Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective
By Laurie Demeritt
Over the years, the myriad of words and symbols printed on food and beverage product packaging has grown in complexity and diversity. Today, consumer packaged goods resemble NASCAR racers with a dizzying array of words, symbols and seals adorning the front, sides and back of the product’s label. From nutrition facts, to country of origin and product narratives, packaged goods are becoming crowded sources that educate, inform and even entertain.
Yet, despite the rise of symbols and certifications—spanning the gamut from “tooth friendly” to “free range”—The Hartman Group’s “Pulse Report: Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective” finds that label readership is on the rise. The study found that 28 percent of Americans are reading labels much more frequently today than a year ago. Another 31 percent of consumers are reading labels slightly more often, underscoring the fact that the majority of consumers take label reading seriously.
But, do the intricacies of today’s product labels intimidate consumers? What factors influence consumers to read labels more or less than in the past? How are elements on a label—from nutrition fact panels to recycling symbols—currently used and accepted amid growing interests in product ingredients, food safety and certifications of ethical, health or green production?
This study found that, much like consumers we examined in previous wellness lifestyle research, today’s consumers examine labels according to their personal lifestyle priorities. This is due, in part, to the cultural equations consumers are drawing between nutrition and personal health. Now we see large groups of consumers adding “label reading” as part of health and wellness lifestyles. In the area of food and beverages, across consumer segments, label reading appears to be a strong habit that is increasing in intensity.
Elements of Lifestyle That Lead to Label Scrutiny
Today, there are a number of driving forces that trigger consumers to “interrogate” the packages they purchase. Interestingly, while consumers are apt to say they check labels at the shelf in stores, research shows that many of the influences to purchase a product—and read a label—are controlled by events and forces occurring in the home as opposed to in the store.
In the case of label reading, when we consider what tips the everyday, casual glance at packaging labels into the region of “careful” analysis, we must take into account a broad range of influences including the effects of the media, consumer stage of life, household structure, personal beliefs, health conditions, food safety and freshness concerns, as well as diet and weight management programs. When asked to rank a number of influences on why they might consult package labels, we find that health, curiosity about “what’s in” food, weight management, freshness concerns and worries about ingredient origins are the top drivers (Figure 1).
What Are Customers Looking at on a Label?
With consumers paying closer attention to labels, how might manufacturers make life easier for consumers in their attempts to sort through the myriad of statements, claims, symbols and printed information found on packaging? Our research finds that among the many different components found on a typical food or beverage package label, the most important “parts of a package” consumers look at are the nutrition facts panel, the ingredient list and the expiration (freshness) date.
Consumer desire for higher quality products is emerging as the macro trend of the 21st century with implications extending well beyond the foreseeable future. An integral part of this is the shift toward higher freshness standards. Among 16 different package components tested, the first and third most frequently examined label elements relate to freshness.
The majority of American consumers (60 percent) “always” look for expiration dates, while close to half of consumers (49 percent) “always” look at the freshness or “made on” date. Sandwiched between these, the nutrition facts panel is the second most frequently examined label component: 50 percent of consumers “always” check nutrition facts panels. The other most frequently examined label component is the ingredients list, which 47 percent of consumers “always” examine (Figure 2).
Within these categories, some of the comments from consumers have to do not only with actual ingredient content, but the readability of the label. Frustrations included difficulty reading the small-print ingredient list or locating the often-elusive freshness date on a package.
Another area of frustration was trying to decipher elements of the nutrition facts panel with variations in product properties (e.g., total calories) in relation to serving size that vary by product type, brand or category.
Familiarity, Trust and Understanding of Symbols
In the “Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective” report, consumers’ levels of awareness, trust and understanding were examined for 13 different ethical, sustainable and dietary-related symbols and icons in use in today’s marketplace.
One icon stood out from all others tested: the American Heart Association’s (AHA) “Heart Check” symbol. Given the prevalence of heart disease in the population combined with long-term and widespread marketing of the organization’s work, it is little wonder that 64 percent of consumers say they have seen the symbol and understand it. Half of consumers trust the AHA symbol. The second most familiar 1symbol among consumers is the USDA Organic seal. Forty-three percent of consumers say they have seen it “a lot.” Ranking third, after organic, is the symbol for recycling plastic.
How Consumers Evaluate Labels
We see that what consumers look for on package labels varies depending on the lens through which they approach a product, such as diet needs (i.e., wheat allergies, lactose intolerance), diet choices (i.e., low-carb diet), and their overall involvement with wellness (consumers of organic products largely enter the World of Organics through wellness).
Within the World of Wellness, Core, Mid-Level and Periphery consumers have different approaches to the label components on a package. The most important label components for the Core consumer are the ingredient list and the nutrition facts, while the Mid-Level consumer will look at the product description, the ingredient list, the brand and the nutrition facts. Finally, Periphery consumers look to product description, the brand and the health claims to evaluate a product. For example, Core consumers will largely ignore a product descriptor and will instead read the ingredient list to determine “what a product is.” Periphery consumers, however, use the product descriptor to determine “what a product is” and will rarely use ingredient lists. For more on this, see Table 1.
Connecting the Dots
Consumer food purchase decisions are becoming more and more complex. Marketers struggle with explaining increasingly complicated stories to consumers about what a food product is and how it’s good from diverse standpoints ranging from health to ethics. Mainstream consumers want simple explanations as to why food products they choose are healthier, functional or otherwise not just plain old food. Evolved health and wellness consumers often want a fuller story, with more technical detail about their foods.
Matching the product story to the consumer can be challenging; what works for mainstream consumers is insufficient for evolved wellness consumers, and what attracts the latter often scares off the former. In general, label reading itself may soon be classified as a lifestyle hobby, with a diversity of influences driving consumers to “learn” (or ignore) certain elements of a package.
While specific influences tend to tip consumers to consult label components carefully, rising interests in freshness, authentic product narratives and the origin of ingredients speak for interesting times ahead for manufacturers and retailers seeking to influence consumers by package design.
Laurie Demeritt is president and COO of The Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com), a leading consulting and consumer insights firm. The Hartman Group specializes in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles and how these lifestyles affect the purchase and use of health and wellness products and services.
Their client base includes a number of Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods companies, pharmaceutical firms, and mass and natural food retailers. She can be reached at email@example.com.