Why Albert Heijn wasn’t the most sustainable Dutch supermarket after all
Beware of ‘winners’ elected in consumers research.
Opinion piece by Durk Bosma (March 7, 2023), previously published by Marketingfacts.
Soon it will be that time again. On March 23, the Swedish research agency Sustainable Brand Index (SBI) will present the results of its annual survey of how sustainable consumers think brands in 8 European countries are. In every country there will probably be a few glowing CEOs sitting at the table to hear that they have won (again). But should they be so happy?
There has been strong criticism on the study for some years. See also this broadcast of the television program Propaganda, which wondered why Albert Heijn was again the winner among the supermarkets. Last year, the Reclame Code Commissie (the organization that deals with the self-regulation system of advertising in The Netherlands) made an important ruling (also about Albert Heijn) that calls into question SBI’s revenue model.
If SBI has not made fundamental improvements to its research by 2023, all elected winners who communicate about their win may be rapped over the knuckles by the Reclame Code Commissie.
The ruling is not just about Albert Heijn and Sustainable Brand Index. The implications are much larger. After all, lists of the most sustainable, the most customer-friendly, etc., are often published. The attention such an election generates is of course very pleasant for the winners and for the agency that publishes the list. But at the same time not so pleasant for those who are not on the list. And especially not for the consumers who make their choices based on such a list.
Because anyone with a modicum of understanding of research methodology often marvels at the poor quality of research on the basis of which such lists are produced. But SBI is messing up big time. The criticism of their methodology at a glance:
The new guidelines issued by SBB on communicating about “winning” do not seem to address the above criticisms. The guidelines are mainly about communicating that the rankings are based on consumer perception (and not actual sustainability).
A complaint to the Reclame Code Commissie last year resulted in a reprimand for Albert Heijn*. Among other things, the RCC stated the following: ‘When an advertiser uses a title as “winner” in communication or campaign, the advertiser has the responsibility, in the context of professional diligence, to make sure that such an outcome and the underlying research are correct. In the opinion of the Committee, this applies all the more if, as in this case, it concerns research into a topical subject, sustainability, and the result, which is favorable to the advertiser, is subsequently used in advertising that directly or indirectly refers to the advertiser’s contribution to maintaining and promoting a clean and safe environment in general. Strict requirements are imposed on such advertising in terms of demonstrability’.
In other words, Albert Heijn should have looked more closely into the quality of the research conducted and questioned whether the research was good enough. Especially since it was a sustainability claim.
Useful rankings that are good
Rankings are useful because they can get things moving within organizations. But then those rankings must be based on solid and transparent research. And all relevant competitors must be included. Moreover, the way results are presented must do justice to the limitations of survey research. Anyone who does not want to take these into account is being deceitful.
And so this is my plea, addressed to all marketers working for a brand that emerges as a “winner” in such a ranking. Before you enthusiastically start typing up a press release, sit down with a research expert to judge the quality of the research behind the win. In many cases, unfortunately, you will find that the research is inadequate. If you fail such an audit, you can expect a rude awakening as happened at Albert Heijn.
*The ruling is only based on the argument that the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 supermarkets, was too small and did not prove a statistically significant difference. The other arguments were not even considered in the RCC’s ruling.
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