Food fights will go on and it is a good thing

March 28, 2016

A funny thing happened to me when I moved from Europe to North America in 1999. In Europe, I was used to having demanding customers. Issues about how food is produced have been rather common during pretty much my whole life (I will turn 55 later this year so that you have an idea of how long it has been).

When I came to North America, I dealt with a completely different situation. I did not get some of those 30-page product specification documents from retailers, foodservice and manufacturers with all the do’s and don’ts of how to produce food. I just got some 30-page disclaimers and liability documents, for the customer to dodge any heat should there be a law suit some time down the road instead. Before, I left Europe, I remember my Managing Director from the poultry company I worked for telling me how lucky I was because “over there (North America), customers hardly ask anything, you just sell them what you produce”. I remember looking at him and thinking that it could not be possible. I was wrong and he was right. For as much as European consumers were picky on all things such as hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, animal welfare, feed composition and origin, North American consumers, and retailers as well, seemed totally uninterested about production methods. It was almost eerie and to be quite frank, it was boring, because I could not see any challenge. One of my American colleagues enjoyed telling that it was the way it was and that it would never change because that is how Americans are. I disagreed but it certainly appeared he was right for a few years. Things have changed now. The American consumer has become more demanding and the dynamics of the discussions have become quite similar to what I had known in Europe for decades. It is actually rather easy for me to “predict” the future as I am living in an ongoing déjà vu nowadays.

The debate about food has indeed evolved into food fights. If there is one thing that I always found remarkable in my professional life in the food and agriculture sector is the issue of the producer-consumer relationship. Maybe it comes from my family background, but I have never understood why the food industry is so defensive when challenged by consumers or any organizations. My father used to be a butcher and I spent quite a bit of time around the shop and with him on the markets. I discovered very early that customers would ask the weirdest things but that what matters is not the factual truth but whether they trust the supplier. If you cannot deal with that fact, I suggest you do something else than producing food. Food is loaded with emotions and that is that. If consumers were rational, there would not be any diversity in foods and other consumer goods. They always would do the right thing and would not pay attention to all the marketing efforts that support the world economy. If consumers were rational, I bet you that they would deconstruct any PR by spotting all biases. If consumers were rational, they would focus on nutrition only and they also would reject anything that is unsustainable. I have a feeling that a lot of people who resent consumers’ emotions would actually be out of business because they would deal with a much tougher audience than the current consumers. Be careful what you wish for. Further, it is also clear that those who criticize consumers for not being rational, are not rational themselves in their consumption patterns, either. Nobody is.

Last year, a book titled No more food fights hit the shelf. Considering the author is actually supporting the conventional agriculture and has a problem with consumers and activists who challenge the food system, it is actually ironic. It reminded me of the words of my Managing Director about the North American market. What could be better than the good old days when the agribusiness could push their products to lethargic consumers? It sure must have been a good time, but it is gone. The book’s author, just like the agriculture sector, does not want anybody questioning the food system. They don’t want anyone looking over their shoulders and find out the bad and the ugly, at the risk of not showing the good either. I do not understand the food producers’ reluctance. If you are proud of what you do and what you produce, as they claim, you are proud to show the world and to share that goodness. You are also willing to always improve and make your customers satisfied. In my opinion, the attitude is really more about being production-driven –or should I say production-centred- than market-driven. The difference is that the former is about oneself and the latter about others. That difference actually reflects quite well in term of whom consumers trust. They trust the latter group, but are very distrustful of the former. I can understand both attitudes because I have filled functions that were more oriented towards technical operation as well as commercial functions.

I started my professional life in a position in a technical and scientific field, which suited me well by then because I was a hard-nosed rational fellow with a tendency of not accepting unfounded non-sense. Then, by accident, I got myself involved in a commercial role, which opened me new doors, and my eyes, too. The successful experience led me to other commercial positions and the lessons that I had learned in my father’s shop, I rediscovered on a daily basis in the multinational company. There is a huge gap of perception of the customers between the different departments of a company. Very often this discrepancy is reflected in the dynamics of the sales and operations departments of a business. One wants to say yes and the other wants to say no.

