Today’s conversations about food are at the crossroads of political, business, social and personal interests. Contemporary food brands can’t simply rely on traditional marketing — product, price place and promotion — to sell their products. They also must protect.
Consider the Butterfinger. Nestlé USA recently attracted mostly positive reaction by announcing it is eliminating artificial colors and flavors in its famed chocolate candy products. It responded to what it perceived as consumer sentiment. When journalists report these kinds of transition details, they influence public perception and acceptance. That’s also true of the regulatory bodies that dictate how food is labeled or packaged as well as the critics and activists who scrutinize farming and production practices.
Today, marketers must be prepared to answer questions concerning the origins of the food. Where is it from? How is it raised? How is it produced?
When companies want to bring (or maintain) a product to market, they must be ready for the onslaught of approvals and criticism from marketplace influencers such as the media, special interest groups and regulators. By anticipating the issues and mitigating risk, marketers not only protect against criticism but put themselves in a better position to have realistic marketing goals, satisfy shareholders and, ultimately, protect entry to the marketplace while maintaining consumer appeal and acceptance.
Taste, transition and technology
Why today’s gauntlet? Technology makes it easier to investigate, scrutinize and broadcast. Mainstream discussions of food have gone through a series of tastemakers/conversation starters. Over the years, we’ve gone from conventional (The New York Times’ annual cookbook) to TV home gourmet (Julia Child) to TV celebrities (think Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay) to opinion makers (Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan) to activists (The Food Babe blogger Vani Hari or chef Tom Colicchio). This scrutiny also happens at a time when U.S. per capita spending on food as at its lowest and wealthy consumers (aided by these tastemakers) can be very selective about the process under which their food was produced.
A dramatic shift in the conversation on food is unmistakable. In December, when the National Restaurant Association released its top food trends in its 2015 Culinary Forecast, nine involve social issues and have little to do with “culinary” in the title. Topping the list: locally grown meat and seafood, followed by locally grown produce. It’s a stark contrast to a decade ago, when the group’s 2005 forecast predicted greater focus on worker training and use of technology, as well as satisfying the changing tastes of Americans’ palates with olive oil and hot sauce.
Standing out among the voices
It wasn’t long ago that big consumer food brands could focus largely on promotion. Today, that role has shifted to explaining and protecting how the industry does things. Companies are not just in the product business; they are in the education and transparency business. It’s about letting consumers know why they can feel good about choosing products.
Protection is important because technology makes it possible for more voices to be heard. When an office worker clicks “like” from his desk favoring a soda tax, that vote gets counted. Activist groups such as Mercy for Animals will deploy another video targeting animal agriculture. Bloggers such as Hari can get corporate policy to change by mobilizing an “army” of loyal blog subscribers. Anyone can conveniently weigh in online during comment periods when government regulatory agencies propose policy change. Corporations and industry groups can respond directly and immediately to media coverage or proposed policy change they disagree with.
Knowledge, insights offer protection
CMOs benefit from arming themselves with information and insights. Companies need objective insights into what influencers are saying and how they are interacting. While anecdotal information is useful and often interesting, quantitative measurement from vetted sources provides a basis for analysis.
Over time, data-driven insight, in context, reveals how issues flux in and out of trendiness in this stew. This allows for more perspective, more context for promotion and protection. Marketers will know better how to communicate authentically and genuinely the information that informed food purchasers want. It’s also information the food supply chain needs to share to earn business from purchasers.
Context is important because the food cacophony is growing. Every week, more voices join the food politics conversation. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg News and TIME magazine all have staffers dedicated to food, reaching far beyond restaurant reviews. Influencers have powerful blogs. Special interest groups have excellent news and public relations machines. Every issue has an industry group for it, brands for and against it, and a well-funded activist group trying to stop it.
Conversations about food have evolved well beyond what’s new with Caribbean cuisine. Intelligent insight is the daily special. Where are you getting yours from?
Click here to download your free copy of Bader Rutter’s annual report detailing the Top Ten Topics discussed by influential voices in U.S. Food and Agriculture.