Food fights will go on and it is a good thing

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.

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