Cracking the Consumer Code

By: Katrina Huffstutler

Today’s food supply is safer, more affordable and more available than ever before, and yet consumers are more skeptical than they’ve ever been. Here’s what you can do.

Two trends 45 years in the making have collided, causing a ripple effect on the entire food industry, explained Charlie Arnot at last fall’s Texas Cattle Feeders Association Annual Convention in San Antonio. Arnot is the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a national non-profit organization dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.
“As Americans we’ve been taught not to trust institutions, and [during that same time period] we have seen phenomenal consolidation, integration and application of technology in the food system. These changes have allowed us to make food safer, more available and more affordable than ever before, but it has also caused the public to now think of us as an institution — and like other institutions, now question whether or not we are worthy of trust,” Arnot said.
A communication shift has only amplified the challenge. Instead of mass communication, we now have masses of communicators.
“Rather than connecting all of us in this brand new network, the Internet has created this infinite number of tribes and special interests. Where people gather around a specific interest and communicate among themselves and it causes us to be less likely to accept information from others who don’t think like us, believe like us or communicate like us,” Arnot said. “We find the same thing in agriculture.”
He gave an example from a recent consumer panel: They asked a young woman about GMOs. She was very concerned that they were not healthy and convinced she should avoid them. When asked what sources of information influenced her opinion, she answered, “I am part of several mom’s group. Where there is a big consensus, I think there is something here. You don’t need doctors or scientists confirming it when you have hundreds of moms.”
Arnot said that is the environment in which we operate today.
“We’ve got to figure out and understand how to best participate in the conversation,” he said. “There’s a lot of this mommy shaming that goes around online around food issues. Lots of ‘If you don’t feed the children the same way I feed my children, you are not a good mother,’ and we have to be a part of that conversation as well.”
Lisa, another participant on the panel, agrees mom guilt is a big factor in her decision-making process. She said if you hear a message more than once — for example, that fructose is dangerous — you owe it to yourself to research it or just quit buying it.
Arnot said while the historical approach might have been to send Lisa links to three different independent studies that show that fructose was not a problem for her family and hope that she would become educated on the facts and that would be sufficient. But that’s not likely to work in today’s environment.
“A different approach might be to say, ‘Lisa, we are so glad you want to be a great mom, there is no more important job than anywhere on the planet than being a good mother. We know it is confusing and challenging today to get the right information about food for you and your family. There are lots of different sources and lots of people involved in this conversation.
“How can we be a resource to you so you can make the right decisions for you and your family? How can we support you in your desire to be a good mom and make the right choices as you decide the nutritional plans for you and your family?’ That approach and strategy is much more likely to be successful than simply dumping additional facts and figures on her,” he said.
He went on to offer communications advice for cattle feeders, starting with embracing the skepticism.
“Don’t get defensive when someone is skeptical. It’s not personal. Look at it as an opportunity to engage,” Arnot said.
Additionally, he recommended beginning all public engagements talking shared values.
“What are you passionate about? What are the things that are important to you? What means something to you? That is what people are interested in knowing,” Arnot said. “Open the digital door to today’s beef industry.”
He said there are lots of ways for you to increase transparency. One example: JS West is an egg farm in California. They have cameras in their barns that are hooked to their website 24/7/365. You can go to the JS website and watch their hens lay eggs anytime you want.
“It’s not must-see TV, but it has completely opened the door.”
Finally, Arnot said cattlemen have to commit to engaging early, often and consistently. This is really the opportunity you have to make a difference.
“One of the great things about farmers is we are so accustomed to fixing things in whatever the next cycle of production happens to be,” Arnot said. “Right? You can change the feed ration, you can change the genetics and our expectation is that all problems can be solved with the next cycle of production. It is not going to happen with public trust. We have been getting to this position for the last 45 years, it is going to take some time to get out of it.”

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