5 ways to make transparency a brand advantage

Pink slime. Pan-European traces of horsemeat. Escolar masquerading as white tuna. Some 30 states considering GMO-labeling legislation.

The challenges and opportunities surrounding transparency affect consumers in ways that are deeply personal (if not downright intestinal) and raise the stakes for brands.

We’re living in the age of “radical transparency” thanks to the global nature of supply chains, the convergence of new technologies, the risks posed by climate change and the rise of so-called “aspirational consumers” who want to reconcile their materialism with environmentalism.

As an agency focused on the intersection of branding, sustainability and innovation, we see a powerful moment for brands to leverage transparency as a competitive advantage. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, but how might we move faster and more creatively to do it right, to drive more value across the value chain?

BBMG’s recent global study with GlobeScan and SustainAbility surveyed 6,224 consumers across six markets: Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, China and India. Almost nine in 10 consumers globally (86 percent) identify transparency as an important issue for companies to address — and more than eight in 10 (82 percent) consumers want to know the ingredients they are putting “in, on and around” their bodies.

The pressure will be greater from consumers in emerging markets. And the questions will continue as up-and-coming Millennials ask: How was it made? Where was it made? Who made it? Was it made under safe conditions? Fair conditions? Was it verified? Who verified it? How do we know? What do my friends and family think?

So, yesterday’s compliance and minimum disclosure requirements are becoming price of entry. Full product transparency is just beginning to have its moment. And not just in the environmental sense. Leading companies recognize that sustainability is an innovation imperative, and that as box-turning consumers examine the list of ingredients, the semantics of transparency offer many value-generating pathways.

Let’s take a look at the most common tropes and signifiers and the opportunities they provide for innovation, engagement and impact.

Label image by STILLFX via Shutterstock.

Next page: Making promises, putting producers upfront

1. Harnessing your promise as platform

What do you stand for? And where does transparency fit into that narrative? Only recently have brands started to make transparency a core part of their DNA from a marketing perspective.

Burt’s Bees raised the bar with an “attack-the-ingredient” campaign directly comparing its muck-free goods against less-natural counterparts. Method cultivates tribe with its “People Against Dirty” anthemics. Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” platform sets up the brand to invest in co-ops raising free-range chickens and pigs. Whole Foods extends its promise (and simplifies its certification landscape) with its “Whole Trade Guarantee.” And Honest Company’s promise of “No Harsh Chemicals (Ever)” is the brand’s raison d'être, existing in direct opposition to the products whose ingredients we may not understand and implicitly may actually harm us.

Backed up by the proof points, an overt brand promise, pledge or pact clearly can signal the company’s mission, vision and values and sway those consumers for whom a commitment to transparency is a tie-breaker. 

2. Engaging the producer as promoter

The farmer in the dell. Or the women’s cooperative. Or the master distiller. Who makes the product is easily mythologized or romanticized. Most brands can’t leverage such mystique in the era of “Food, Inc.” How you demystify or humanize is the operative question. Casting the producer in a leading role can be an effective technique, even when it comes at the expense of authenticity (Ocean Spray uses actors to depict cranberry bog farmers in its TV spots) or stretches credulity (Cascadian Farm’s legitimate 28-acre “home farm” leaves the impression there are no other growers). Last year was a hot one for “farmer ad action,” with notable efforts from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Red Lobster and Perdue Farms designed to introduce us to real farmers, fishermen and workers. The controversy with such campaigns often scales with the size of the company.

Of course, the work is more powerful when it’s less scripted, closer to the consumer, more dialogic. Consider Organic Valley, which invites you to enter your zip code to meet your local farmers. Or Stonyfield’s farmer blog, The Bovine Bugle (sadly now on break), which offered a direct way to engage local farmers. Having producers share their stories, explain the process and debunk the ingredients for consumers will only increase. As we green the supply chain in the name of the planet and prosperity, leading brands will help consumers learn more about it, in more digestible story-driven bits.

3. Making cultivation a cause

How and why you make a product can be just as compelling as who makes it, of course, and there is no shortage of videos titled “How We Make Our Product.” The care, thought and attention that employees put into a product manifests more than pride; it’s a reason to believe. Ideally, the foundational commitment behind the very making of the thing translates into quality for a safe, trusted, delightful consumer experience.  

Not to discount the quality pathway, unpacking the semantics here reveals a few additional themes that we can mine for brand attributes:

Heritage. A common card for many brands: We make it with respect for tradition, values, consistency and the like. Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign beckons a new audience to see its timeless attributes as relevant again, bolstered by initiatives such as the brand’s Water<Less jeans.

Pride of place. Try to imagine the Jack Daniel’s brand without Lynchburg, Tenn.

Ethical sourcing. The introduction of H&M’s Conscious Collection is a bold move by a big retailer.

Job creation. American Apparel has weathered its fair share of controversy, all the while touting “Made in the USA” without the use of sweatshop labor. In Texas we call that a “three-fer,” three great attributes stemming from one initiative: You get the economic development angle, the fair labor/fair wages angle and the patriotic pride of keeping those jobs in the United States. 

Next page: The importance of purity and performance

4. Leveraging purity as product innovation

What’s in it? What’s not? Why and why not? Why is “organic” the exception and “conventional” the operationalized norm that we’ve been socialized to expect? The movement toward ingredient transparency is fascinating precisely because it plays on our base fears about the bad stuff, the processed stuff, the large-scale stuff. “Free” is perhaps the most potent modifier, rationalizing call-outs and campaigns for decades now. This plastic bottle is BPA-free. These vegetables are pesticide-free. This skin cream, cruelty-free. This paint, VOC-free.

Brands making such claims promise to give us only the good, never the bad. Sometimes simplicity and purity can drive brand innovation. When Haagen-Dazs launched FIVE, so named because it contained only five ingredients, its campaign focused on the ingredients front and center, buttressed by the tagline: “Poetically simple.” But FIVE now seems a failed experiment.

Still, others are trying the purity play as a product launchpad. Witness the Unreal candy line, on a mission to “unjunk” candy, clearly inspired by the likes of Kind and other similar pure-play brands.

5. Keeping performance primary

Last but not least, branding being an exercise where simpler is often smarter, leading brands have embraced their roles as translators, explaining the practical benefits of seemingly indecipherable ingredient names in terms that every lay person can relate to.

Aveeno, for example, displays nine ingredients on their website and explains what each benefit offers the consumer in a sentence or less. Want to know why seaweed is in hair products? Well, seaweed extract is “rich in vitamins, proteins and minerals” and “gives you weightless softness, shine and healthy manageability.” Who doesn’t want weightlessly soft hair? I know I do.

In closing, this is not just about environmental impact. It’s about values and authenticity. Communication and storytelling. Give us a promise. Introduce us to the team. Show us how it’s made. Share what it does for us and the health and safety of our families. Make it easy to understand and repeat to our friends. Those will continue to be the opportunities for leveraging ingredient transparency for brand advantage.

Let's hope this is all clear as mud.