Doing the right thing, being honest, demonstrating transparency; all appear to be ethical principles that many companies are incorporating into their advertising and brand messaging these days. Trust appears to be the prevailing priority for businesses of all sizes across a variety of industry segments. In the food business there’s no hiding from the ingredients label however brand values and social responsibility claims, at times are over stated (as in Greenwashing).
The pandemic certainly has transformed consumer behaviors, layer on top of that all the pent-up social resentment that has triggered consumer outrage over personal values; from #blacklivesmatter, #defundthepolice, #votersupression to #thebiglie and its clear that brands must focus on not only maintaining trust but also demonstrating truth. It is one thing to make “integrity” claims and deliberately leverage ethics in selling consumers product, it is another to align company actions to revered moral principles – think Major League Baseball moving the recently held annual All-Star Game to Denver and out of Atlanta in protest over voter suppression laws.
Recent global consumer research from Accenture, through a survey of 25,000 consumers in 22 countries and 425 interviews in 5 countries, outlines 5 motivators that matter to consumers in doing business with various brands. Trust and reputation were identified as key purchasing motivators and 66% of research participants expect brands to be more responsible and live by shared values that make consumers feel more relevant in the world. According to the report, trust values are powerful enough to influence brand switching and a consumer willingness to spend more on brands that demonstrate consumers’ shared values. Mistrust, the lack of integrity and loss of confidence by consumers across a variety of product categories has become a serious topic of examination in the development of consumer engagement and brand strategy. Gallup recently reported on the decline in confidence in major U.S. institutions. From public schools, the Supreme Court, the medical system, criminal justice system, Congress, and others. The results indicate that on average only 33% of U.S. adults expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” confidence in 14 institutions. The score declined from 36% versus prior year.
It has become evident that the erosion of trust and lack of integrity is pervasive across brands and services consumers engage with in their daily life. Businesses that ignore these findings are at risk in losing their legacy franchise and most loyal customers.
In the food industry there are brands that are addressing integrity and communicating important shared values with consumers beyond the quality attributes of their products. This direct approach has ignited the accelerated growth of entrepreneurial food businesses, both large and small across a variety of specialty food product categories. Multiple non-government organizations (NGO), non-profits and for-profit food communities like the Specialty Food Association, Natural Products Expo West, the Good Food Mercantile, Plant Based Food Association and others have fostered a food movement that features integrity and ethical values that resonate with consumers. Building a food business anchored in the owner’s ethical principles that include social and environmental stewardship has even spurred a new class and operating structure for corporations – the Certified B Corporation designation. More than 3,300 businesses across 150 industries within 71 countries exist, as of April 2020. The private certification requires an intense performance evaluation across social and environmental performance criteria and corporations must re-certify every three years. B-Corp certification is just one way to demonstrate operating integrity and trust, especially since it is conducted via a third-party standard, however another methodology is emerging that features very open and transparent corporate self-reviews.
For years, Unilever has pioneered the “do the right thing” movement and its legendary retired leader, Paul Polman continues to be an icon for creating strategy built on sustainable and purposeful choices that drive a company’s performance. Throughout the decade that Mr. Polman led the now $60 Billion revenue behemoth ($155 Billion Market Cap with more than 148,000 employees), the desire to adhere to his “sustainable living plan” strategic framework is evident in the 2000 acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s and its legendary history of social activism. Also in the same vain, the on-going commitment to the current Unilever Mission of “making sustainable living common place” is witnessed in the 2015 acquisition of the Seventh Generation Business. Both these unique businesses, one in food and one in home care presented tremendous opportunities given the decentralized manner that they were integrated and managed to this day. Each has not lost its founder’s guiding principles and both continue to maintain the “doing good” mantra.
Given the success of both acquisitions and now under the evolved frame work of the Unilever Compass strategy, it is no surprise that the company continues to acquire brands with a social purpose, ones that disrupt traditional product categories and most importantly, have Founders deeply rooted in social stewardship of their business. Enter, one of the most recent shining stars in the Unilever portfolio; Sir Kensington’s, a clean-label ketchup upstart acquired in 2017. This Certified B Corp is taking food integrity and brand trust to a whole new level.
