Catalytic Thinking / Opinion

Serving up accountability on a plate


The food we eat is now a new frontier for brand accountability, engagement and localism. But will this approach bleed across into other industry sectors?

Recently, the Co-operative Food announced that it would be putting QR Codes on selected product lines, giving the consumer the opportunity to find out where the food came from, how it was grown and what they could be doing with it in the kitchen.

It didn’t take long for another producer to break ranks – this time, John West Tuna declared that its consumers could ‘discover the story behind every can’. All that the consumer has to do is enter the can’s country of origin, barcode and can code into the website and they’ll be rewarded with details about where the fish was caught.
(For my money, the John West tagline is more powerful – I love the idea of a ‘story’ rather than just facts. It is, in fact, a brilliant piece of marketing. But that’s beside the point for this post)

These are prime examples of power shifts.

Not that long ago, you’d make your purchase decision based on brand and/or outlet reputation, marketing communications and any other factor which was likely to sway you. You’d most likely make these decisions out-of-store or be swayed by in-store POS.

Now, you literally have the power in the palm of your hand and can make your decisions on the store floor, in real time. That’s a massive serving of consumer empowerment right there.

Why are these brands doing this?

Simple. To make more money and leverage the growing ethically aware and conscious consumer demographic.

It would be foolish to think that Co-Op and John West are doing this from the kindness of their hearts.

They simply want to make more money from more people more often.

The history of the shift.

The shift in consumer power originally came about with the advent of ‘social media’ (previously SPSP, more recently on FPSP) providing access to peer-reviewed information and delivering decision-making facts/experiences.

For the first time, knowledge could spread amongst an engaged consumer base in real time.

People could openly discuss their experiences – good or bad – and provide word of mouth recommendation to the rest of the internet. Suddenly a good experience was communicated to hundreds of people. On the flip side of the coin, a bad experience could be communicated to thousands.

And this forced brands to consider how they would become not only more in touch with their consumer base (nipping bad stories in the bud and turning even the most ardent opposition into an advocate) but also how to become more open and cede some power out to the people who matter the most – the paying consumer.

Being open, upfront and unexpectedly honest doesn’t just make good moral sense, it makes good business sense too.


The by-product of this overt capitalism is a shift in power from the brand to the consumer.

What I want to know is where this will stop.

If we can make a decision on the shop floor about our tuna and pears, when will we be able to make the same decision about our jeans? (I blogged this at the end of June 2011 and, somewhat presciently, suggested that QR Codes could deliver the sort of information that Co-Op are running with. It’s a great shame I wasn’t on a consultancy gig…)

Will we be able to interact in a similar way with the creators of our motor vehicles, sofas or dinner sets?

I believe that the benefits of such openness will revolutionise business.

And I predict that more brands will shortly follow the Co-op/John West examples.

I believe and predict these things for the following four reasons:

    1) More people want to know where their food comes from. The ethically aware consumer demographic is growing and I believe will continue to do so – not just in food but in all areas of consumer spend.

    2) “Localism could be the new environmentalism”. This is a quote from my good friend and strategic thinker Andrew Schiestel (if you’re not following him, do so today. Here’s his blog and Facebook profile) – and I thoroughly agree with it. Localism isn’t a meaningless political phrase – it’s a way of engaging with the local community, taking small actions at grassroots which can then combine to create enormous change. Think buying locally produced apples rather than ones flown in from abroad – money and jobs into your local community, higher employment and so on.
    If the movement takes shape in the way that Andrew suggests and I think that it will, access to information at point of purchase will be key in driving engagement and purchase behaviour.

    3) I believe that consumers are crying out for connection. In another post (‘Bring on the personal’), I reference designer Kevin McCloud’s thinking about increasing the value of an item through providing personal connection. By using ‘new’ technology, this connection can be incorporated into packaging or POS at next to zero cost. But the value of that connection could be immeasurable.

    4) We’re now in an age of the Trust Economy. By opening themselves up to easy scrutiny by the consumer (i.e. the easy action of scanning a QR Code, let’s say), brands can build trust through open and honest relationships. And I believe that people buy more from brands that they trust than the ones they don’t. (See this academic paper on brand trust/loyalty for more information – great reading)

Trust, connection, localism, knowledge and convenience. Powerful words for any brand and it will be fascinating to see an analysis of how Co-Op and John West’s tactics work for them. The power is truly with the people now – how it affects the bottom line will be the longer story.

Now it’s your turn. What are you doing in your business to open up and provide transparency to the consumer? If you’ve got a case study for how this approach affected your bottom line, please share it below. I – and my regular readers – would love to learn from you.

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One thought on “Serving up accountability on a plate

  1. Pingback: Be brave: cede control and build buzz without bias using psychographics «

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