When Lay’s advertises its sustainability

Should a potato crisps brand advertise its efforts to be more sustainable? In this article previously shared on Marketingfacts.nl (a platform for innovations in marketing) we share lessons from Lay’s latest advertisement campaign in the Netherlands.

When you think about sustainable food, you may not automatically think about potato crisps. If a potato crisp brand reduces its footprint, they might want to shout it from the rooftops. But do consumers really care about the sustainability of crisps? Is sustainability a relevant reason for buying a product that is not consumed with the intention of nourishment, but purely for pleasure? And how should a brand communicate their sustainability message in an effective way? 

A lot of food brands struggle with this. It’s a balancing act. Overdoing it could lead to accusations of greenwashing. But at the same time retailers and consumers demand an improved footprint. And market leaders like Lay’s are expected to pave the road. 

What is Lay’s approach?

Lay’s takes the following route in the Netherlands: They connect sustainability and high quality. And they advertise the high quality of the potatoes, which results in great-tasting crisps. The message: high-quality is related to the fact that Lay’s farmers use crop-rotation in their potato fields and conduct 18,000 quality checks. In the pay-off Lay’s makes an explicit link between the quality of the potatoes and sustainable farming practices:  

100% KWALITEITSAARDAPPELEN, DUURZAAM GETEELD (100% quality potatoes, sustainably farmed). 

So, how do consumers perceive these claims? Do they find them believable and relevant? We shared some of the following clips with our Food Forum members, our community of conscious consumers, to find out*.  Almost 70 members shared their thoughts. Below we highlight the main ones.

When talking about sustainability, focusing on the benefit for the consumer is the way to go.

For most participants, the takeaway message is that ‘Lay’s uses sustainably-farmed, high quality potatoes, to guarantee great taste’, rather than the specific claims about crop-rotation or quality checks. 

When asked about the sustainability of Lay’s potato crisps, about two thirds of participants believe that they are produced in a way that minimally harms the planet (with another fifth being neutral). Very few participants showed scepticism. This could be because the campaign focuses on the high quality of the potatoes, rather than saving the planet, as a result of the ‘good farming practices’. In other words, a win for the consumer first, and for the planet second. 

Claims that include surprising numbers but are not explained further, make consumers sceptical once they give it some thought.  

Declaring that the potatoes are checked 18,000 times, rather than simply saying that they are checked very well, stimulates consumers to start thinking more critically about the message.  

“I was kind of stuck on those 18,000 quality checks. That seems like a lot. What exactly do those checks consist of? That number makes me wonder. Especially since I assume that, with my food anyway, that it meets certain food and commodity requirements.”  

“18,000 checks? Not so clear. What does it mean?”  

This questioning in turn makes them wonder if the brand as a whole is sustainable. 

“I just don’t know if what they claim in these commercials is credible. It is claimed to be sustainably grown, but is that really the case?”  

However, the ad that talked about crop rotation did not raise any questions. No participant asked about how often this happens, which crops they rotate with, or what effect it has. The claim was vague enough to not raise any suspicions. For some participants, crop-rotation is a familiar concept, which made them not think twice about this claim. Surprisingly, it also did not raise the question about whether every farmer does this for the sake of the health of their soil.  

How important is sustainability for Lay’s? 

All-in-all, do consumers believe that Lay’s is in fact doing its best to be sustainable? On face value, most seem to believe so. However, when they think about it more carefully they doubt some of the specific claims. But that does not stop Lay’s from being their favourite crisp brand.  

So, as a market leader, Lay’s gets away with communicating a rather vague message about the quality of their product related to the sustainable farming of their potatoes. Consumers don’t care that much and find proof of the quality themselves (by eating). 

But wait.  

Crop rotation is a common practice for every potato farmer. It is even a legal requirement in the EU. Failing to do so will deplete the soil and increase the chances of diseases, which both in turn increase the need for usage of chemicals. 

And the message about the quality checks is extremely vague. Of course every farmer checks for quality. Nobody knows which 18,000 checks there are and what exactly is checked.  

So, Lay’s is telling us that they do something that they are required to do and that everybody else does. And by doing so, project an image of being a caring company. And they get away with it. How does that sound? 

What if Lay’s actually wanted to be a sustainable brand (and be seen as such by consumers)? 

If they do something truly extraordinary in terms of quality or sustainability, why don’t they communicate that? If Lay’s wanted to be sustainable and also be seen as sustainable it could do a lot more than just meet the minimal legal requirements.  

If a brand truly wants to be sustainable and at the same time commercially successful, there are a few steps to take. They require a combination of understanding your actual impact and understanding what consumers perceive to be impactful. First of all, that understanding allows you to work on those things that actually lower the overall footprint. It also allows a brand to communicate about those efforts that consumers find relevant in a language that consumers actually understand.  

READ MORE: check out our article about understanding sustainability in your category 

Please note: we are not saying that brands should improve the footprint only on those elements that consumers find appealing. On the contrary, sustainability efforts should be focussed on those areas that really matter. But communicating about those improvements to the public should focus on those elements that consumers understand and find relevant. That way a sustainability message can actually resonate with consumers. 

So what do consumers find relevant?

We don’t know this specifically about potato crisps. But in a recent study for EIT Food about which elements of sustainability consumers find most important (in general), we found that ‘improving soil condition’ was not high on the list at all. What came out as most relevant? This is the top 3: 

  • Water usage,  
  • lack of synthetic pesticides,  
  • and recycling properties of the food’s packaging. 

Now this list shows what consumers find important in general. Lay’s could have figured this out for their own product. And most likely water usage, pesticides and packaging are high on the list for potatoes as well. Let’s assume that a study confirms this. What could they do with this knowledge? 

Parent company PepsiCo says they have a program aimed at reducing water usage. They say they have a program aimed at improving recycling properties of the food’s packaging: 

“We also try to use green manure and drip irrigation, among other things, as much as possible and encourage biodiversity.” according to sustainability manager Rozanne Drost 

And from the same article:  

“To keep our crisps fresh and crispy, an aluminum layer is needed. However, this layer is so thin that it allows us to meet the requirements for 100 percent recyclable mono-material. As a result, our bags can simply be thrown away with the PMD waste.” 

Why not communicate about these initiatives and make these the centre of the campaign? communicating those improvements would help consumers understand why these crisps are better for the planet than other brands’. And it would stimulate the competitors to improve their foot print as well. 

All in all, it seems Lay´s misses a great opportunity to educate consumers about making sustainable choices and proving that their products are indeed better for the planet. Which is a shame, because this is what market leaders are supposed to do: lead the way. 

*This study was not commissioned by Lay’s, but done at the initiative of Future of Food Institute, with the aim of better understanding communication of sustainable farming practices.  

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Contact us to find out more about the results, or how we can tailor consumer insights to your product or company. 

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