In a recent interview with Scott Norton, the co-founder of Sir Kensington’s and a Unilever advisor, he explained how prior to selling the company it was a sit-down with Paul Polman that convinced both co-founders that Unilever was the right home for Sir Kensington’s. “Food is a Holy, 3 times a day sacrament – it’s food that truly impacts our life and our planet and Paul understood that.” said Norton. The collective commitment to make Sir Kensington’s a leading brand in the condiment business with purpose for serving communities in a healthy and just manner gave license for pushing the boundaries of food integrity leadership. Once integrated and able to leverage the synergies that come from a global multinational, the brand focused on becoming a Certified B Corp and driving self-improvement across all the certified programs ingrained in the business, from Fair Trade ingredients to their Non-GMO project. With an empowered and agile team, a relentless pursuit to reimagine how food is viewed has been at the core of their work. “Highlighting food’s charm, elegance and need for nourishing humans, as well as our planet, appears to be overlooked by others so it is up to us to claim it. Holding ourselves accountable first is our immediate priority – this isn’t greenwashing” according to Norton. Thus, the inaugural launch of the Food Integrity Report titled The Food Fight.
No matter how large or small, food companies are paying serious attention to the social and environmental issues that consumers are passionate about. Going beyond the marketing hype and lip-service is a difficult challenge all food makers face in a new era of being called out on social media, across community groups and through government action. In an attempt to demonstrate true commitment, the Sir Kensington’s Food Integrity Report (The Food Fight) outlines the work and progress being made across several core stages of their value-chain: Growing, Making, Sharing, Learning. The document is intended to be a self-assessment scorecard featuring systematic data collection across standards of performance that drive measurable results, within the company and across its entire supply-chain. Partnerships and suppliers are not excluded from the reporting process. From alliance standards with farmers dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and FAIRTRADE USA third-party certification programming to a target of 100% recyclable plastic packaging project, and end-to-end supply-chain partner reviews, the elegantly illustrated report provides business information in a simple, concise and fun manner.
In speaking with Ethan Frisch, the owner and founder of Burlap & Barrell, a Public Benefit Corporation that supplies organic spices to Sir Kensington’s he indicated that the report is helping his company benefit from the learning exchange that exists. “Given our shared values and the interdependent relationship we have established with Sir Kensington’s, we are proud of our ability to meet the high sourcing standards that Unilever requires.” said Frisch. Ethan also commented that “in becoming a bulk ingredient supplier, our core direct to consumer and chef business segments also benefit from the rigor.” Frisch explained how collaboratively working on the introduction of post-consumer recycled resin (PCR resin) for packaging sustainability was one example of how both companies align to create distinctive competitive advantage beyond ingredient quality. Sir Kensington’s Mustard bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic and features #1 grade mustard seeds and ground cumin. The product is one of several non-GMO project verified, gluten free, and paleo diet friendly products with no artificial ingredients, colors, or preservatives. Truly a tangible in-market example of how the values of the company align with their actions and just as importantly the desires of their consumers – the profit margins aren’t bad either.
The most compelling attribute of the report is not only the recording of benchmarks and standards that have been achieved but more significant is the openness in the sharing of priorities and future goals. Priorities in key focus areas are grouped into three levels: very high, high, and moderate, producing a very transparent assessment on what is being worked on.
One vulnerable yet impressive call out is within the “Growing” section addressing the commitment to sourcing organic ingredients. A historical timeline with benchmarks showing progress improvement starting in 2019 at 15.7%, and 19.4% in 2020 also showing the goal by 2023 being 31%, thus demonstrating the openness in sharing the path forward.
Anyone interested in a company’s performance results in the vast area of sustainability will be impressed with the sorting and categorizing of what is important to the Sir Kensington’s brand. Critically important is that other brands, whether competitive or not are now being put on notice. Consumers are looking for what is being reported and making personal comparisons in judging the brand message to its actions. It is no different than the way consumers inspect ingredient labels.
With its successful track record of acquiring, integrating, and fostering the entrepreneurial business spirit of socially responsible brands, Unilever is truly living its stated mission of “making sustainable living common place”. When asked about the future and the ability to maintain and surpass the success that the Sir Kensington’s brand is experiencing, Alex Medeiros, Sir Kensington’s General Manager said “the secret is in the incredibly diverse talent that lives the three values of our “Greenhouse” platform on a daily basis”. Alex explained that his industrious business unit, within one of the worlds largest consumer packaged goods company has embraced purpose and impact, entrepreneurial and creative empowerment, and consumer obsession so much that everyone operates as an owner. There is definitely a food fight on the horizon with established and emerging brands going to war over consumer preference, the winner will ultimately be the one who’s actions align to their branding message – unsubstantiated or misleading claims about social and environmental commitments will not survey this fight – no greenwashing here!