Americans Lose Trust In Top Food Brands And Fast-Food Outlets

Brand loyalty is one of the driving factors of commerce in America. Once a consumer becomes "branded," as the industry term goes, they are much more likely to buy that same brand time and time again. There are Colgate families and there are Crest families, for example. Brand loyalty is based on an almost mystical combination of trust, past experience, personal expression, and perceptions of product performance. Consumers commonly will pay more for a product they're loyal to, even when a less expensive option that does exactly the same thing is readily available. For a large percentage of Americans, for instance, ketchup is synonymous with Heinz — even though there are plenty of competitors out there and taste tests have shown that Heinz isn't necessarily the best-tasting option.  

Americans Lose Trust in Top Food Brands and Fast-Food Outlets (Slideshow)

The food world, though, has seen real change on this front over the past five years or so.  More and more people are become increasingly conscious of what they put into their mouths — and into their bodies — and many are turning away from their formerly favorite food brands in favor of healthier alternatives. This has led to a boom in the healthy snack market — not to mention efforts by mainstream brands to keep up with the times by, for example, replacing high-fructose corn syrup with cane sugar or trumpeting the fact that their products contain no trans-fats or GMO ingredients.

As a recent Ad Age article put it: "Families once reliably heaped their plates with products such as Stove Top stuffing from Kraft Foods, Hamburger Helper from General Mills, and Kellogg cereals, along with similar products from other processed food titans. But now those consumers are increasingly migrating to smaller, upstart brands that are often perceived as healthier and more authentic." To counter these trends, big food companies are increasingly trying to buy authenticity, as is evident in Kellogg's purchase of Kashi, General Mills' purchase of Annie's Organic, and Hormel buying Applegate Farms.

As corporate food companies co-opt consumer concerns, consumer trust in famous brands appears to be faltering, and even as these brands continue to claim that they're putting out healthy alternatives and moving away from practices that have been criticized as unsustainable or potentially harmful, we simply don't believe them as unfailingly as we used to.

In a nationwide survey, we put this to test with readers of The Daily Meal. We asked those readers if their trust in specific food brands had increased, stayed the same, or decreased compared to five years ago.  Overall the results support what we see as a trend. We included a dozen fast food purveyors and five brands each of chips, non-chip snacks, staple ingredients, and condiments.

Every single brand lost at least some degree of consumer trust over the past five years, according to our respondents. For 10 brands, the loss of trust was comparatively minor, with fewer than 20 percent of our readers feeling some disillusionment (the brands that fared best were French's Mustard, which only 9.6 percent trusted less, and Land O' Lakes Butter at 13.9 percent). The fast food brand that has lost most consumer confidence was KFC, which 53.2 percent of our respondents trust less now than they did last year, closed followed by McDonald's, at 51.6 percent. Packaged food brands trusted least were Kraft Barbecue Sauce (39 percent) and Pringles (38.3 percent).

The best positive showing, with 37.3 percent of readers noting that they now trust it more than they did was (why are we not surprised?) Chipotle.[pullquote:left]

What factors were most responsible for the loss of consumer trust in these well-known brands, according to those who took our survey? They varied, but included concerns about cleanliness (of fast food places), quality of ingredients (when prices dip too low, people start to ask why, and grow suspicious of corner-cutting), authenticity of the food served, and what is perceived as overly slick marketing. Brands gained consumer trust, on the other hand, largely for two reasons: because ingredients or products are thought to be healthy (the removal of trans-fats from foods does seem to matter) or simply because they taste good.

It might be noted that consumers also seem to maintain a degree of cynicism about big food brands. A number of our readers noted, of brands that they liked overall, that they hadn't been struck by any scandals yet.

Here are the details of what percentage of our respondents trusted brands more, less, or about the same as they did five years ago.

Burger KingLess Trust: 45.7 percent

More Trust: 9.4 percent

About the Same: 44.9 percent

Chick-fil-AAbout the Same: 40.6 percent

More Trust: 33.6 percent
Less Trust: 25.8 percent