Market View: Stop Promoting What's Not

Removing gluten is one thing, but promoting it and other 'missing' ingredients sends the wrong message.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

My belief the gluten-free trend has hit its peak was confirmed when I saw a furniture store sign claiming "All furniture is gluten-free." I was in a hurry, so I couldn't stop and congratulate the owner on his sense of humor. However it appears even the most pedestrian of consumers is aware of the “gluten-free tidal wave.”

This fad surprises me. I can't believe so many people believe their diets would be better off just by eliminating gluten. Part of the reason I feel this is not a lasting trend is the fact I haven’t yet met anyone who actually knows what items contained gluten or are gluten-free, with the exception of those with celiac disease who know everything about gluten.

I understand why so many food companies are rushing to produce gluten-free food. The market is growing by 43 percent in the bread and baked goods category and by 36 percent in dairy products, according to Nielsen and Mintel. That sounds impressive, but gluten-free still is only about 2 percent of the total baked goods market. However, baked goods in general is showing almost no growth, so why not jump on the gluten-free bandwagon?

The gluten-free trend/fad may continue if there are some really good reasons why people are switching to the gluten-free products. According to Packaged Facts, only about 7 percent of the people are buying gluten-free for reasons of disease or inflammation. The largest group of people (about 65 percent) just want to be healthier. For some reason, they associate gluten with not being healthy.

About 27 percent buy gluten-free products in order to lose weight. I frankly have no idea whether this is true or not. I do know weight gain is associated with your caloric intake and your caloric outtake. I guess if you think you eat less when it's gluten-free, you might actually lose weight.

As a diehard marketer there's no question in my mind we should give consumers what they want and at the very minimum tell consumers what is in our products or not in our products. The real question is whether consumers are really asking for “gluten-free” or are they asking for something healthier. When I asked some of the consumers in focus groups what is actually unhealthy about gluten, a typical response was, “Well why would they take it out if that wasn't bad for you?”

That's a fair question. Why do we take out all of these things from our products, and then announce it in large letters on our labels, if those things are not bad for you? In research that we are currently conducting, we found that telling people what was healthy about their food, and what the food had that was good for them, had a much more positive impact than telling them negative things about the food.

For example, when we gave consumers an extensive list of attributes and benefits, claims such as an excellent source of protein, an excellent source of calcium or a good source of potassium were viewed far more positively than negative claims such as no artificial ingredients or from cows not treated with antibiotics.

I think as food marketers, in our efforts to differentiate ourselves from the competition, we may have gone overboard in creating products that “don't have something in them” rather than “have great things in them.” We may have confused the consumer’s search for healthier food with a search for foods that have something removed from them, be it salt, cholesterol, sugar, gluten and so on.

I've used the expression: A rising tide lifts all boats. And I believe it! However, I think the reverse also is true, and an ebbing tide lowers all boats. If we focus on what we don't have, we create a situation that's bad for the food industry in general.

Is anyone really surprised consumers think gluten-free products are healthier, when virtually everyone is making and announcing that they've converted at least some products to gluten-free? Is anyone surprised consumers have become distracted from all the good things our food brings us when most of the labels and promotional messages tell us what's not in our food?

At the same time, I have not seen any promotion or advertising that tries to explain what gluten or gluten-free means and to give consumers information that may help them make an informed decision. I spoke with one executive who said if consumers want to behave irrationally, then I'm happy to sell them the products to do so.

It seems like we are reinforcing the statements and positions of the alleged public interest groups and government groups that decry how bad the food industry is. Each time someone announces that some food ingredient is the death of us all, every food company races to produce products without that ingredient and announce it from on high.

My research suggests consumers think the important attributes of food are the positive things that food delivers, and that is more important than the negative attributes we insist on telling consumers our products don't contain. Let's get more positive about the incredible food we make.

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