Who wants to be in my (food) tribe? ...Start-ups, online appeal & voluntary labelling

When is food not just a food?

When it is a *lifestyle enabler* (description taken from Robert Grieg-Gran’s (The Mindful Chef) presentation at Houlihan Lokey’s recent Consumer, Food & Retail Conference, 3 October 2018.)

The term *lifestyle enabler* could be used of a number of the innovative, online, stratospherically expanding start-up food businesses that generally began online and built upon a loyal consumer base.

They encapsulate the push for personalised and individual food products that reflect an aspect of the personality or lifestyle choices of the consumer. Unique selling points of food that differentiate products away from the cut-throat arena of margin management seem to be cantering more and more on aspects of ethics, such as sustainability and welfare, and /or innovative characteristics.

So what does this mean in terms of food advertising and labelling?

Although these ‘softer’ aspects tend not to be specifically regulated under legislation, there are requirements not to mislead about the nature, quality or characteristics of a food. Where any positive claim is made about a product there is a corresponding requirement to ensure you have substantiating evidence to back this up.

The Food Standard’s Agency (FSA) 2002 Guidance note on ‘Criteria for the use of the terms fresh, pure, natural etc in food labelling’ refers to a number of unregulated terms and provides an overview on what should underpin these general (and any similar or like-meaning) terms. These will be affected by the consumer’s understanding and the overall context of the advertising; the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has accepted in some cases the consumer is much more savvy on expectations of illustrations of artisan aspects in a commercial context. There has been a progression on this in the ASA’s thinking from its ruling on the Iceland range of breads in 2015 to its finding on Pret A Manger ‘baked in store’ advertising in April 2018.  

Equally, sustainability claims using ‘fair trade’ statements are not necessarily tied into specific schemes, but must encapsulate the generally understood principles that would underpin a fair trade claim, such as measures to ensure that fair prices were paid to producers and to ensure the standards of working conditions.  

Nutritional claims require specific substantiation, and a number of these have specific legislation defining them (such as within the health and nutrition claims regulation and in specific instances, such as gluten-free requirements.) The making of voluntary unregulated terms, for example some welfare, environmental and vegetarian/vegan claims will have an accompanying raised expectation of standards and some positive substantiation will be required of underlying policies if these are challenged by trading standards or the ASA.  For example, whilst there is no definition of vegan within current legislation, (it has been reported that the European Commission will begin the process of establishing a legal definition of vegetarian and vegan food in 2019,) the general consumer understanding would be that the product is free from animal /animal by-products in its’ production and processing. Checks and testing should ensure these claims and standards are complied with. The standard is much higher for processes to ensure no low level contamination or use of processing aids using animal by-products than would otherwise be the case without this positive claim. Also, Halal is an area that has been under scrutiny with differing interpretations on stunning prior to slaughter and different certification bodies. Such a potentially contentious claim needs a clear policy and substantiation underpinning it.

Individualism and personalisation may be more straightforward but require an element of uniqueness and specific resources/logistics to develop and achieve this.

Social media gives every consumer a chance to be a *mini-influencer* and if a customer feels heard and reflected in a brand’s ethos then this inspires brand loyalty.

What does a brand say about the consumer as a person? Are they quirky and innovative? classic and exclusive? principled and ethical?  

A responsive brand will generate a gathering momentum and loyalty to a product. However, whilst being responsive and reflective to the consumer, a food business operator also needs to take care to appropriately manage its social media message as the same rules apply online as for other marketing practices.

These ‘softer’ selling practices can catapult a brand into the mainstream. It will be decided here if these softer aspects can also survive and mould the commercial imperatives of price and logistics.

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