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Product claims are one of the most important links between consumer and brand. Research company PLAY MR recently asked people what they thought about claims. Its account director Katherine Savage reveals what they found. This article originally appeared in the March edition of Food & Drink Business

Claims are one of the most powerful tools in a brand’s toolbox. They have a key role in the relationship between a brand and consumers, not only through their appearance in packs, but also in their usage in comms and messaging.

So, no pressure, but as a brand, you’ve got to get your claims right. When they work, they can really work, but when they go wrong… yikes!

Katherine Savage is an account director at PLAY MR and its resident eye-tracking and packaging expert.
Katherine Savage is an account director at PLAY MR and its resident eye-tracking and packaging expert.

There are plenty of articles about brands that have been caught with misleading claims, but even just an off-the-mark claim can lose potential sales. We asked Australian consumers to tell us about the claims that spoke to them, and those that ended in disappointment. Here’s what we learnt and some rules to help avoid missteps.

The views expressed in the following quotes are those of consumers surveyed and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PLAY MR or Food & Drink Business.

1. Don’t lie.

Simple, really. What consumers say:

“Frozen peas with mint: claimed the product was all Australian which is why I bought them. When I got home, I read the ingredients list and while they were Australian grown peas, the mint was imported. It is beyond me how companies are allowed to have eye catching labelling claiming all Australian made, then in small print, something is imported. On a good note, I have found a great alternative that is Australian made, grown, produced and packed. 110 per cent true, spot on, exactly what the packaging, label and claims of the product say.”

2. Remember to impress.

Make sure your claim doesn’t underwhelm.

“[I don’t like…] Woolworths brand Orange Juice has 5 per cent real fruit. Well, to me, that’s almost the same as there being NO real fruit in it.”

3. Talk to claims that your consumers value.

‘Australian made’ has positive associations with producing high quality, well-regulated, trustworthy products, and supporting the local economy, especially following the bushfires in Australia and COVID-19 lockdowns.

Some claims are positively received by those ‘in the know’, for example Darrell Lea Chocolate’s ‘Now 100% Palm Oil Free’. To those who are aware of the environmental impact of using palm oil, this is a powerful claim, but can be rather obscure to anyone who doesn’t know what palm oil is.

“I normally buy the cheapest frozen chips, but I have switched to a slightly higher priced item in this range to get Australian made for three reasons: to support Aussie farmers, reduce food miles and get a safer product that’s less likely to be recalled.”

4. Stick to your claims!

Some claims linger in consumer’s minds even after the manufacturer has stopped using them, which can lead to disappointment and confusion.

If you’re confident you can promise 100 per cent of all ingredients sourced in Australia for the long-term, go for it.

But if there’s a chance that might not be true in the near future, it’s probably a risk you don’t want to take, especially when customers are quick to interrogate, as Kimberly Clark recently learnt. It was fined $200,000 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for incorrect claims its Kleenex Cottonelle flushable cleansing cloths were made in Australia.

“I am opposed to any claims of Australian Made if the ingredients are from overseas.”

5. Small tweaks can make big differences.

Consider the matter of vegan, vegetarian and plant-based claims. We tested a number of different options which seem to be used almost interchangeably on packaging: ‘plant-based’, ‘meat-free’ and ‘vegetarian’ (see table above). We asked respondents how appealing they find these claims on food products, and at first glance the results suggest that these terms are all equally appealing…

6. Think about repulsion as well as attraction.

…However, looking at the levels of rejection, ‘meat-free’, and ‘plant-based’ are far more unappealing than ‘vegetarian’. Similar terms can resonate differently with different consumers, and what is a tick for one can be a deal-breaker for another.

“The claim ‘100% natural’ is appealing but not 100 per cent believable as usually ‘natural’ doesn’t taste as palatable as something similar that’s got sugar and additives.”

7. Avoid that “too good to be true” suspicion.

There’s a delicate balance between an appealing claim and one that is eyed with suspicion. Ensuring that you understand how consumers will actually interpret your claim is key to understanding whether you’ve hit the nail on the head.

“[I don’t like…] 0 calorie noodles. No food products contain zero calories, so it is misleading.”

8. Don’t blind them with science.

Avoid giving the impression that to understand a claim, you need a PhD in food sciences. At best, you’re failing to connect with consumers, and at worst, they’re wondering if they can trust you.

“Natural Cracker Co crispy crackers claim they are 100 per cent natural. The list of ingredients on the back reads like a chemistry textbook.”

9. But a lack of evidence is also a risk.

Being too vague is as much of a problem as being too detailed. Shoppers are often already suspicious and claims that try to simplify complex issues can be interpreted as trying to ‘wordsmith’ something that sounds more impressive than it is.

“I do think that most claims made by companies are BS and if not, they are heavily exaggerated for PR purposes.

I only trust certain companies (e.g. Flora and Fauna) when it comes to claims as they make their sourcing information available and investigable. Claims only give a certain limited security to me as a consumer, unless they can be proven by the company making those claims.”

“[I don’t like…] ‘natural’ products, as ‘natural’ doesn’t need to pass a test or be regulated.”

10. Steer clear of smoke and mirrors.

Priming consumers to be more sensitive to health claims can backfire when the rest of the product doesn’t live up to their heightened expectations. Many shoppers are looking for products that can deliver health benefits, but they are wary of hidden ‘costs’, which means that a seemingly-positive claim can be viewed negatively when the shopper starts thinking more deeply about it or does some research.

“[I don’t like…] 98 per cent fat free yoghurt. Often, they add extra sugar to compensate for the reduced fat content.”

“I dislike boxes that say sugar free, yet instead use honey or maple syrup or coconut syrup. Same stuff!”

11. If appealing to authority, make it appealing.

Celebrity and expert endorsements can pack a punch, but only if they are known to the shopper and relevant to the product – otherwise there is a risk that an association with them can undermine the message.

12. Engage the senses, not just the brain.

Claims don’t have to appeal to the rational, they can also tempt with a sensorial experience.

“Dairy farmers Thick and Creamy Yoghurt – it is what it says and absolutely delicious!”

“Greek Fetta Mediterranean Inspired Cheese is perfect for salad. It uses descriptive words to paint a picture.”

Hungry for more?

You might wonder if it’s ever possible to feel confident in your claims. One thing is clear: test your claims with real consumers to make sure you understand how they are being received and interpreted – you won’t regret it.

Katherine Savage is an account director at PLAY MR and its resident eye-tracking and packaging expert. With 12 years of research experience in the UK and Australia, Katherine has helped countless brands develop and evolve their product ideas for local and global market.

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