THE BLOG
10/16/2014 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Brand Integrity: Where's the Beef

From The Washington Post to the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., newspapers and digital outlets have peppered the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic this week with articles about Giant Food's decision to change its meat labels, then change them back. It's a cautionary tale about both the need for transparency and preserving (or eroding) the value of your brand.

Giant Food was for years the grocery leader in the nation's capital. When it was locally owned, it had a reputation for fairness, high quality, and civic engagement. My husband's Aunt Emily once recalled seeing owner Izzy Cohen inspecting his store aisles and barking at staff when he saw something that wasn't right. His commitment to quality built trust and customers felt that what you bought at Giant was the very best.

Last month, Giant eroded that trust when it came out with a new meat label that no longer tells customers what quality of meat they are buying--only that it is graded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The label is essentially meaningless because all of but a tiny amount of meat in this country is USDA graded. According to the article, the company changed the label to save money (they can store all kinds of meat together) and if customers don't really know what they are buying, the company might get away with selling greater quantities of lower-quality meat at higher margins.

Value Meets Values
So what's the lesson here? It's something we at Wainger Group preach almost non-stop. You must be all about your value--and your values (plural) are tied up in that.

The most powerful brands stand for something more than simply making money. That something can range from being innovative to empowering, honest to a fault, or sustainable. It's important to know what your company, your organization or you as an individual believe in and use those beliefs to guide everything you do from product or service development to packaging to how employees and staff are treated.

Honesty in Branding
Here's another reminder most learned at their parent's knee. People don't like being lied to or manipulated. Be truthful about what you are selling and what you want from your customers. You are asking for their time, their money, their loyalty. In return you have to give them what you promise and then some. And when you slip up as we all do, own it, apologize and fix it.

Bottom Line: Customer Retention
Food labeling is a powerful and important marketing tool. I know I read labels very carefully to help me make my buying decisions. When a company isn't willing to be transparent about what's in the package it destroys trust. And that is certainly what Ahold, the conglomerate that bought Giant many years ago has done. Reading the more than 300 comments following the article reveal that over time, Giant's star has fallen.

For many this latest incident has been the final straw that will keep them out of the store. How can you trust the tagline "You've Got a Giant on Your Side" when the Giant throws up a smokescreen? As one person told the Post, "The labeling decision by Giant has simplified a decision of my own - we're cutting the cord and switching to Wegmans."