Food fightPersonally, I find being challenged a very good thing that can happen to a producing company. I would agree that negative feedback is never pleasant, but even though the message can be rough, it is feedback after all. In this regard, it should be handled in the same way as customer complaints, the good kind of handling that is, not the denial kind. The latter is usually more of a reason for a customer to drop a supplier than the problem that occurred in the first place. Business, like it or not, is first of all about human interaction. Money is only a means to secure it. In the course of my career, I had to deal with “consumer resistance” in quite a few occasions, but what it put into motion brought me most interesting and rewarding experiences. They helped me to learn about business and to understand the complex dynamics of entire value chains faster than ever. They helped me grow and that experience has made me one of those who understand the ins and outs of marketing, production and management in a variety of discipline the best. I am thankful to my “difficult” customers forever.

The reason is simple. By being very demanding, customers forced us to be better than ever and be resourceful to find ways of both meeting their expectations and allow us to remain profitable. Quality only improves through pressure from customers and a competitive environment. It very rarely happens as the result of a voluntary decision, simply because there is a cost at first. In the case of my past professional experience, needless to say that adjusting to consumer demands was never an easy process internally. On the one hand, there was the source of the company’s revenue – in other words salaries – at stake, and on the other hand, the natural drive to keep production costs under control. The key was to not lose our focus on the one essential parameter: the margin. Margin management with market vision really delivered amazing results in such situations. Another essential point was to negotiate everything and always get something in return for any effort made on our part. I remember some very tense conversations with Marks & Spencer in the time the talks were about the removal of meat and bone meal from animal feed. We showed them the impact of their demand on our bottom line and made clear that if they helped out on the bottom line we would go along. Because we were offering top quality chicken, we were able to find an agreement. For as much as we could not afford to lose their business, they did not want to lose us as a supplier, either. The willingness to accept challenges from the market and the drive to always improve our products and service served us. We would not have been in a position to ask anything in return if we had produced a basic commodity. By aiming at being the best, we had a sustainable competitive advantage. Finally we were able to have them accept to buy more from us so that we could dilute the extra cost over a larger volume and have more efficient logistics. The result for us was actually more volume of above average margin products. The customer had to say goodbye to some suppliers who were not ready to go the extra mile for them, and we also said goodbye to customers who would not support us in the cost effort. In the end, a very tough challenge ended up in a strong long-term profitable win-win situation. We came out of a crisis that could potentially have destroyed us stronger and more respected than ever. This is only an example of a tough market challenge. I went through similar situations in the various sectors –feed, pig, poultry and aquaculture- in which I have worked. The added value got in the millions per year each time.

Food fights are good, but they work only by picking the right partners in the market. As a producer, you need to have customers and make the right choice to achieve this goal. As a consumer, you need to find a producer that listens to you and meet your expectation. They will be disagreements along the way, but in the end both parties can benefit, but it will not just fall on your lap. Fights are a part of life. On the first day of my last year in the Agricultural University, the head teacher had a short presentation. He said that life is about:

  • Learning
  • Creating

Those two points were very well received by the students. Of course, it fits quite nicely with a crowd of intellectuals. The third point was received by the chilliest silence I can remember. The third point was…

  • Fighting!

Yes fighting is an integral part of life. We all fight all the time. We fight with competitors, with other drivers, with customer service representatives, with sales people, with the tax man, with retailers, waiters. You name it and it you will find an example of fighting. So no more food fights? Forget it, it won’t happen. In my experience, the only reason why anyone asks for a fight to stop is when they are losing. In this case, if they are losing, it is more because of their refusal to listen to where the market is going than because of those bad irrational consumers. The smart food producers, big or small, have all made moves in the direction of consumers’s demands because they know that is where the growth and the future are.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What future do you want?

March 10, 2016

What future do you wantUsually, when my customers contact me, their purpose is to have me tell them my vision of the future. Since the dawn of time, people have always had the secret hope that someone can tell them about their future. People have always sought to reduce uncertainty and looked for a more predictable future, be it in the stars, in a crystal ball, in cards or goat insides. If the purpose is the same, there are different attitudes and expectations when it comes to the future. I would identify four main types of requests.

