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Do Third-Party Certifications Matter for Food & Beverage Brands?

I was recently talking shop with a friend who works for a retailer about how they choose new brands to carry. Off the cuff, she mentioned that the organization was questioning the value of certifications in their selection process.

Our conversation mirrored some thinking I’ve been doing about how certification applies to my own business.

So I thought I’d use this piece to process my own perspective and raise questions you might consider for your brand, as well.

Are Food & Beverage Brand Third-Party Certifications Worth It?

3 Types of Certifications for Food & Beverage Brands

First, let’s look at the different types of third-party credentials a food or beverage brand might carry. These endorsements are often represented by a graphic or logo on the product package.

1) Ingredient-related

Some marks represent information critical to a consumer’s choice of product — like gluten free or allergen free. Others indicate how ingredients are grown or made, such as USDA Organic, Certified Grassfed, Certified Biodynamic, or Non GMO.

2) Values-related

These certifications might correlate to sourcing issues like fair trade or animal welfare. Or they might reflect dietary or lifestyle values, like Whole30 Approved or Certified Vegan.

3) Business ownership-related

Increasingly, consumers want to buy from businesses whose founder/owners come from underrepresented communities. Brands can be certified as WOB (women-owned business), MBE (minority business enterprise), VOSB (veteran-owned small business), and the like.

In and of themselves, certifications are not bad. They were initially designed to be a shorthand to help consumers looking for particular need states or values to align with. Consumers will choose brands that align with the types of businesses they want to support, and they’ll find those brands through all the different channels: social media, websites, and product packaging.

Certifications and Brand Positioning

There are a lot of brands out there that start buying all the certifications and wind up with a Girl Scout sash full of badges on their boxes and bottles. These brands let the certifications do the heavy lifting of communication rather than focusing on positioning.

It’s a lazy marketing tactic, frankly, to stamp a Fair Trade logo on your carton if your brand isn’t full-on, end-to-end passionate about ensuring living wages and social justice for everyone involved in the production, transportation, selling, and consumption of your products. If your brand leans too heavily on third-party endorsements for credibility instead of being well-positioned within your category, you have a brand strategy problem. And it won’t be long before consumers sniff out the hypocrisy — and then move on to another brand that carries the same Fair Trade logo.

In other words, a slew of certifications that don’t reflect your brand’s true values puts you at risk of commodity status, easily replaced by another brand in the consumer’s mind.

The Trouble with Certifications

What really chaps my hide about third-party certifications for food and beverage brands is the pay-to-play nature of the whole thing. Securing these badges ain’t cheap. And I’m not just talking about the application fees.

Well-funded brands have all the resources it takes to secure a certification. That means researching and documenting ingredient sources. Aligning manufacturing with certification requirements. Auditing and reporting on practices. Getting legal guidance on corporate structure and governance.

But for small or emerging brands, even those passionate about a cause or aligned with a particular diet or free from allergens, the cost and time involved in getting certified is a major hurdle.

For our business, securing B-corp certification was a 4-year process that consumed a significant amount of staff time. We are now considering certification as a Woman-Owned Business, and we could probably buy a used car for what it will cost us in fees to attorneys who can advise us on the proper ownership structure for Retail Voodoo.

I get it: This whole vetting process exists because someone somewhere fudged about their ownership in order to get a chunk of business. But doesn’t it seem ludicrous that I need someone else to rubber-stamp that I’m an owner/operator of our firm? Or that a Black woman is the owner/operator of hers?

Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend in retail. Her organization is doubling down on sourcing from women-, minority-, and veteran-owned brands. It’s a commendable effort, for sure. However, their procurement process relies heavily on WOB, MBE, and VOSB certifications. And, she tells me, they’re realizing that those certifications present unintended biases and barriers for small businesses that don’t have the time or funding to jump through the hoops to obtain those acronyms. By filtering out non-certified brands, are they overlooking companies whose products deserve to be on the shelf? If you’re a Black-owned business and you have to pay for certification to verify it, is this yet another way that marginalized people have to prove their value?

Like I said, I agree that third-party certifications have value. They help consumers navigate a whole shelf full of options. They can warn people about ingredients that can impact their health. They help us find brands whose values align with ours. And they can elevate companies owned by historically disadvantaged people.

But I wonder: Have we created unforeseen roadblocks for the very companies we’re trying to lift up?I don’t have the answer. But I’d sure like to hear what you think. Let’s talk

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For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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