How to know which of your private brand products contain GMOs in six weeks or less


Another plate to spin

It’s coming.

I know, it’s yet another plate that you have to add to the row and keep spinning. And you do have my sympathy. But unfortunately, now is the time to act and understand which products within your private label portfolio contain GMOs.

To be honest, my eye opener happened when I read the draft of my colleagues Steven’s article on Vermont Act 120 (GMO Labeling). If you still have questions about the Act, I highly recommend you start here to understand what, why and when.

The enormity of the task

For those who already understand Act 120, I wanted to share how we at S4RB go about understanding the enormity of the task:

  • Which private brand products contain GMOs?
  • Which of those need to be re-labelled in order to comply?


Move fast, learn faster

Over the past five years, we’ve sent over one million emails to suppliers from 21 different countries covering 13 time zones and in eight different languages. And what we’ve learnt is that supplier communication is all about moving fast and learning faster.

Unlike marketing to consumers, you don’t have the luxury of a huge sample audience and time to analyse and tweak your approach over time. Particularly when compliance is concerned, you have limited time and limited resource to achieve your goal.

The Vermont Act is no different.

The Supplier Assault Course

To survive and thrive in this world, we’ve developed a methodology – The Supplier Assault Course.

The finish line

To understand which of your products contain GMOs you need your suppliers’ help. You need them to complete a product-level questionnaire for each of the products that they supply to you.

In the Supplier Assault Course methodology, this is our finish line – our end goal.

The starting pistol

Next we need to agree how we are going to let suppliers know to start running towards the finish line. What is your starting pistol? Our preferred choice is email. It’s affordable, scalable and, as we’ll explore shortly, reportable.

The obstacles

But, just like any assault course, there are certain steps a supplier needs to take after hearing the starting pistol to get to the finish line. And in between these steps, we have obstacles.

Our friends up the corridor in marketing have it easy! As I mentioned earlier, they can spend all year tinkering to find the best way to get customers past these obstacles. But we need to do it fast.

And I’m talking ‘six weeks or less’ fast.

The Supplier Assault Course methodology assumes that we don’t know what the obstacles will be – at least not for sure anyway. But it provides a logical, systematic and results-driven approach to getting suppliers past them and to the finish line.

The steps

Once a finish line and starting pistol is agreed, you need to map each individual step that a supplier needs to take to enable them to reach the finish line. Mapping each step will not only tell you where to look to see which obstacles suppliers have got stuck behind, but help you to avoid them getting stuck at all by improving your starting pistol.

The six week GMO Supplier Assault Course

Our steps within a GMO campaign are:
  • Step 1: Receive - Supplier receives the email
  • Step 2: Open - Supplier opens the email
  • Step 3: Click -Supplier understands what is required of them and clicks the link to go to the product-level GMO survey
  • Step 4: Complete - Supplier completes the survey for each product that they supply to you


Week 1 – Plan for success then fire the starting pistol

Before firing the starting pistol and sending the initial email, we can review each step and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Why might a supplier not pass this step?
  • What might they not understand?
  • Why might they not prioritise this?
  • What out of their control might stop them?

Here are the most common reasons why suppliers don’t respond to the request:

  • Step 1: Receive – it gets caught in spam or sent to an invalid contact
  • Step 2: Open – they ignore it or delete it on sight thinking it’s not relevant
  • Step 3: Click – they get confused or feel it’s not relevant and exit the email without taking action
  • Step 4: Complete – they get distracted halfway through and fail to finish the process

Without adding any days to the project, we can optimize our starting pistol and increase the number of suppliers who will get to the finishing line first time.

However, even with the most optimized starting pistol, it’s highly unlikely that every single supplier will get straight to the finish line. Typically we find that:

  • 25% complete first time
  • 50% require some chasing (and no doubt some support)
  • 25% require extensive chasing (and potentially more detailed help and support)

The Supplier Assault Course methodology allows you to chase in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Week 2 - Review, research, revise, relaunch


The first time we fired our starting pistol for a GMO data collection campaign for one retailer, our results looked like this after a week:

  • Received – 98%
  • Opened – 74%
  • Clicked – 43%
  • Completed – 27%

This is where using email as our starting pistol is useful! supplierENGAGE gives you complete visibility over how people interact (or don’t) with the emails you send.

