This guest post comes from Ted Monnin, Senior Creative Director at Equator.

A consumer receives the unexpected jolt of the empty shelf, and is left surprised and confused, standing mid-aisle in the supermarket she’s relied on for years. She’s been a loyal customer – now she’s thinking she will shop elsewhere. How does the retailer win her back?

Bridging gaps in trust take time – that’s true of relationships generally, and it’s true here too.

Nearly nine months on from the first bout of panic stockpiling, the nation’s FMCG suppliers and retailers are facing a latent, yet challenging after-effect: diminished consumer trust.

Think back to March – that swell of good feelings towards food and drink key workers, FMCG(CPG) manufacturers, and retailers was no figment of imagination. There was an authentic burst of consumer appreciation early on in the pandemic, as supermarket staff were framed as lockdown “heroes”, crucial to keeping food on families’ tables. But as the pandemic has stretched on, consumer trust has been undermined, chiefly by cracks in the supply chain, exposing the fragility of long-established “just in time” systems with little resource in place to enable them to bounce back from the sudden spikes in demand. Particularly in the fresh meat supply chain, food systems across several categories were quickly overwhelmed.

Retailers who’d worked for years to develop their consumer experience journey found there was little they could do to prevent consumer confusion and disappointment. Whether through product unavailability experienced at the supermarket shelf, at the virtual shelf, or learned through media reporting on panic buying and outbreaks at processing plants, consumer confidence in food availability and food safety were dealt a double blow.

While regaining consumer trust is paramount for food systems as a whole, no one has more vested interest than Private Brands. According to a recent study from Spanish and Canadian researchers, consumer trust in private brands is a vital component in consumer purchase intention and loyalty. The paper, published just this month, gathering the views of 445 respondents, empirically tested trust in private brands relative to factors including price, familiarity and retailer’s brand perception. Its findings revealed that trust was integral to the intention to engage with food private label brands and was demonstrated to be a key element allowing retailers to grow consumer loyalty. Consequently, argued the researchers, retail managers should consider the enhancement of trust in the context of future marketing strategy formulation.

Why trust matters now

For the upcoming holiday season, more than half of consumers plan to shop at different retailers than last year, says consulting firm McKinsey. Research points to a rise in consumers’ willingness to try new brands and channels, as they seek better value and convenience.

Feelings of safety and trust in the retailer will be of central importance in how they make new choices in where to place their loyalty. With household budgets tightening, private brand performance is likely to receive a lift from this over the coming months. Therefore, both opportunities and challenges await private brands – firstly, there are more consumers willing to try new products and ranges, and to shop in-store or buy via-ecommerce for the first time. Secondly, however, trust and feelings of safety will be crucial. Simply offering a lower price point won’t be enough. To effectively build back confidence to pre-Covid levels and beyond, a complete and holistic approach will be needed.

Building trust in private brand ranges will mean optimizing value perception, achieved through strong messaging, branding, and design, along with tiering which is delineated clearly and reflects ample variety across premium, mid-grade and essential tiers. Cohesion and consistency should be observable across the entire private brand range, underpinned by strategic messaging which is reflective of consumers’ lifestyles and embodies the values of the brand.

Misleading messaging and product claims, whether through online copy, point of sale, or on the front of the pack undercut credibility. In the Covid era, this dovetails into misgivings towards governmental and regulatory bodies, heightened by widespread conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns.

As the authors of a study evaluating consumer trust in food supply chains, published in Food Policy earlier this year explained, “the average consumer cannot assess whether a product actually contains the ingredient mentioned in a health claim and whether or not this ingredient indeed possesses the health effects mentioned… has been produced and processed according to the rules of organic production and fair trade. The consumer, therefore, needs to trust both manufacturer and farmer with regard to the production of food, and authorities with regard to their enforcement of regulations concerning false claims. Otherwise, the consumer will have no confidence in being able to make informed decisions about food products regarding their healthfulness, sustainability, authenticity, and safety.”

When it comes to retail, the ultimate loss of trust happens when it’s perceived that the retailer cares more about profits than they do about the consumer. In a pandemic, this inference is quickly extrapolated to not caring for the consumer’s health and wellbeing as a fundamental human need.

Earning consumer trust will necessitate proactively evolving food systems which demonstrate immediate responsiveness to changing circumstances and act as a safety net – the ability to bounce back from problems quickly. It may also mean some work must be done in setting customer expectations, wherein the case of renewed stockpiling they may be asked to be flexible in the brand, flavor, or packaging.

Together, these attributes prevent the offering from feeling like a second-best choice, a choice the consumer is forced to make due to budget limitations. To grow and retain market share for the longer term, private brand products must entice and achieve high-value perception – in other words, making them something the customer truly wants, rather than what they have to purchase.

Supply chains are still in for a bump along the road. Numerous countries are experiencing varying levels of food price inflation at the retail level, reflecting disruptions in production and currency devaluations. Our response as those delivering the messages from private brands will be to demonstrate that value for the consumer matters to us most, and that integrity, transparency and resilience are qualities of the private brand that will never be in short supply.

Ted Monnin

Ted Monnin

Senior Creative Director, Equator

Ted Monnin specializes in consumer research, brand architecture, and new product development and has been integral to the repositioning of some of America’s most enduring brands including Special K, Charmin, and Glidden. Ted leads the Equator Cincinnati team, working with clients to refine their brand messaging and build lasting differentiation. He is passionate about team development, leading creative workshops, bringing strategic activations to life, and turning consumer research into real-world creative.