Seven Steps to Build Consumer Trust

Charlie Arnot


February 2, 2015

Consumer Trust

In this hyper-connected era, news of a food safety incident travels at the speed of Twitter. Such incidents can be devastating to a company that is unprepared.

Preventing such crises begins with realizing that transparency is no longer optional. Any person with a smartphone is an on-the-scene videographer, and social media networks provide instant access to thousands of friends and followers. Food companies must provide information to customers about a company’s supply chain and its commitment to food safety, food integrity and maintaining the quality and safety of products. It is a matter of making sure the appropriate systems are in place to back up those claims.

No system is perfect, but companies must be able to demonstrate that they have the best systems in place so that, if an incident occurs, the public can logically assume it was an exception to the rule. Being transparent, engaging consumers and backing it up with the appropriate systems all help assure consumers that food safety is the top priority and that a company can guarantee the integrity of its supply chain.

If an incident occurs, the key is to engage with consumers early. Accept responsibility. Apologize. Help people understand what you are doing to rectify the situation.

Maple Leaf Foods is a great example of a company that responded well, and survived the crisis as a result. In 2008, a listeria outbreak from their deli meat was a devastating incident that resulted in deaths and illnesses. Maple Leaf openly accepted responsibility, apologized publicly and redoubled efforts to assure food safety. The company suffered $13 million in losses the year of the recall, but rebounded with a $22 million profit the following year. Stock shares took only three months to return to pre-recall levels and, while the loss of life can never be reduced to dollars and cents, the improved stock price is an indicator of how well the company recovered from an incident that could devastate or destroy an ill-prepared organization.

Center for Food Integrity (CFI) research quantifies specific social outrage factors and defines the attributes of trust-building transparency. CFI studies show that two factors are critical to igniting outrage: whether the issue is a concern to the public, and whether it has an impact on family, friends or groups perceived as vulnerable. This may trigger social outrage that can result in more regulation, legislation, litigation or market action designed to force an organization to perform to expectations.

If the issue involves larger food companies, outrage can be fueled by the pervasive notion that big is bad. CFI’s research shows many people think smaller operations are more likely to share their interests. For example, when consumers were asked to rate the following statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree), the results were as follows:

 “Local food companies are likely to put their interests ahead of my interests.” Mean: 6.20

“National food companies are likely
to put their interest ahead of my
Mean: 7.27

“Family farms are likely to put their interests ahead of my interests.”
Mean: 5.67

“Commercial farms are likely to put their interests ahead of my interests.” Mean: 7.20

How do we address this “big is bad” bias? Companies must demonstrate authentic transparency. While focus groups and other research clearly show that transparency is important to building trust, defining “transparency” is difficult. The Center for Food Integrity has identified seven elements of transparency that can make a significant contribution to building trust, no matter what the industry:

Motivation: Consistently show you understand and appreciate the issues important to your stakeholders, and take action that demonstrates you put public welfare ahead of self-interest.

Disclosure: Share information that is important to your stakeholders, make it easy to find, helpful in making informed decisions, easy to understand and timely. Even if it might be damaging to the company, if it is important to stakeholders, make it available.

Stakeholder participation: Ask stakeholders for input, make it easy to do so, acknowledge it has been received and explain how and why you make decisions.

Relevance: Ask stakeholders what information is meaningful, demonstrate you understand and give it to them.

Clarity: Provide information that is easy for stakeholders to understand.

Accuracy: Share information that is truthful, objective, reliable and complete.

Credibility: Admit mistakes and apologize, accept responsibility, engage critics and share plans for corrective action, demonstrate you genuinely care and present more than one side of controversial issues.

Everyone in the business world needs to increase their commitment to transparency. Take up the cause in your organization and become a champion for greater transparency. The increase in consumer trust in your products and processes is worth the effort, even if it takes time to build support within your organization.
Charlie Arnot is the chief executive officer of the Center for Food Integrity.