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Consumers confused over the term ‘clean label’

18 February 2016  •  Author(s): Victoria White

The latest consumer research from Canadean reveals a lack of consensus over what ‘clean’ really means to consumers.

clean label

Melanie Felgate, Senior Consumer Insight Analyst for Canadean, observes: “The term ‘clean label’ resonates differently among consumers globally, and moreover a third of consumers (34%) do not actually have any understanding of what it means at all. This may reflect the fact that the term ‘clean label’ is more widely used in industry than as a marketing claim in itself. However as the ‘clean’ movement gains mainstream traction, as reflected by the popularity social media hashtags such as #cleaneating, it is important that marketers understand what ‘clean’ actually means to the consumer.”

Of those who do recognise the “clean label” term, Canadean’s Q4 2015 global survey revealed it is most likely to be interpreted as meaning products are free from artificial ingredients, are natural or organic, or are chemical/pesticide-free, while a smaller proportion of consumers also associate it with other attributes such as being allergen-free. On this, Felgate notes: “The ‘clean label’ term generally resonates with consumers as an indicator that a product is natural or chemical-free. However, the fact that a significant proportion of consumers don’t understand the term or interpret it to mean, for example, that a product could be gluten free, suggests that brands should continue to place their marketing focus on core benefits, rather than simply promoting their products as ‘clean.'”

According to Felgate, the more the ‘clean label’ term is bandied about, the less impact it will likely have among consumers in the long term: “The lack of clarity may actually turn consumers away from brands marketed in this way, rather than promoting the simplicity that should underpin the ideals of clean labelling.”

Aligning with the clean label trend without alienating consumers

So how can brands align with the clean label trend, without alienating consumers? The recent approach by US coffee chain Caribou Coffee is a smart one, according to Felgate. “While Caribou Coffee promotes the removal of artificial flavourings as their ‘clean label pledge,’ the message given to consumers focuses strongly on the sensory benefits. The brand emphasizes the ‘realness’ of its ingredients to provide a ‘superior flavour,’ with slogans like ‘change you can taste’ and ‘it just got real’ taking centre-stage. Highlighting these sensory advantages will resonate much more strongly with consumers than relying solely on the potentially confusing clean label message to sell the brand.”

As more brands take steps to remove artificial ingredients from their portfolios, it remains to be seen how much weight ‘clean label’ will have in the future, especially as the philosophy behind the term increasingly becomes the norm rather than an exception. What is clear, according to Canadean, is that brands cannot rely on clean messaging alone to convince consumers to buy a product.

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