Transparency Becoming Harder to Chew for the Food Industry

The food industry, more than any other consumer sector, is built molecule by molecule on trust, and the harder it is for consumers to get AND UNDERSTAND the information they want, the less likely they are to trust. A new book by Joanna Blythman, Swallow This, clearly shows the challenge ahead.

That, in a nutshell, is food’s dilemma with the over-used T-word – transparency. Consumers want a new relationship with food. They want to know what’s in their food, how it gets there, how the people who make it are treated, and how food companies behave in nature and in the community. What they get is confusing, often contradictory and sometimes incomprehensible messages from the food industry.

If food companies are going to embrace this new relationship with consumers, they must figure out how to make sense of it all in a way that acknowledges consumer concerns and provides credible information that is understandable to an average person.

Many well-meaning – and perhaps frustrated – food industry executives and scientists might argue that efforts to provide detailed scientific information in the past have not helped build trust. To some it seems that the more information that is requested, the more challenging consumer questions become. But in human communication, there is a significant difference between providing facts and providing understanding. When people don’t understand something, they fill in the gaps in their understanding with their own personal, social and cultural beliefs.

The result of that outlook has been the creation of a broad group of consumer advocates who feel duty-bound to debunk the industry. In fact, a global Ketchum study – Ketchum Food 2020: Consumer as CEO – identified a segment of the population we call Food eVangelists who have disproportionate power, influence and desire to effect change.

Food eVangelists are self-appointed agents of change who believe it is their purpose to investigate, report and to lead others to a point of view or different behaviors. These are not fringe detractors who can be ignored. Nor can they be re easily persuaded or satisfied. But many of them are moveable if we respect their new relationship with food and converse with them as partners and stakeholders, rather than defaulting to targeting them as an audience to be marketed to.

What companies need to ask is whether they can afford to continue to ignore?