Frito-Lay's 'Natural' Push is Good, Healthy Would Be Even Better

Speaking Sustainably

Frito-Lay's 'Natural' Push is Good, Healthy Would Be Even Better

Frito-Lay announced this week that in 2011 they’re reformulating many of their products to include all-natural ingredients.

From a marketing perspective this is a smart move.

For two years now our Eco Pulse survey has revealed that consumers would by far rather see the words “all natural” or “100% natural” on their packaging than “organic,” for instance. That said, our conjoint testing in the food category (on cereals and soups) has revealed that dietary features we test (like natural vs. organic vs no preservatives) don’t pack the same punch in getting consumers to actually buy as endorsements (like the American Heart Association’s Heartcheck), brand and flavor. Given that Tostito’s and Lay’s chips aren’t likely to get an AHA endorsement, and they already have brand and flavor going for them, all-natural ingredients are a logical move and could prove to be a tie-breaker for a consumer trying to narrow down his/her snack-food preferences.

There’s another issue, though: moral licensing.

We’ve often referred to it as the Snackwell’s Effect (“They’re low fat! I can eat ALL of them!”), and we certainly see it showing up in the energy efficiency side of the green marketing world. In our Energy Pulse study the second best message to move a consumer to spend $4,000 on energy-efficient home improvements was “I’d be able to set my thermostat to a more comfortable setting without paying more.” We’re hearing it in focus groups, too -- that consumers want to buy more energy efficient products so they have license to actually use more energy.

We do this as humans -- we keep ongoing scorecards in our subconscious minds and give ourselves permission to do all sorts of things that aren’t good for us because we did a few things that were.  As in, “I ate a salad for lunch yesterday; I can have that doughnut with my morning coffee.”

So the very real concern -- whether Frito-Lay intends this or not -- is that consumers will buy the All-Natural ingredient products believing they’re actually healthier for them, and they’ll give themselves permission to eat more. “See, I can actually eat the whole bag of these because they’re All-Natural! They’re good for me!” That’s great for Frito-Lay (they’ll sell more product), but potentially bad for America -- the emotional and financial costs of treating our national obesity epidemic are already staggering.

I applaud Frito-Lay for making the move to all natural ingredients, and I wholeheartedly respect the marketing acumen behind the move. I now encourage them to put on their collective CSR hat and give consumers the straight story about natural vs. healthy/good for you (the next step beyond the “Straight Talk on Snacking” currently featured on their website.)

The original version of this post appeared on the Shelton Group blog and is reprinted with permission.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user TheTruthAbout.