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What makes an honest product?

A new report published this week by The Consumer Goods Forum and Futerra highlights the essential difference between trust and transparency with regard to product social and environmental impacts. It makes the important point that people are in general much more concerned about the impacts of the product they buy than the company that supplies it, and draws a clear distinction between transparency, which is important to investors, and trust, which is important to consumers.

This is particularly important for brands to understand given that they are no longer in control of the narrative – although they can choose how much to reveal, there are plenty of pressure groups, activists and NGOs who will “out” them on social media for incomplete, unclear or disingenuous disclosures. By choosing to focus on just their achievements, brands fail to take advantage of the fact that admitting fault willingly and committing to doing better actually increases levels of trust.

This is an area where perfect really is the enemy of good. I’ve had many battles with senior executives who wanted to wait until goals had been achieved before publicly declaring them, or who felt that admitting that there was more progress to be made on a particular issue was a high risk strategy. In fact, the converse is true; humble claims that demonstrate recognition that more progress needs to be made give consumers confidence that brands are taking important issues seriously and working hard to overcome them.

There is one further step that companies must take, in order not to lose the competitive advantage gained through transparent commitment to future improvements – they must be prepared to be held to account on execution. Iceland has recently been criticised for achieving its well-publicised goal of going palm-oil free on own-brand products by the end of 2018 by removing its brand from the product lines that still contained palm-oil. This is clearly not in the spirit of its original commitment and is likely to have cost it the trust of consumers to whom this issue matters. In this context, how a thing is done matters just as much as whether it is done, and brands who fail to recognise that should expect to be called out for it.