An article published in AdAge yesterday dissected the current trend of fast food chains using vague buzzwords like wholesome, fresh, or all-natural in ads to convince consumers that their products are healthy without risking the drawback of creating the perception of a lack of taste. Even better for advertisers? These claims don't seem to be drawing the eye of regulators like more specific health-related claims. According to Darren Tristano, executive Vice President at the restaurant consultancy Technomic, the vague buzzwords may be a problem for consumers but will ultimately "evoke a positive feeling toward the food and toward the restaurant" because "the perception is driving the reality."
However, I'd argue that this strategy is flawed. First, the perception and positioning of the brand and its advertisements will always affect the perceptions of the product. If there's a conflict between the core values of the brand and the advertising, the associations with healthy food that advertisers hope to make with their new buzzwords simply won't work. Consumers won't suddenly view a fast-food chain as an authority on healthy living when they have spent their entire previous existence serving up mountains of greasy burgers and a constant stream of colas. Without some authority in such a realm, like health, their voice will not be one that consumers will trust.
Additionally, fast food marketers and advertisers have resorted to using vague terminology because they're hoping to deceive consumers by implying something that isn't necessarily true. For instance, the "bowl full of wholesome" position that McDonald's is taking with its breakfast oatmeal doesn't match reality when, as Mark Bittman of the New York Times points out, "it contains more sugar than a Snickers bar." Such a strategy leads to the classically flawed advertising mistake of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Furthermore, any success that fast food marketers might be enjoying using their vague buzzword strategy could come to a screeching halt when restaurants are required to list calorie counts on their menus.
The problem is that Mr. Tristano and the buzzword happy marketers and advertisers are getting their strategies backwards. Instead of the theory that perception will drive reality, I believe that sustainable success is enjoyed when reality drives perception. It's the job of a marketer and a brand's advertisements to shape perception by best communicating such realities.