Some are interested in what I would call Fantasy Future. Their expectation is not so much to have a realistic view of the future but they want to see a picture of unlimited possibilities. Their focus is primarily on the potential of new and as futuristic as possible technologies. They want to stimulate their imagination as much and as possible. Presentations that sound a bit like science-fiction fit quite well for such audiences. Whether such a future is actually possible and viable is secondary. Escaping from hard rational reality of day-to-day operations is a great way of getting new hopes, see new opportunities and building a dream about how thing might be. There is no real timelines for when that future might take place and it is fine, as it is not so important in this context.

Another form of future that is also in the realm of fantasy but more dangerous is what I call Wishful Thinking Future. For as much as with the Fantasy Future, it is clear that the predictions are quite speculative and the tone is more one of entertainment, those who tend towards Wishful Thinking Future have the tendency to think that, just because they believe in a particular scenario, it will and must happen, regardless of whether it makes any sense from a technological, practical or economic point of view. Usually, those who look at the future from the wishful thinking angle rarely do a thorough analysis of the actual possibilities and of how sensible their scenarios are. Quite often, they do not have the thorough set of skills and knowledge to carry out such an analysis. They seem more interested in pushing their dogma on others and they generally have a hidden agenda. The danger here is that it misleads and even possibly deceives the public. In the end, it is a major waste of time and money. Unfortunately, Wishful Thinking Future is much more common than one may think and unfortunately not that rare with some so-called influencers with some ego, and that is where the danger lies.

I enjoy some Fantasy Future once in a while. It is entertaining and, usually, the audiences that are interested are quite relaxed and curious. There is always a good energy in such meetings. However, I always present the futures scenarios in a very practical way to connect my story to the day-to-day activities of my clients. I also always present the limitations and what I think the odds of such scenarios are to actually concretize, so that my clients keep in mind what to expect. I do not engage and cannot stand the Wishful Thinking Future. Making people believe things that are not realistic, not possible or, worse, not true, is not in my DNA. I have exposed some non-sense quite a few times in the past, which is usually rather simple with the help of grade 6 math. Yet, I am always surprised how non-critical most people are and many fallacies get spread quickly and reach large numbers of people through social media. Fortunately, there are more alternatives to sketch a more sensible future. We live in a world where many one-eyed try to be king of the blind, I see my function to get my clients have 20/20 vision.

One approach towards realistic future scenarios is what I call the Likely Future. It is based on actual trends and historical patterns. The scenarios are the result of a rational analysis and usually such scenarios have a high probability to realize. In a sense, it is a cautious approach of the future. On the one hand, it takes into account facts and data and on the other hand the emotional and psychological aspects of human behaviour. It has little to do with fantasy and absolutely nothing with wishful thinking. It is based on verifiable facts and the scenarios can be discussed in a rational manner. It may not be the most exciting exercise but is creates the basis for the development of alternative scenarios and to assess their feasibility and assumptions by identifying areas of uncertainty. I wrote my first book, Future Harvests, with this approach in mind. What was the result? Pretty good because most of the issues that have now gone mainstream were all mentioned in the book, which I wrote in late 2009 and early 2010. Many other issues mentioned in the book certainly would deserve to get the same exposure but getting the message to the average person is a baby step process. Clearly, my approach of likely future works. I wanted to see whether the world could feed 9 billion people. I just wanted to get to either Yes or No, and I found the answer, and I also debunked a lot of myths and fallacies in the process. To me, the Likely Future is a good first step towards a strategy, but it is only a first step. By connecting such scenarios with resources, ambitions and desires for the future, it is possible to go to the next approach of the future, in my opinion the most interesting but also the most challenging: the Desirable Future.

