When someone buys a couch, they want to know how comfortable it is. When someone buys a jacket, they want to know if it fits. And, increasingly, when someone buys a food product, they want to know whether it's good for them or not.
Whether a consumer is buying kombucha or candy corn, health is a consideration. For some, it may be a small or inconsistent consideration, but today's consumers never completely forget about it. And the way they think about health doesn't follow the patterns of the past.
This drastic shift has made the conventional wisdom about consumers and health obsolete.
Myth 1: Health-Conscious People Never Eat "Unhealthy" Food
Here’s the truth: The health-conscious Millennial who counts calories at meals and jogs for 30 minutes after work still enjoys a scoop of ice cream before she goes to bed.
But when she's at the store choosing that ice cream, she brings her health-conscious attitude to the freezer aisle with her. She seeks out products that clearly signify an awareness of the importance of eating healthy—like Halo Top, which emblazons calorie count and other health buzzwords like "protein" on every pint of ice cream.
When healthy people want to make “unhealthy” choices, they look for ways to validate those choices. Nutrition facts and buzzwords make them feel better about their decision.
Myth 2: People Only Think About Health When They Buy "Healthy Food"
No one tells us that they think potato chips, crackers, or donuts are healthy. But, more and more, consumers tell us that they are trying to make healthier choices when they buy these items.
If you followed a busy mom on a search for snack food, you'd see her making health-related decisions every step of the way.
When she stops at the potato chips display, she picks a niche brand with photos of natural ingredients on its packaging, rather than the mass-market brand that emphasizes flavor. She isn't sure if the mass-market brand has chemicals in it that could damage her family's health, but thinks that the "all-natural" brand won't.
Just a hint of healthiness in an otherwise indulgent product can influence her buying decision. Stopping at the bakery, she picks jelly-filled donuts over glazed. At least they have some fruit in them.
When we asked fans of a certain sugary dessert whether they'd be more likely to buy it if the portion was larger, they surprised us by saying no. They told us the dessert was big enough. If it were any bigger, they said, it would be "unhealthy" and they wouldn't buy it.
Myth 3: My "Healthy" Is the Same as My Customer's "Healthy"
The long-distance runner trying to stay lean wouldn't consider eating broccoli smothered in cheese sauce. But to a busy parent, that same side dish is a healthier alternative to macaroni and cheese.
Everyone rates foods on a unique personal spectrum. Yet everyone expects to see their instinct validated somehow in the product's packaging or labeling.
Brands have many different ways to validate the healthiness of a product. The Food Marketing Institute's 2016 U.S. Grocery Shopping Trends Report identified 14 different health claims that at least 20% of shoppers seek when purchasing a food product. (Low-sodium, at 42%, and whole grain, at 38%, were the highest.)
A person's evaluation criteria may also encompass how the product is made. "Consumers attach increasing importance to the way food is produced," write the authors of an influential 2002 study of Danish consumers. "The production process has become a dimension of quality, even when it has no immediate bearing on the taste or healthiness of the product."
That's why claims like "organic" and "GMO-free" influence consumers' decisions, whether they're buying tomatoes or tortilla chips—even if consumers don't know exactly why "organic" is better, or what GMOs are.
Myth 4: Consumers Who Think About Health Are Savvy About It
When we interview consumers, they often say they're savvy about nutrition. Their dieticians disagree. Dietitians surveyed in 2013 said that 67% of nutrition information is based on personal beliefs rather than peer-reviewed research.
These personal beliefs often play a larger role in their decision process than the facts on the nutrition label. Many consumers will simply cherry-pick the facts that reinforce the decision they want to make anyway.
Take this example: A single guy is picking between two snack bars at a convenience store.
One is a new brand of health bar, the other is a mass-marketed, chocolate-covered granola bar. Granola was originally marketed as a health food, and he still sees it that way.
When he looks at the nutrition facts on the box, he sees that the two have the same number of calories per serving. He doesn't look closely at the label to compare the sugar content, or how big the serving size is. Both are snack bars, and if the calories are the same, he'll buy the product he wanted to eat anyway—even if the other bar is factually healthier.
Because people typically don't feel any better or worse immediately after eating a less-healthy product, they don't see any negative effects from a choice they think was a reasonable one.
This goes the other way, too. Consumers show a preference for brands and products that have "healthy" reputations—despite what the nutrition facts tell them.
What Brands Can Do
Signalling that a product is healthier will help drive sales. But how do you do it? Indications of health to consumers aren't always what you (brands) think they are.
Discovering how to effectively include healthy messaging may be the key factor that helps a brand retain its customer base in this time of growing preoccupation with what’s better for you.
We suggest starting with these research questions:
How do your consumers define “healthy?”
What health considerations are in play when consumers decide between your product and a competitor's?
What misconceptions or communication lapses could be keeping consumers from recognizing that your product is healthier than a competitor's, or, if it’s not healthier, then worth the splurge?
Could you add messaging that signals "health" on your packaging without turning off your core audience?