The more consumers trust a food brand, the less effective nutrition label warnings are, according to an Ecuadorian study that looked at traffic light labels and stop-sign warning labels.
“Our results suggest that brand familiarity and brand trust together create a shield that protects the product from being evaluated as unhealthy, even in the presence of warnings from traffic light nutritional labels,” wrote the researchers from San Francisco University in Quito.
When consumers are not familiar with the brand name, however, the nutrition label “accomplishes its purpose” and discourages them from choosing the product, they write.
The business researchers examined the importance of brand familiarity, trust, and consumers' attention to nutrition labels in three countries with widely-used labeling systems: Ecuador and the UK, which both have red, amber and green traffic light labels, and Chile, which uses black, octagonal warning signs.
The findings, important for public policy-makers, food marketers, and consumers alike, suggest that brand familiarity is “a more accessible and diagnostic cue” than nutrition labels because it relies on memory-based cues.
Interpreting nutrition labels when making food choices, on the other hand, requires cognitive resources to understand complex nutritional information, according to the researchers.
'The right to be informed': Nutrition labels still positive
Despite the findings, the researchers believe nutrition labels are still useful tools for consumers in certain situations.
When shoppers have more time to choose between different products or are faced with a choice of unfamiliar brands, nutrition labels fulfill their purpose by steering the individual away from the unhealthier products.
“Overall, I am in favor of presenting food products with easy-to-use and easy-to-understand nutritional labels,” lead author Franklin Velasco Vizcaíno, who also works at the University of Texas at Arlington, told FoodNavigator-LATAM. “As a society, we have [the] right to be informed. However, other forms to present nutritional labels need to be explored."
In one experiment, the researchers randomly showed 837 Chileans familiar or unfamiliar ham or biscuit brands with or without a nutrition label, and asked them to rate brand familiarity and trust, the impact of the nutrition label, perception of product quality and healthiness and purchase intent.
They repeated similar experiments, testing potato chips with over 180 Ecuadorians and chocolate bars with over 200 British participants. The familiar brands used in the study were Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK, Lays potato chips in Ecuador, P.F. ham and Nestle-owned McKay biscuits in Chile.
Bad news for new brands?
According to the researchers, the findings are “manageable” for large food manufacturers that tend to have multiple familiar brands within different food and drink categories, teams of product marketers and the financial resources to respond to nutrition label policy changes.
Small, cash-strapped companies with unfamiliar brands, however, may be harder hit.
New-to-the-market products and small businesses need to adjust their on-pack communication strategies, the researchers suggest, as nutrition warnings will encourage them to build negative attitudes about the product.
The push to reformulate
Do the results mean established brands can get away with not reformulating products that are high in salt, sugar, and fat?
Velasco Vizcaíno said: “Reformulating to make their products healthier – let’s say [by] changing the alert from red to yellow – might only increase trust in the brand and not move consumers in a cognitive direction to perceive the product as healthier,” Velasco said, adding that a consumer backlash could occur if the taste changes dramatically.
“Having said that, in Ecuador, many food manufacturers changed their formulas to move the alert to a green color. One negative consequence was switching to the use of artificial sweeteners, which some of them are proven to be harmful.”
Source: Journal of Business Research
Available online 15 March 2019, doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.02.054
“The battle between brands and nutritional labels: How brand familiarity decreases consumers' alertness toward traffic light nutritional labels”
Authors: Franklin Velasco Vizcaíno and Alexandra Velasco