We have a running joke here at The Shelton Group about using the title “Strategically Disrupting the Transparency-Synergy Paradigm, Authentically.” Indeed, transparency has officially entered overused buzzword territory, and often means as little as all those other buzzwords. But we’re still highlighting it in the work we do for our clients, because they are all engaged in building and maintaining the trust of their customers. Being authentically transparent, particularly about your quality programs, is essential to earning and keeping the trust of your customers.
Why don’t people believe buzzwords once they’ve become ubiquitous? I think it’s because when everyone starts using them, it’s inevitable that much of the time it’s just hot air and there is nothing real behind them. In the ‘80s they would have called it “hype.” A more timeless term is B.S. To say you’re transparent without being genuine is missing the point, and will eventually backfire because people sense inauthenticity and don’t take kindly to being played for fools. The secret is to demonstrate authentic transparency, not just say you are transparent. Transparency must be coupled with actual best practices to be effective long term. To be effectively and authentically transparent, you have to document and demonstrate it. Effective transparency is about being genuine and telling the story about what makes your company genuine. Gimmicky tactics or empty proclamations about transparency and quality will never convince smart customers, but they do run the risk of causing people to doubt the genuineness of your brand and products.
Of course if your business practices can’t stand up to scrutiny, the whole transparency thing isn’t the right approach for you. Things have changed an awful lot, though, and these days nothing stays hidden forever. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t find it, some attorneys general or class action law firm will. So this is a really good time to start thinking about what you would not want the world to see and start cleaning that up. Testing labs cost less than lawyers. Quality ingredients cost less than a crisis PR firm. And being regulated as dietary supplements costs less than being regulated like pharmaceuticals. Transparency that showcases best practices is an incredibly effective sales tool, and solidifies trust and loyalty. There are many marketing tools you can use to tell your story, many of which we’ve described in our November/Decem-ber Marketing Innovation article, so we’ll focus a bit more on public relations here.
When people who don’t have a lot of experience with public relations think about it, they assume 1) press releases get written and sent out, and then 2) reporters write about your company or products. While sometimes that works, it’s a lot more complicated than that, from knowing when a news release is not the right tactic, to having the relationships and skill to create the visibility you want. There is a lot more opportunity for editorial visibility than just when you have news to announce, and that’s actually the most valuable kind. Reaching out to editorial contacts to help make connections and elevate the company’s viewpoint in the media and among other companies in the industry will pay off much more than a randomly distributed press release.
For an ingredient company, one of the most frequent opportunities is to become a resource for the trade magazines for condition-specific articles, which is one of the most common kinds of editorial content they produce. If you are a company that has clinical trials on your products, be transparent about them. Companies that don’t fund science, or whose products researchers don’t view as being an ingredient 1) can get in the amounts they need and 2) trust in terms of quality, can only provide information to writers that is pretty generic. Your information carries a lot more weight when there are published clinicals on your products.
Let’s say your company has invested a boatload of money in your in-house testing labs. This is probably an ongoing project, so a news release isn’t the best way to illustrate your stellar testing chops and how the company supports high-quality products. Public relations and marketing tactics telling your story should have the same messages, and reinforce each other. A few tactics to consider include:
• Interviews with reporters writing about quality assurance and product testing, making your top people responsible for this available for interviews.
• Inviting editors and reporters to tour the facility, which is hugely effective, and well worth the investment to pay their expenses.
• Suggesting editors plan articles that highlight specific aspects of testing and quality assurance, or offer to provide a bylined article.
• Submit a proposal to speak at industry trade shows. It’s become harder to get a speaking slot at industry trade shows than it used to be, but come up with an applicable topic that would draw people, and think of other possible speakers to broaden the appeal.
• A well-produced video tour on your website that you also share via social media. (Don’t do this if your lab isn’t impressive. Seriously, that’s just embarrassing.)
• An infographic describing the process and tying it back to regulatory compliance. (Never miss an opportunity to talk about how the industry is regulated.)
Then keep doing these things. Over time, your company’s commitment to testing to ensure quality becomes well known, and editors and reporters will think of you when they are looking for experts because you have shown your quality, not just said you have it.
Taking the Lead
If your company is a boutique manufacturer, you are more likely to have some supply issues that the larger companies don’t have. If you are producing smaller amounts of products, you can be, and probably are, a lot more particular about the quality of raw materials, and more likely to produce products when the materials are in season. And this sometimes means “out of stocks.” Transparency about how you source ingredients and why you are out of stock will actually encourage customer loyalty. Put it on your website, in your newsletter annually, and in the email you send out when you have a product back in stock. If you don’t explain to your customers, it may look like you are inept when actually it’s a side effect of the reason they chose you to begin with.
One of our clients is a testing lab that decided back in February 2015, when concerns about herbal product testing became headline news, that companies needed to start being transparent about their testing labs. It was common practice for companies not to reveal what third-party labs they sent products to for testing. But if a reputable lab is doing your testing, what is there to hide? That point was made over and over in interviews and in articles under the CEO’s byline. Several of their clients began identifying their testing labs by name on their websites, and I’d bet the farm we will see more of that in the New Year. This lab also decided that with vastly increased focus on product testing, it would be valuable for manufacturers to understand why some tests fail, what they need to do to get results efficiently, and other technical aspects of a process that was previously viewed as this mysterious thing that happened behind the scenes. In the last 12 months we worked with them on more than two dozen bylined articles and over a dozen additional interviews in industry trade publications, all focused on bringing transparency to product testing.
Companies that are “walking the talk” are often thought leaders who are involved in the bigger discussion in the industry. When you are visibly demonstrating best practices, having a seat at the table of industry leadership gives you the opportunity to advocate for a level playing field, and influence industry policies. The way to have that kind of influence is active involvement in trade associations. While just being a member to say you’re a member is better than not supporting the organizations that benefit us all, joining committees, interacting with leadership and staff and participating in events all help improve the industry, and your business outlook, as a result.
The industry is changing more rapidly than ever; between state AGs, class action attorneys, Congressional committees, mainstream media and regulatory agencies, there is more pressure to change than we’ve experienced since GMPs (good manufacturing practices) became required. The scrutiny is massive. Being a genuine, honest company that does things the right way is your ticket to thriving in the future. No secret potions, no strategies to be hashed out other than being a real, decent company that does things correctly and produces products that its owners/employees can be proud of. Doing the right thing, interestingly, is the path to success in an industry quickly trying to figure out how to elevate the good players and rid itself of the bad. NIE
The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. Suzanne Shelton has provided public relations services to both international and domestic dietary supplement and natural products manufacturers, suppliers and associations.