Consumers have more information than ever at their fingertips to help them make decisions about their food and health. Yet more than half of people surveyed by the International Food Information Council Foundation this year said the abundance of information—some of it conflicting—makes them doubt their food choices.
The Sage Project proposes that one way to empower these eaters is to reimagine food information and data by making it smart, simple and personalized. The tech company is working with brands and retailers like Whole Foods Market to create a digital tool that shows shoppers a breakdown of ingredients, nutrition information, allergens and attributes for natural and organic products they pick up on their grocery store shelves.
CEO Sam Slover oversees the vision of The Sage Project and talked with New Hope about how design can be a powerful tool in helping consumers learn about their products.
You’ve done extensive research on consumers and what they look for when grocery shopping. What do you think are the pain points they experience walking down the grocery aisle or shopping for products online?
Sam Slover: For many consumers, walking down the grocery aisle can feel overwhelming, especially if they have specific dietary or other concerns: lots of products all look kind of the same (with similar marketing language), and it’s really difficult to suss out which products might genuinely be a better fit for their diet or a good new option to try out. Consumers essentially get lost in a wall of product sameness.
It’s just hard to get the full picture of the product and the story behind it just by looking at a package—and most consumers don't have the time to do extensive research. At Sage, we try to make things more clear by providing consumers with their own personalized lenses to filter their food data (so they only get the information that is their key criteria). We want to make it easy for people to get the information they need in seconds.
Can we improve food labeling and transparency with technology and design? What do you think is the future of food labeling, and how is the Sage Project helping to transform brand storytelling, product transparency and information sharing with consumers?
SS: Yes, I definitely believe that food labeling and transparency can be improved with technology and design by making food labels more approachable, educational and personalized. The data has to be user-driven and personalizable in a way, because each person’s needs are different, and it also needs to be simple and approachable.
I think the future of food labeling will evolve with technologies like offline/online integrations, AR and even bots (where a consumer can simply ask a question and get an immediate answer)—these tools will all be part of the storytelling, search and selection process.
At Sage, we’re creating dynamic food labels starting with product transparency: capturing all of the raw ingredients, nutritional information and certifications from a given product, then analyzing and classifying each product across a wide range of special dietary needs, allergens, health, social and environmental attributes. We pay special attention to designing around the information that consumers actually use to select products. Consumers who visit the Sage platform online can then personalize their search based on their unique preferences (or “lenses,” as we call them), so that only the most relevant products are shown to them in visual data breakdowns that explain the full story behind each product.
For brands, we’ve developed a consistent standard for coding nutritional data as well as the health, social and environmental attributes that make it easy to achieve greater product transparency and share it consistently at scale across Web and mobile platforms.
We also see a big opportunity for retailers and brands to play a key role in helping consumers make informed decisions through greater access to personalized food information.
For manufacturers and retailers, what do you think are the benefits and challenges associated with transforming how products are labeled and ingredient information is shared with consumers?
SS: The ultimate benefit could be the opportunity to become a true partner in your customer’s health journey—to support them in making more informed decisions and to do so in a way that is simple and accessible for diverse groups of people. An even bigger transformation will be tying this to actual commerce experiences—as more food retail moves online, giving consumers access to next-generation digital tools to find, learn about and ultimately purchase the products that best fit their personal needs and goals.
Short-run challenges will likely continue to be the need for greater speed in the innovation of food product manufacturing—the more educated people become about what’s in their food and the more values continue to shift toward cleaner forms of eating, local sourcing and faster delivery, the more pressure there will be on manufacturers and distributors to provide products that have these characteristics. For larger (more traditional) organizations, this can mean a significant shift and restructuring of operations to keep up with changes in consumer demand.
Brands may also need to invest more in education and technology to answer the growing number of questions consumers have about their products, which can be tough to keep up with.
And, if personalization is the future of food commerce and marketing, which we think it is, then capturing, processing and maintaining in-depth food data on a very nuanced level across so many changing consumer needs and preferences becomes necessary to deliver information that is useful and valuable to consumers.