So, pretty much as expected, 73% of suppliers have not reached the finish line. But to be more precise:

  • 2% are stuck at step 0 – they haven’t received the email
  • 34% are stuck at step 1 – they have received but not opened the email
  • 41% are stuck at step 2 – they have opened but not acted upon the email
  • 16% are stuck at step 3 – they have started but not completed the questionnaire

We know where they are stuck, but why? What obstacles are in their way? We’ve found the best way to find out is by picking up the phone to around three suppliers at each step.
This is key to the Supplier Assault Course – this is ‘learning faster’ in action.


Armed with your telephone intel, we can move on to Revise.

Most often, your four groups of suppliers will require four different tactics to help them get past the obstacle. And it’s important to remember that there are no right or wrong answers. Only ones which will work slightly better!

Despite our telephone intel, deciding which tactics to use will come down to some degree of your gut feeling. However, I’ve recently learnt of a quick exercise that I’ve found extremely useful for making these decisions less subjective.

A weight-decision matrix sounds pretty daunting. But it’s one of the simplest and most effective tools that I adopted last year. Here’s how it works:

  1. Focusing on one step at a time, brain dump every possible tactic you could use to move a supplier forward. It’s important not to restrict your thinking at this point. Include every idea from posting a letter to visiting each supplier individually. Avoiding these constraints allows room for surprisingly creative yet realistic tactics to come out.
  2. Add all of these ideas into the first column of your spreadsheet.
  3. In the columns across the top add the headings ‘Impact’, ‘Cost efficiency’ and ‘Timeliness’
  4. Score each idea out of ten for each of these headings
  5. Add up each idea to give it a total score and filter highest to lowest

In five short steps, you’ve added structure to your decision making process and generated potentially a dozen tangible ideas to progress.


It’s important to revise your tactics based on your learnings. But, to help get those ideas flowing, here are some common tactics:

  • Stuck at step 0 – they haven’t received the email
    • Send the same email to a secondary contact
  • Stuck at step 1 – they have received but not opened the email
    • Send the same email with a different and more refined subject line based on our telephone intel
  • Stuck at step 2 – they have opened but not acted upon the email
    • Send a reworded email that provides greater clarity in key areas and sense of urgency to reduce risk of supplier procrastination and link to any help or supporting information
  • Stuck at step 3 – they have started but not completed the questionnaire
    • Send a reminder email that lists the products they’ve yet to finish and a greater sense of urgency

Curious to see the results? I certainly was!

A week after the second tactics were applied:

  • Received – 99%
  • Opened – 88%
  • Clicked – 82%
  • Completed – 53%

Week 3

Pop quiz time.

What would you do next at this stage?

Yes, you could ask their buyers to give them a nudge. But, personally, I like to avoid bothering them unless absolutely necessary.

Using the Supplier Assault Course Methodology, the answer is repeat.

Week 3 to 6 - Repeat

Follow exactly the same process after step one:

  • Map which suppliers are stuck at each step
  • Call a small number of suppliers to learn what obstacles are in their way
  • Brainstorm and rank potential tactics to move suppliers forwards
  • Implement the highest scoring tactic for each step

We apply this same technique between three and five times for every campaign we lead to deliver supplier compliance and obviously our team now has a lot of experience as to what works well And each time it ensures critical thinking and informed decision making despite working on extremely tight timescales.

The six week GMO Supplier Assault Course – The results

In the case of this particular GMO campaign – five weeks in and three rounds of the Supplier Assault Course down, we had achieved 77% survey completion. The retailer had far surpassed their original expectations.

More importantly, they have a clear understanding of which suppliers need to take action and on what products.

Before you go back to spinning those plates…

I want to thank you for taking the time for reading this article. I really do hope you found it useful.

If GMO labeling is one plate too many, we can help you to better understand the issue just like we have for others. Take a look at our GMO labeling impact assessment offering or reach out to Steve Howell for more information via email or telephone (+1 866 740 3895).

Whether you choose to work with us or go it alone - I wish you success all the same.

Further reading:

Why supplier engagement is key to collecting data about GMOs in own brand products

What’s the formula to guarantee success of a data collection campaign?

New FDA voluntary labeling guidance for GMOs versus new labeling legislation

Vermont Act 120 – GMO labeling

Tags: Supplier engagement, Sustainability, Consumer trust

David Taylor

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