SmartLabel gains traction as a tool for brands to meet consumers’ mounting clean label demands

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While SmartLabel is still in its relative infancy, manufacturers are flocking to the technology to help them provide the in-depth information that today’s consumers want as part of the clean label movement, but which might not fit on product packaging.

“The emerging consumer wants to know more and more about the products that they use and consume, and as an industry we have an obligation to provide that to the consumer,” Jim Flannery, senior executive vice president of operations and industry collaboration at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told FoodNavigator-USA at the trade group’s recent Science Forum in Washington, DC.

The problem, however, is that much of the information consumers seek simply won’t fit on product packaging.

“The challenge that we have in communicating to our consumers has been that they want a lot of information in a very small package. If you look at a can of tuna, there is not a lot of real estate on the label,” said Steve Mavity, senior vice president of technical services and corporate quality for Bumble Bee Foods.

He explained that Bumble Bee has used traditional marketing and advertising practices to try to communicate much of the extra information that consumers want, but that SmartLabel offers another avenue to concisely communicate key information to consumers in a way that also is standardized and user-friendly.

“People are looking for different ways to communicate and looking for a lot of information that we have not been able traditionally to communicate on the label. So, for example ... in the seafood world, people want to know where their fish comes from,” he said.  They also are looking for more information on ingredients, including what they are, what their purpose is and why they are in the product – all of which is difficult to pack on a small can of tuna, he added.

The creation of SmartLabel

To address this demand without over-crowding labels on packages, representatives from 90 different manufacturers, retailers, trade associations and special interest groups teamed up in late 2014 to kick off the Consumer Transparency Initiative, which would eventually create SmartLabel – a standardized, yet flexible online platform that gives participating brands a landing page online where they can provide consumers detailed information on as many as 350 voluntary and mandatory attributes, Flannery said. He noted consumers can find these webpages through Internet searches, a link from the brand’s or retailer’s website, a QR code on the package or through certified apps.

According Flannery, so far, about 7,000 products currently have SmartLabels. This is up from 5,000 in January and only 200 last November. And it puts the project on track to include about 34,000 products, or between 75% and 80% of the products available in most stores, by the end of this year.

As an early adopter of SmartLabel, Bumble Bee Foods already has all 236 of the products it sells in the US up and running and it plans to move the Canadian portfolio onto the platform later this year.

Mavity says that early consumer response to Bumbe Bee’s use of SmartLabel has been positive with consumers staying on the site for almost five minutes at a time.

“They are reading. They are looking. They are digging, and we intend to track some of our metrics over the next few months to see what are consumers really interested in and where are they going. Is it ingredients? Is it some of the links we have to the Bumble Bee page, the dietary guidelines or USDA’s My Plate?” Mavity said, adding that the company will tweak what information it shares on SmartLabel depending on what consumers are most interested in seeing.

Pros and cons

Mavity explains that, like any major undertaking, SmartLabel has its share of challenges, but that for Bumble Bee Foods, these are far outweighed by the benefits.

“The biggest challenge that SmartLabel presents is we are trying to drive some consistency with the initiative. Every company is different. Their challenges are different, their communication needs are different, the type of information consumers are interested in from a seafood item like … canned tuna may be completely different than what they might be interested in for a say, a box of cereal,” he said. “The challenge has been trying to align all of the different business needs into one application as we move forward.”

On the flip side, the biggest benefit is the platform’s flexibility to be easily tailored to address the challenges Mavity listed. “Businesses can take advantage of the standardization and yet, tailor it to their specific needs.”

Getting started

GMA’s Flannery says with so many options, getting started can seem a bit daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.

He explained that many companies are starting with the brands that are most important to the company and would “disproportionately benefit from transparency.” In many cases, companies simply meet the required attributes or add a handful of voluntary attributes, just to test the water and get a feel for what information consumers want, and then scale up based on what they learn, he said.

Again, both men stressed that SmartLabel is worth the effort, and Mavity added that with such a large portion of the industry planning to participate by the end of the year, those brands that are not on board may come to regret it.

“If you are not participating, you are probably going to be left in the dust,” he said. Bringing it home, he added, “I want to make sure Bumble Bee is not left in the dust and that we are provided a tool that we can grow into moving forward.”

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