Editorial: Simply Certifiable

By Len Monheit

cer·ti·fi·ca·tion n.

-A process, which may be incremental, by which a contractor provides evidence to the acquirer that a product meets contractual or otherwise specified requirements.

-is one step above compliance testing. Certification has a legal connotation signifying that a third party organization has put its stamp of approval on the outcome and has, in a sense, guaranteed the products meet the conditions of the test.

-The act of attesting that something is true or meets a certain standard.

The past several years has seen the development of a number of certification schemes, a situation made much more complex by the graying of the lines between industry sectors such as foods, beverages, supplements and the emergence of strong categories such as natural and organic. Companies now frequently display numerous designators of achieved standards, and further complication is added by the use of industry specific and consumer targeted seals and standards.

It is apparent that in this information age, we are facing hyper-presentation as companies seek to both describe and differentiate their offerings. In many cases, these descriptive ‘certifiable’ elements are an intent to make a compliance statement based on regulatory status or compliance, a statement based on efficacy, risk reduction and/or perception of safety, or the result of a perceived market opportunity or emerging trend. (there are other ways to break out the groups; humor me as I try to establish a few points.)

Let’s start with the obvious first type. GMP certified or compliance with the National Organic Program (NOP) would be examples of this category. Typically third party certified, it is not totally unusual, at least for GMP compliance, for the attestation to be self-provided. At least in the case of the NOP and many others of this type of certification, the seal or designation is intended largely for consumer exposure. In the case of GMP certification, while some consumer communication does contain information about GMP compliance, much of the designation is intended to be trade driven (ie. to retailers etc.) to help others within the industry differentiate between companies.

In the second instance, (efficacy, risk reduction and safety), one envisions examples such as low-glycemic, or fat, allergen and sugar free. This attestation is typically supported by testing and inspection and the designation begins to be very targeted not only at a consumer population, but on one matching a certain set of characteristics or behaviors. Here you have an aware population as a focal point, one presumably seeking this particular designation as they make purchasing decisions. The need for education on the merits and criteria for these certifications can be even higher than with those involving regulatory compliance. One reason for this is likely the intent to build consumer (or at least target population) exposure and brand equity associated with the seal. Another reason might be the education required to understand the designation and difference between compliant and other products. An extended example of this category would be the various risk-reduced products available for consumption by elite athletes, reducing their risk of testing positive for banned substances. While targeted obviously at elite athletes, the program is frequently justified, by the certifier and participant, in the hopes that a larger consumer population will extend attributes of the program for their own use – and their own confidence. The challenges in building brand behind the seal obviously mount as this audience grows.

The final and related category is one driven by trend, belief, news or circumstance. Examples might include ‘fair-trade’, sustainable, and attestations in this group are meant largely to signal a commitment of belief on the part of the manufacturer that is meant to resonate with like-minded consumers.

As I said, we’re living in an information age and if nothing else, this creates a highly responsive (some would say reactive) society. This means that essentially anything in the news can create a rush to attest, and we’re seeing one very clear example in the call to certify products as ‘China-free’. Retailers and consumers alike are beginning to seek this designation, all the while not understanding the value chain and series of inputs that makes this a very touchy subject in many categories – such as foods and supplements. In cases such as this, where the market is somewhat disconnected from value chain reality, education is a complex and risky calculation. Are North American consumers ready to face the fact that so many of their products cannot claim ‘China-free’? Who’s going to manage that communication program? What will be the backlash to this education effort?

It’s this latter category to that is primarily responsible for creating another challenge for product differentiation and that is a phenomenon I’ll call ‘certification clutter’. A company can actually put so many designations and seals on its labels that one is forced to wonder whether the bombardment actually serves any function at all. The counter-argument is that each group that is a target of a designation looks for the seal that it specifically needs for buying comfort.

So where’s it all going?

I’m not that sure other than to say that opportunity and communication capabilities together create new business models and new products. As with any major headline, the current crisis relating to safety of Chinese goods is triggering behaviors, communications, regulations and ultimately interest in certifications and attestations. While the fundamentals of this current crisis can be managed by ‘knowing’ your supply chain and inputs and buying carefully, the need for quick fix and oversimplification is leading to a call for quick certification.

Quick is not usually effective.

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