providing guests with transparency and cleaner labels, but they’re also delivering on the brand’s mission with a delicious product that fits their specific lifestyle and needs.