The Desirable Future is really a lot of fun to investigate. It mixes the Likely future with the development of a vision. In this regard, it makes both brain hemispheres work. It combines a rational approach with strategy, creativity and leadership. By using the Likely Future as a basis, it aims at not taking the outcome as inevitable. It is a matter of finding out what will be if we act “normally” and then challenge it to deliver a better prospect. It leads towards a positive, collaborative and stimulating vision of the future. It is an extensive exercise that includes many disciplines and many stakeholders. Futurists mostly like to talk about technologies, but building the future depends much more on leadership and managing human nature than it does on technology, which will only offer tools to achieve future goals. Technology is only as good as the use we make of it, as I explained in a previous article. Earlier on, I mentioned both brain hemispheres having to work together, but the cooperation goes beyond what is inside. It calls for a collective approach. It requires enthusiasm and respect of others. It is about building a better world for all and not just for a few. There will not be a better world if a select few build a future for themselves only. The Desirable future is by far my favourite approach. It is energizing and an endless source of hope and happiness for me. This is why I sketched quite a few avenues about the Desirable Future in my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow, which was ahead of its time when I wrote it and still is (unfortunately?) and still will be for years to come (that’s fortunate for me!)

So, dear reader, what future are you most interested in? The answer is important because it will shape yours!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy future Group Consulting Ltd.

Transparency is a market-driven exercise

March 2, 2016

Among all the trends in food markets, transparency is a tough demand to meet. As such, it is only natural that consumers have questions about what they buy and want to be sure that they buy something they feel comfortable with. In times when the food economy was local with everyone knowing each other in small communities, the food supply chain seemed transparent. With the separation of rural areas and urban centres and the increasing distance, both geographical and relational, between consumers and the different links of the chain, the distance in trust increased, too. Add to this a few scandals through the years and the result is a feeling that something is broken in the world of food.

The renewed desire for transparency is nothing than a cry for trust. Since the personal relationship with suppliers in many cases no longer exists, trust cannot be just a matter of knowing the farmer, the baker or the miller. Today’s transparency is about verifiable facts. Today’s consumers, unlike their parents or grandparents, do not want to be told a story anymore. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe you anyway. They are used to search online for everything, with more or less success when it comes to the truth, but they nonetheless want to find out for themselves and figure out on their own what to think. Today’s concept of transparency is replacing PR, which is a one-way push communication technique. Today’s consumers want a one-way pull information platform. That is all the difference. PR is obsolete, but most food producers still have not come to this realization.

The prospect of having to collect, update and disclose all information through the chain from DNA to retail store or restaurant seems a daunting task and for many food producers, it feels like an overwhelming request. It seems and feels that way because it is. It is rather close to some Herculean task. One of the questions I often get is how much do consumers want to know and should everything be available? My answer is that in theory, consumers want to know everything and so it all should be available indeed but in practice, it is somewhat different. Consumers do not really want to know everything about how their food is produced. Well, maybe some do but they are very few. Most consumers do not even read nutritional labels, so they won’t bother spending hours or more to learn everything about the bread or the chicken they just bought unless something serious triggers it. So, what do the large majority of consumers really want? They don’t want to know everything but they want you to be able to answer them any question they have. They want the certainty that, should they have a question about their food, they will get an answer, the truth and that nothing will be hidden from them. Transparency is much more about trust and truth than it is about hard data. Yet, the way to get there is through data and open access.

TransparencyThe amount of data that can be collected is huge and so is the task to set up your transparency system. However, regardless of how much data you collect and share, your transparency performance will always depend first on making transparency one of the pillars of your organization. By that, I mean have the genuine willingness to engage in a candid and honest interaction with your customers and consumers. Genuine, candid and honest are key words when it comes to transparency. People will sense if you are so indeed. If they sense the opposite, you will not gain trust and the perception of your company will further deteriorate. Consumers will forgive honest mistakes when you admit you made one and are willing to do what is needed to correct it, both inside your organization as towards your customers. Consumers will accept that you do not necessarily have all the answers ready but that you are willing to do the research and come back diligently to them with the information. Although immediate response has become an expectation in the digital world, people understand that sometimes a bit of time is needed. Although data is important for transparency, attitude is at least just as much. By being responsive and handling difficult conversations in a mature manner will get you a long way. In a transparency approach, there is no need for defensiveness. You open the doors and you get out of the way! Of course, the mix of transparency and data brings the issue of boundaries. There is a fine line between what is useful information for customers and what is critical information about the company and information that affect competitiveness. Consumers will understand that some information is sensitive enough to not be disclosed. In this process, too, it is essential to be genuine, candid and transparent as long as it is not an attempt to hide something. Remember, transparency is a tool to increase the consumer’s trust and loyalty!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.