As I look back on 2018, I’m both humbled and proud to have partnered with many food and agriculture companies and organization to help them earn consumer trust. It’s a role that I, and everyone at The Center for Food Integrity, take very seriously.
Whether I was engaging with participants during a communications training, answering questions after a presentation or discussing topics one-on-one with food industries executives, I had insightful conversations and detected trends – some encouraging and some concerning – that underscore four lessons for success in the new year.
#1. Consumers Rule
I’m encouraged by the increasing number of companies that understand consumer influence and are making changes to consider consumer attitudes as they bring new products to market or ponder changes to products and processes.
Often the attitude has been, “science says we can” so they do. Yes, science may say you can, but consumers are asking the ethical question: Should you? Should you put that ingredient in my food? Should you grow my food that way? Should you house animals that way?
I helped one agriculture organization develop a new mission and vision in 2018 and consumers were the top priority – not farmers, as in the past. That doesn’t mean farmers aren’t important to them, but they understand it’s the end consumer who must also be considered for long-term success.
My hope is that more companies will pause to consider the ethical implications of change, keeping consumers in mind from the get-go. For those of us who believe we can “control the message,” we have much to learn. The industry isn’t ours to control. Consumers are in the driver’s seat.
#2. Educate Your Own
Remember that we’re all consumers and not everyone you work with knows what you know. But they should at least have a baseline understanding of how the food system works, and if they have questions, they should know who to engage internally.
In every food and agriculture organization, there are those who aren’t technical experts. Do they know the difference between antibiotic resistance and residue or hormones and vaccines? Can they explain the difference between conventional and organic food production? Can they speak about why certain ingredients – whose names few can pronounce – are in your products?
Whatever sector you’re involved in, equip colleagues in every corner of your company with resources and provide access to experts so they can learn about the business you’re in and why it matters. From executives and supervisors, to human resources, IT and mail room staff, everyone should have a basic understanding of your mission, your products and services, and the benefits they provide so all employees can serve as confident ambassadors. They’ll thank you.
CFI provides training to companies to help staff at every level gain a new understanding of relevant issues and how to communicate with consumers in a way that earns trust.
After a recent training, one participant said, “Why didn’t we have this training years ago?” There’s a real sense of relief from participants who have struggled with consumer engagement because they leave prepared to fully engage in a new way.
Another participant told me, “This should be a standing-room-only event – every person in our company would benefit from this training.” No matter your role in the organization, gaining knowledge and confidence to meaningfully connect in conversations will create an amplification effect.
(CFI can provide experts and resources to keep your organization up-to-date on the latest issues and approaches to earn trust.)
#3. Make Science Make Sense
There’s a perception in the industry that consumers are anti-science, resulting in a pervasive feeling of defeat as food and ag work to gain acceptance for innovation. For the record, I don’t believe consumers are anti-science. Consumers simply don’t know who to trust and they don’t see science shared in a way that helps them make decisions with confidence.
Our digital ethnography research shows that when making decisions about food, only six percent of the population cares about digging into science nearly every time, while another 15 percent will leverage science some of the time.
The rest make decisions based on their feelings and the input of those they trust. That doesn’t mean they’re anti-science. It’s how a majority of us make decisions – whether that’s choosing a laptop, a mechanic or a gift for a friend. We bring our preferences, biases, values and the input of those we trust into the decision. So, don’t make science the first priority unless you know undoubtedly that your audience values it every time.
To earn trust, communicate shared values and commit to the approach long-term. How does the innovation benefit people, animals and our planet? Once trust is earned, consumers are much more likely to consider the science, which must be communicated in a language they understand.
#4. Focus On Your Tribe
Everywhere I go, people say: “How do we reach everybody?” You can’t. And you don’t have to.
The frustration is understandable as many advocacy groups are well-organized, well-funded and able to reach a broad audience – often and effectively – with messaging that doesn’t tell the whole truth and is sometimes completely false. Food and ag companies and organizations can reach out with their messages, but it’s you, as an individual ambassador who (at the risk of sounding cliché) can make a real difference.
Engage your circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Those who share your passions and interests – whether that’s parenting, marathon running, cooking, sports, DIY, pets, etc. – are your tribes. They already trust you and they care about what you do and why it matters. Focus on values – the greater common good. People who trust you will be your advocates. Image if everyone in food and agriculture actively engaged their tribes. That’s a lot of people!
In addition to our personal tribes, we should also think about our industry colleagues – we’re all part of a tribe called “the food industry.”
While it’s true less than two percent of Americans are growing food on farms, a far greater percentage of us are involved in the industry. Whether a dietitian, grocery store clerk, product marketer, communications director, supply chain manager, veterinarian, agronomist or toxicologist – we all bring unique viewpoints and sets of knowledge. But if we boil it down, we’re all ultimately focused on bringing food to eaters.
Making commitments to employ these four strategies will go a long way to making 2019 a year of successful engagement with consumers. They simply want balanced, transparent information to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Your success lies in their hands.
CFI is happy to assist with resources, training and experts to enhance your strategies in the new year! Reach out anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot me a note at email@example.com.
The Center for Food Integrity