Falling into the 'transparency trap'

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Taco Bell, Whole Foods Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill are among companies addressing a growing demand for transparency. But while the industry has become more forthcoming in responding to questions about food ingredients and processes, the answers may be hindering an honest dialogue with consumers.

McDonald's has launched a digital initiative in several markets that answers customer-submitted questions about the chain's food.


“What we are seeing is consumers feel that lengthy explanations, words that are full of scientific and legal mumbo-jumbo in their eyes, are meant to avoid being direct and actually answering the question,” said Linda Eatherton, partner and director for the global food and nutrition practice at Ketchum in Chicago.

Enter the transparency trap.

“When questions don’t appear to be answered or to be clearly addressed, the assumption is we are hiding something, and we’re in sort of a spiral,” Eatherton said. “It appears to be a circular problem, where the more consumers demand an answer, the more food organizations and industry groups and food companies throw more science, facts and information at the answer that don’t alleviate the real concern.”

Rather than lean on science and fact, companies may need to approach the conversation with more clarity and respect to the concerns of consumers.

“When an individual asks an important question, one that is very concerning, one that has them worried, there is an emotional side to that question that fact and science cannot address,” Eatherton said. “We have to acknowledge and respect that level of emotion, even if we individually may not agree with the concern or the point they are making. It’s not our job to judge consumers. It’s our job to hear them, to listen with our hearts and our heads and give them information they need to make important decisions.”

Branded food companies should not pass the responsibility of transparency to suppliers and processors but rather work with them to deliver clear and consistent messaging to consumers.

“Instead of pointing at each other and demanding the other person answer or speak to the issue, I feel it needs to be a concerted effort to share that responsibility,” Eatherton said. “This is where competition needs to be engaged. While we may be competitors, buyers or sellers, from the consumer’s standpoint we are all part of the food chain and have a responsibility to the consumer to answer questions clearly and consistently, together. And I think we have a lot of work to do in this area.”

McDonald’s Corp., for example, recently launched an effort in the United States to inform consumers on how its food is made and prepared in its restaurants. Customers may submit questions on social media, and the fast-food chain promises to respond with on-line videos and other multimedia content to provide a closer look behind what’s on the menu. The interactive digital platform, called “Our Food. Your Questions,” was previously introduced in McDonald’s Canada, Australia and New Zealand markets. From “pink slime” to bioengineered cattle feed, consumers have begun grilling the chain on controversial topics. What’s key for the burger behemoth is to remain straightforward and sympathetic when addressing the questions.

“Everyone has different needs and different concerns,” Eatherton said. “The point is there is no one concern that is more or less important than another, and there is no consumer that has a concern that is more or less important than another.”

She added: “I’m not suggesting we dumb down our thinking nor our communication in any respect. I am saying taking a very professional, thoughtful look at how to bring information to consumers in a very clear and easy-to-understand manner is three parts artwork and two parts science. It’s very, very difficult, but it can be done.”

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