Three seconds — that’s how much time shoppers spend looking at food packaging and making judgment calls on what’s inside. The real estate of the front of that package is precious, as a brand’s marketing team has such a short window to grab shoppers’ attention and hold it long enough to convince them to make the purchase. “We’re all competing for consumer attention at the grocery store, whether it’s the snack wall, the bread wall or the chip wall,” said Dan Letchinger, product manager, Dave’s Killer Bread, Milwaukie, OR.

This competition bombards consumers with messages of whole grains, gluten-free, protein, fiber, organic, non-GMO and all other assortments of buzzwords aimed to draw shoppers in. It can get overwhelming. 

“Consumers are confused,” said Phil Lempert, author and food industry expert at the Snack Food Association’s annual convention this year. “We see that time and again, and why not? They see all different messages.”

Food marketers have to walk a fine line of simplifying their message and then communicating it effectively. “The value is understanding what is the claim that’s going to resonate most prominently with your consumers,” said Brett Hartmann, category manager, snacks, Hain Celestial, Lake Success, NY. “To that end we vary what we say on packaging, but we want to try to be focused and highlight those one or two claims that will resonate with our target consumer set.”

Front of package offers marketers an opportunity to communicate with consumers, dispel misinformation and educate them. “The real value is the information you’re sharing with the consumer,” Mr. Hartmann said. “Consumers are concerned with what’s going into the product, and if you can give that information to them up front, then they can make those decisions.”

And in this new climate of consumers who are hungry for information about their food, these claims are more important than ever. “It’s what consumers want,” Mr. Letchinger said. “They want transparency; they want education.”

With the heaps of nutritional misinformation consumers have to wade through, now is the time for straight-forward front-of-package marketing. Done are the days of the ubiquitous “natural,” and the absence of that controversial term has given rise to the use of more specific claims such as organic, GMO-free or calling out nutritional benefits.

The fall of natural

Only a few years ago, the word natural swept through bakery and snack aisles. Consumers expressed distaste for artificial ingredients and wanted to eat food made with things they recognized. The word natural on food packages drew them in and conveyed a perception of better-for-you food.

“Consumers are hip to what goes in products, and they’re categorically suspicious of food corporations and agribusiness,” Mr. Letchinger said.

“ ‘Natural’ comes from the right place but is overused to communicate things that are not natural because there is no standard of what it means.”

The term natural was never defined by the Food & Drug Administration, leaving the definition up to marketers to manipulate and consumers to discern for themselves. Without a standardized definition, natural has become a doormat for lawsuits between food companies and consumers over misunderstandings of what the term means.

“Natural doesn’t really communicate,” Mr. Letchinger continued. “It’s a nebulous term that means everything and nothing at the same time, and it’s controversial because it invites litigation.”

Even though natural is a misleading term that marketers and shoppers don’t see eye-to-eye on, consumers’ needs and wants largely remain the same. They still want ingredients they recognize, nothing artificial and nutrition from whole grains, protein and fiber. Conveying that message without the umbrella term natural is the challenge marketing teams now face.

“We’ve moved away from putting natural on the front of our packaging, but I would say, for a company like Hain Celestial, we’re excited about that move,” Mr. Hartmann said. “We’ve always been and always will be natural, but it’s allowed us to speak to consumers at a higher level.”

That higher level gives food companies the opportunity to be more specific in what their snacks and baked goods can offer people in ways of ingredients and nutrition. It also has pushed them to back up those claims with recognizable certifications such as the Whole Grains Council, Gluten-free Certification Organization, US Department of Agriculture Organic and Non-GMO Project.

Joe Papiri, vice-president, marketing, Snak King, City of Industry, CA, said in the current climate of lawsuits over packaging claims, validating those claims with research and certifications is of the utmost importance. “We’re taking a really conservative view with claims. If we put something on our packaging, we vet it so that we can say it’s accurate,” he said. “We’re going through a lot of validation to make sure it’s right.” Because it’s important to Snak King that the public knows the nutrition of its products, “We’re obligated to get the word out to the public,” Mr. Papiri explained. “The public would like to know.”

Talking to consumers

With natural off the table and leaving a gap on packaging, marketers are looking for another way to communicate a similar message. USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified stamps have stepped in to fill that void.

“You certainly have your tried-and-true claims — less fat, fewer calories, nutrients — but we also see even greater consumer response in the form of consumer feedback and consumption growth with the higher order claims such as organic, GMO-free and gluten-free,” Mr. Hartmann said. “We’ve seen products with those claims outpacing the healthier claims.”

These labels communicate more precisely what consumers expect when they read the word natural. In a way, the term has been replaced by another buzzword, clean label, which is maybe what consumers were looking for all along when they read natural on the packaging.

