Give the public what they want: reliable information

How can the much-maligned food industry regain the public’s trust? Years of neglect mean there is no easy answer, but all is not lost, says Alan Mitchell

Obesity, advertising bans, food safety scares, horror stories about human rights and environmental abuses, endless concerns about the health and other effects of food ingredients and product processes, and so on, and so on. Just what are marketers supposed to do to get their industry back on an even keel?

In one sense, it’s all consumers’ fault. A new report from the Swiss-based GDI* reckons that modern consumer expectations of the food industry are unfairly high. “Food must be high in quality and healthy but cheap; completely natural but with no defect; fresh and always available” – a whole basket full of contradictory demands.

And the scale of the challenges we now face is truly gargantuan. How long can the world continue to devote nine-tenths of all grain production to animal feed, for example? Yet consumers around the world – especially those in developing countries – want to eat meat.

Closer to home, the following Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) figures put the obesity debate in context. Hunter-gatherers got about 15 per cent of their energy from fat and none from sugar. Subsistence farmers get even less energy from fat, and a little more from sugar. But we get about 40 per cent of our energy from fat and 20 per cent from sugar. No wonder we’ve got problems.

As we struggle to come to terms with these debates and issues, one thing is becoming clear. As the GDI report puts it, “food is becoming an information product”. For all sectors of the industry it’s becoming impossible to separate the provision of quality products from quality information about those products.

The GDI report says: “It is no longer enough to know what is in the product. Pressure is growing not only to declare ingredients, but where the raw material came from and the course taken from its origin to the packaged product. Complete traceability is an essential aspect of global sourcing.”

In such a world, a new high ground is emerging for food producers and retailers. They need to earn themselves the role of first port of call for reliable, balanced information about any question relating to food: its ingredients, processes, environmental and social side effects. People should naturally turn first to producers and retailers for information they can trust. The fact they cannot and do not do this is a fundamental marketing failure.

The reason for this failure is simple: achieving a trusted “first port of call” status for information about food has never been an industry priority. It’s been focused on other priorities, such as producing and disseminating the information that best persuades people to buy brands or products. In other words, it has focused on its own information needs, not those of the consumer.

That’s why, when politicians who desperately need to be seen to be doing something ban ads to children, the industry’s protestations come across as an excuse to do nothing. PepsiCo UK president Martin Glenn says, in the context of “a glut of political opportunism and a famine of practical answers… The Big Food brigade isn’t doing a great job in making its case.”

But what is the best way for food marketers to make their case? Marketing is supposed to be about identifying and meeting peoples’ needs. The industry’s failure to apply this mantra in the realms of food-related information means it is now paying the price in apparently irredeemably low levels of consumer trust.

The core issue here is that companies should see the information they generate as a part of the value they bring to market as the product itself. This challenge is not confined to food, but its implications and ramifications are hitting hard in food: marketing is not about selling more, it’s about adding value. Selling more is a by-product of adding value. And as soon as we lose sight of this fact, we’re off on a dangerous tangent.

How to achieve the new high ground of information trust as well as product trust remains a moot point. Like building a brand, it can only happen as a result of long-term, dedicated, focused effort. And there are many obstacles in the way: today’s food information challenge cuts across today’s organisational structures and blindsides traditional management priorities.

What about the roles of, and relationships between public affairs/issues management and marketing, for example? In food companies, marketers have traditionally been in charge and their focus has been on traditional marketing objectives such as communicating benefits and achieving sales and brand share targets. Food issues such as obesity, supply chain ethics and sustainability simply don’t fit this agenda. They fall into another silo. Result: disconnected messages and priorities as marketers’ incessantly upbeat “buy me” messages undermine the credibility of issue managers’ attempts to grapple with complex and heated debates.

Closely linked is the ever-present tension between the urgent and the important. Meeting volume targets and getting promotional plans agreed and executed is urgent stuff. But long term, it’s really important that the industry wins back consumer trust, and shapes the debate on issues that won’t go away.

At the same time, none of these hot issues fit legacy historical structures: we simply aren’t organised to deal with them effectively and authoritatively. The food industry is organised around brands and companies, for example. But issues such as obesity and the environment impact at a different industry/lifestyle level – and industry bodies are notoriously bad at acting as a credible mouthpiece or as effective influencers.

Meanwhile, separately and together all these issues also raise thorny strategic issues. Who is the industry’s biggest “enemy” when it comes to today’s food debates? Is it really pressure groups? Hardly. They would be irrelevant if the media didn’t give them credibility. When it comes to advertising, marketers and media owners’ interests are fundamentally aligned. But when it comes to headline-grabbing news, sensational images and memorable soundbites, the audience-grabbing interests of media owners are in direct conflict with the “sober analysis” needs of the industry.

Meanwhile, the retail power remains critical. Food health and safety should be an area where retailers and manufacturers work together. But with endless opportunities for opportunism, there is little evidence that they are. For example, retailers effectively ended the GM foods debate in Europe (for the moment, at least) by simply deciding not to stock GM foods. In this way, they set themselves up as “consumer champions”. But did they really advance the debate?

In the food industry today, we’re reaping the rewards of decades of neglect: a failure to recognise that trusted, quality information is as important a consumer benefit as trusted quality products. Correcting this mistake will also take decades. But in the process, marketers can regain the high ground.

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

*Eating: The New Normalcy, www.gdi.ch/studien

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