Farm-to-table Goes Digital: How to Build Consumer Trust for "Natural" Products

Image source: PhotoDune

Is that chicken local?

Call it farm-to-table, farm-to-face or heritage-to-hipster, the organic and natural consumer product goods marketplace is hotter than ever. It's been parodied by sketch comedy show Portlandia, turned into a cult diet (the "locavore diet" that restricts food to a 100-mile radius), and given birth to a whole slew of products that are labeled "artisanal", "handcrafted" or "heritage."

And despite cries from industry observers that we've reached peak "farm-to-table", consumers are still eagerly putting their money where their values are. Seventy percent of shoppers are willing to pay more for locally sourced food, reports global management firm, A.T. Kearney. One in three consumers says they would switch stores if local food options were not available. Consumer preference for products labeled "locally-sourced", "sustainable", "natural" and/or "organic" is at an all-time high, despite concerns that these labels are virtually meaningless.

Beware the Backlash: Restaurants & Brands Losing Consumer Trust

The farm-to-table backlash is driven by accusations of fraudulent labels and deceitful advertising. Critics say that skeptical consumers are right to assume restaurants and brands may be misrepresenting themselves in order to ride the organic wave to stronger brand loyalty and higher profits.

"Restaurants have learned that aligning themselves with local, organic, sustainable farms makes them seem to be all those things by association. It's the old practice of greenwashing -- co-opting an eco-friendly brand in order to 'wash' your own not-so-friendly brand," argues writer Troy Johnson in his "Farm to Fable" expose published last summer in San Diego Magazine. Johnson investigated claims that local restaurants had lied about buying food from local farmers.

The backlash is not limited to restaurants and ingredient sourcing. Honest Company, the eco-friendly household and skin care products company that was co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, has been a recent target of multiple lawsuits alleging fraudulent labeling and price jackingThe latest lawsuit, filed by a Manhattan couple, alleges the company labels its products as "natural," "all-natural," "naturally derived," "plant-based" and "no harsh chemicals (ever!)," when in reality the products are a "chemical soup" green-washed by deceptive labeling and marketing. Yikes!

It gets worse. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports published a scathing report investigating the ingredients in so-called "natural" foods. While nearly nine out of 10 shoppers expect "natural foods" to have no chemicals, artificial ingredients, toxic pesticides or GMOs, Consumer Reports found that many common products with the "natural" label fail to meet these consumer assumptions, leading to confusion that hurts brand trust with consumers.

How to Market "Natural" Products: Building Consumer Trust Online

Today's small businesses face a double-edged sword when it comes to marketing their products. The very labels that make these products attractive to consumers - "natural", "organic" and/or "sustainably-sourced" ­- are also fraught with controversy. Here's the good news: digital marketing channels are making it easier for businesses to get the word out about their products and overcome this confusion through authentic dialogue and honesty with consumers. Here's how:

1. Get out in front the controversy. If you don't respond to media coverage on controversial topics - like the true nature of "natural" ingredient lists - you risk associating your company in the consumer's mind with other businesses that are deceiving customers. Let consumers know where you stand on these issues and that your business doesn't tolerate these practices.

Case in point: Vitamins2You, a natural supplement e-retailer that's well aware of the controversy surrounding multi-vitamin supplements. The company recently published a fantastic blog post addressing recent claims about the safety and efficacy of multivitamin supplements.

Cite reputable sources and be up-front with consumers. An "open letter" released on social media is another option for letting your consumers know where you stand on an issue.

2. Let your customers do the talking. Customer testimonials are a powerful platform for communicating brand values without any marketing hype. However, unlike local businesses that can benefit from Yelp and Google reviews, e-Commerce companies many not have a wealth of positive reviews to fall back on. Your solution: offering a customer feedback form on your website and incentivizing customers to provide their honest opinion about your products/services. Ask permission to post excerpts from positive reviews.

Case in point: Java Planet Coffee, a family owned business that has been providing 100 percent certified organic and Fair Trade Coffee to families and businesses throughout the Tampa Bay area since 2009. Java Company is especially passionate about educating consumers about the importance of buying and consuming organic products. They also understand that the best way to do this is to let their satisfied customers do the talking. Java Company's testimonials page includes glowing reviews from customers, retailers, and wholesale partners, and the local community organization Java Company supports.

Bottom line:

Until the FDA decides to clarify the requirements for products labeled "natural", confusion over what this label really means will persist. That's an added challenge for small businesses already struggling to stand out in a crowded digital marketplace. Overcome these challenges by telling an authentic story about your mission, values, and brand. From social media to blog posts to customer testimonials, if you communicate with honesty and integrity, you'll build consumer trust and be best positioned to weather any industry backlash.