A Cautionary Tale for Healthy Brands

Earlier this month, fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle announced that it would be removing all GMO ingredients from its menu items.

The news received quite a bit of media attention, but the coverage was not what one might have expected. Overwhelmingly, news outlets took a cynical view of Chipotle's announcement, with many questioning whether removing GMO ingredients had any basis in science or was simply an effort to “give consumers what they want” regardless of the science.


The coverage of Chipotle's non-GMO announcement highlights a recent trend that sees media outlets increasingly “calling out” what can somewhat flippantly be called "pseudoscience"—dubious or misleading claims that are not supported by substantial data or a rigorous scientific method.

In fact, a group of physicians recently drew a line in the stand, calling on the Columbia University Medical School to oust Dr. Mehmet Oz from its faculty for, "manifesting an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain."

Couple this with the recent backlash aimed at popular health & wellness bloggers Vani Deva Hari and Belle Gibson for playing fast and loose with science—and the truth—and you have a trend on your hands.

For healthy brands wanting to build trust and credibility with consumers, these examples should serve as cautionary tales.

First, changes in formulation or marketing messages aimed at better meeting the needs of health-conscious consumers are not quite as clear cut as they used to be. Is the customer always right even if what they want has little or no basis in scientific fact? Pepsico took heat recently for announcing that they would be removing aspartame from their diet sodas despite the fact that the sweetener has been widely studied and deemed safe.


Second, associations with popular wellness personalities, both online and off, can deliver your brand message to millions of consumers, but at what price? How your message is presented and the company your brand shares in those forums are both out of your control when you turn to the blogosphere or social media.

So, what are healthy brands to do? How do brands meet the demands of consumers who are becoming increasingly focused on what’s in their food without opening themselves up to criticism? How do brand marketers tap into unique channels for communicating their brand messages to these same consumers without running the risk of appearing to pander or be associated with pseudoscience?

  1. Be direct and don’t dissemble. Jumping on trends can be very tempting, but the risks are greater than ever. Avoid the temptation to promote your product in ways that don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, we’ve seen food brands aggressively pushing a gluten free message when the food they sell never did (or could) contain gluten.
  2. Be part of the solution, not the entire solution. The one thing all health-conscious consumers have in common is a desire to live a healthier lifestyle and increase their well-being. Rightly, they are skeptical of brands that claim to be a silver bullet or a total solution. Educate consumers appropriately about how your brand can help support their individual health & wellness goals and you’ll not only earn their trust, but also their dollars.
  3. Rely on credible communication channels. High-profile media personalities, bloggers and social media darlings may seem like an inexpensive way to reach a large number of consumers, but understand who you are getting into bed with. Everyday health professionals—highly trained and experienced professionals who are counseling consumers on a daily basis—are the most trusted source of consumer guidance. They may not create social media “buzz” but they can deliver your brand message to consumers with authority. In other words, put your money where the trust is.

Photo credit: yonolatengo