To Dave’s Killer Bread, organic and non-GMO together communicate that message of clean label to the consumer. “The term clean label gets used a lot,” Mr. Letchinger said. “It’s in vogue to throw that around. Call us purists, but clean label has to be non-GMO and organic. It’s all or nothing for us.”

While the Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Organic stamps convey a lot about the ingredients present in a loaf of bread or a snack food, the front-of-package claims can go further in what it conveys to shoppers as far as nutrition is concerned.

“The USDA Organic logo and Non-GMO Project Verified logo are ways to reassure consumers that these products do not have the things consumers don’t want and do have what they do want,” Mr. Letchinger said. “The front of package is all about communicating the absence of negatives and the presence of positives.”

In the company’s White Bread Done Right, for example, not only does Dave’s Killer Bread call out the Non-GMO Project Verified and USDA Organic stamps, but it also expresses the presence of perceived positives such as whole grains, quinoa and spelt and the absence of perceived negatives such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and bleached flour.

“We have to convey the absence of negatives because white bread is a loaded term for a lot of people,” he said. “We put on the package no bleached flour, and that’s a huge reassurance for a lot of consumers, especially those who want white bread but are wise to the stigma it carries.”

Prioritizing claims

Knowing which claims to promote on the package is also half the battle. Marketers only have so much space to work with and only so much time to grab shoppers’ attention. It’s important to be judicious in which claims get top billing with the brand’s logo.

“The way you prioritize is by what the brand is about,” Mr. Letchinger said. “We make organic non-GMO whole grain breads, and that’s where we start with what we’re going to call out on our front of package.”

With White Bread Done Right, Dave’s Killer Bread wanted to answer consumer questions about the stigma of white bread while at the same time extolling the nutritional benefits this loaf carried. The company did this by first promoting the 10 g whole grains and then backing that up with statements of no HFCS or bleached flour.

Similar to Dave’s Killer Bread’s commitment to GMO-free and organic, Hain Celestial starts with the GMO-free claim. “That’s a Hain Celestial guiding post,” Mr. Hartmann explained. “As a company, it’s one of our founding principles, so as we innovate and grow, we continue to maintain that as a foundation.”

Phoenix-based Inventure Foods focuses its attention on another popular claim, gluten-free. “Gluten-free has become important to consumers,” said Steve Sklar, senior vice-president and general manager, snack division, Inventure Foods. “We believe if your product is gluten-free, you should let people know.” The company prioritizes making as many of its products as possible gluten-free and has even reengineered existing products to make them gluten-free when possible. With products like potato chips that are naturally gluten-free, this can be as simple as tweaking the seasoning.

Beyond claims that reinforce a company or brand’s values, marketers often look to the product itself, consumer demands and the competition to guide them in what else should be promoted on the front of a package.

“At the end of the day, it boils down to the consumer trends, what consumers want,” Mr. Sklar said. “You can get into so many claims that you can’t distinguish what’s important.” For its Organic Veggie Stick, Mr. Sklar said the company focused on the facts that the product is organic, baked and contains 10 vegetables. Those as primary, secondary and tertiary claims convey a message of clean label and nutrition without cluttering the packaging. The fact that these veggie sticks are organic also differentiates them from

their competition.

For Hain Celestials’ Garden of Eatin’ tortilla chips, corn is an ingredient at high risk for GMO contamination. To reassure consumers, the packaging of these products prominently feature the Non-GMO Project Verified stamp. In contrast, the company’s Terra brand made with heirloom vegetables calls out the company’s relationship with the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization concerned with crop and seed conservation and an issue important to Terra’s target consumer. While GMO-free may still be important to those purchasing Terra products, the added value of pairing with a conservation organization speaks to them.

It can also be beneficial to choose claims based on the existing market a new product may be entering. If a new brand is the only organic one in that category, it’s important to call that out on the package. “It differentiates our product from our competitors’, ” Mr. Sklar explained. “If our competitors aren’t organic, and we can be, then that would be the biggest point of difference, and we can draw consumers to that differentiation.”

The front of a package gives food companies an opportunity to communicate differentiation, nutrition and social responsibility. These messages tell consumers what the product is all about whether it’s food safe for those with celiac disease, a good source of protein or made with GMO-free ingredients. With only three seconds to make a good impression, food marketing teams must be judicious with what they choose to promote and can find the answer in consumer research and whatever claims the product lends itself to. In the end, the front-of-package message should be clear.

“The goal shouldn’t be to make it difficult for people,” Mr. Sklar said. “We’re pretty proud of our nutritional information, so we want people to see that.”