Are ‘clean labels’ becoming more important than your brand?

Are ‘clean labels’ becoming more important than your brand?

By Stephanie Hadley

There is no doubt that consumer demand for authenticity and transparency is driving the food industry to be more discerning about the ingredients that make up their products. We have become very familiar with the ‘clean labelling’ movement of omitting certain nasty ingredients and attributes and replacing these with wholefood and natural ingredients. Food safety, quality and responsible sourcing have also become high on the list in a pandemic world, so that claims such as “locally grown”, “ethically sourced” and “fair trade” are now common place.

But to what extent are such claims influencing the consumer more than the brand itself? Do products even still need an identifiable brand to distinguish their products from others in the marketplace? I would argue – absolutely.

While a clean label goes some way to informing a consumer about the contents of the product and how it may be derived, produced or sourced, a brand is more than just a visual identifier. Brands are constantly connecting with consumers around values, passions and interests to help create a sense of community, particularly in the online space. Experiential marketing can build trust for a brand and do just as well to educate and inform the consumer about the product (if not better). If the label were the only touch point for engagement with a brand for a consumer, then perhaps clean labelling would almost supersede this -but it hasn’t.

A brand can also be protected and exclusively owned and controlled legally by registering it as a trade mark. To do so, it still needs to meet certain underlying criteria such as being sufficiently distinctive and not descriptive of the goods or services. This is a permanent legal right for as long as the owner is using the mark and wants to keep it on the Trade Marks Register for the relevant country. Compare this to the descriptive clean label claims which which will come and go and vary over time depending on what drives the consumer to purchase. A registered trade mark or brand is also an asset of the business. The reputation and goodwill associated with a trade mark can increase over time, therefore adding tangible value to your business, whereas clean labels only really contribute to the selling power of the brand at a particular point in time.

A Certification Trade Mark can also prove very useful when trying to create a visual short cut for clean label claims and substantiation. The purpose of a Certification Trade Mark is to show whoever holds the mark, that it meets a certain standard set out by the owner. For example, Coeliac New Zealand has developed the Cross Grain Logo as part of their certification programme to show that certain products meet the standards and are suitable for a gluten free diet. So rather than the mark functioning as a unique badge of origin, it denotes quality and safety.

There is no doubt that clean labelling helps deliver authenticism and brand ethos – but it does not replace the brand. Even Certification Trade Marks which go a tad further in conveying these messages, still needs to sit alongside a recognisable and distinguishable brand to drive repeat purchases. If you need help assessing your labels and brand strategy so that they fit seamlessly side by side, please reach out for assistance by contacting myself at or your usual James & Wells advisor.

Stephanie Hadley, Associate, James & Wells
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