My previous article about what consumers know about food is only part of the equation. What is as important is to know what they want to know and why. When it comes to knowledge of food, consumers can be divided into three main groups. There are those who know about food and most are always interested to learn more. Then, there is the (large) group of people who do not know. Some are willing to learn. Usually, they are confused by all the contradictory points of views that they hear or read and they just do not know who they should believe. This open-minded sub-group gathers people from all walks of life. They may have their biases but they are willing to change their minds. Another sub-group among those who do not know much about food gathers people who do not know and do not care as long as their food is safe, tastes good to them and has the right price. Then there is the third group, the difficult group of those who think they know but don’t. Usually, they are not willing to learn because, well, they already know it all and they are certainly not looking forward to have their certainties challenged. This group can be divided into two sub-groups, too: those who think they have the monopoly of science and those who think they have the monopoly of morals.
In this article, I will focus on the people who have the willingness to learn about food. What would be the point of trying to spend time if that willingness was not there? Also, all I can tell is my personal experience when meeting with people who are asking questions about food and where it is all going. Actually, I always found that the conversations I have had with people asking me about food and agriculture went quite well. I guess the secret for that is to not try to force people into any conclusion. Let them decide for themselves. People do not like being told what they should know and believe. It is a very normal reaction, and that is why so-called “educating” the consumer will never really achieve much. Just have a relaxed talk without any particular agenda other than to listen and respect each other’s point of view.
Further, even though marketing experts always like to define specific areas of attention, the mapping of consumers is not all that useful when it comes to the food conversation. Of course people are concerned about health, environment, origin of product, production methods, etc… When you look at what consumers want to know, it really comes down to two main issues. One is “How do I know that my food won’t make me sick -or worse?”, and the other one is “Can I trust the food producer?” These two issues are quite interconnected and not easy to address for food suppliers. The first issue, which really comes down to the topic of food safety is work in progress. There has never been full absolute food safety in the past and it will not be possible to guarantee that in the future, either. A large part of food safety issues actually happen in the consumers’ homes because of poor food handling. Many consumers do not know the basics of proper food handling. But even at the producer’s level, no production system is immune. Problems happen just as well with industrial production as with farmers’ market type of food. It happens with large producers just as it happens with small producers. This is where the issue of trust plays an important role. Consumers want to know which suppliers they can trust for food that does not contain anything harmful or/and weird. In previous posts, I have raised the issue of trust many times and mentioned how difficult it is to earn. Why do some food producers earn trust and others not? It has been the idea of brands since day one: the consumer can recognize the producer easily and know that the product is reliable every time. In our world flooded with information, rumours and stories of all sorts, and with a reach like never before, this is not sufficient anymore. If the question of how to earn trust is often difficult to answer, another way of looking at it is to do what I like to do when I cannot get an answer: to look at it from the opposite angle. The question then becomes what makes consumers not trust a producer? I am sure that you can make a list of reasons very quickly. Here I can give you a few: not knowing the producer, bad or unknown reputation, unreliable quality, regular problems, hiding information, not answering questions, lying to the customer, saying one thing and doing another, etc… It has a lot to do with quality of the product and quality of the communication, and consumers want to know what the quality of both is.
Traceability and transparency address those concerns to some extent. They are certainly helping by creating a much required communication and openness. However, the question remains whether food suppliers are on the same wave length as what consumers want to know. Traceability and transparency are not new concepts. They were part of my dealings with my customers some 25 years ago, and I still have the same reservations today as I had by then. I can state without any doubt that traceability is essential but I would like to see it become a proactive tool, instead of about just recording history. I remember telling one of my customers by then that I thought that traceability in order to be able to explain on rather short notice what went wrong was really short changing the customer. With today’s mass digitalization, which makes getting the information about the records even quicker, I believe that my point has become even more important. Traceability cannot just be about finding out the cause of a problem after the customer has found out. I always have considered that the customer can never be the quality control of a supplier. If producers have traceability systems that allow them to tell within moments what went wrong, then the system has to be able to prevent the problem from happening. The traceability system has to be connected with the quality assurance system. With the rise of sensors, internet of things, data collection software and artificial intelligence, the traceability system must become the frame for quality assurance and the high-tech devices will have to allow a real time 100% quality control on physical, chemical and biological quality criteria. It will have to be able to shut down the production line as soon as a deviation from the quality standard occurs. Traceability will move from “writing history” to “making (clean) history”. There are already a lot of possible quality defects that are prevented from being sent to consumers but it has to be even better in the future. Ideally, the objective must become zero recall, because even if recalls help prevent problems from getting worse, their incidence is creating a feeling of insufficient safety.
Regarding transparency, I believe that there is a disconnect between what food producers are doing and what consumers are looking for. Of course, the best way to be fully transparent is to put every bit of data and information in the system. From a consumer’s point of view, what is transparency really about? Do you know anyone who wants to check every detail of the production of what s/he buys? Consumers might be interested to know from which farm their food comes from. They might be interested in knowing the farmer’s name and see pictures. Will they want to be interested in digging as far as to know when chickens were born and when, what feeds they ate during their life and where the feeds came from and what they were made of and where the ingredients used for the feed came from and when they were produced, or would they really be interested in knowing the genealogy of the chickens and look up for where the parents and grandparents were raised, or have the production details in the slaughterhouse? I doubt it. In my opinion, the highest value of transparency for consumers is that the food producer has it and is willing to show everything if questions arise. In other words, the producer is not trying to hide or misrepresent anything. After all transparent means exactly that: you can see for yourself through the window and you do it without having someone telling you what and where to look. More than the content of information presented, it is the food producer’s attitude that matters. The role of social media also amplifies the need for transparency, but it also may contain some pitfalls for producers. A recent survey by Deloitte shows that Millennials and GenZ assess producers by their values a lot and that their loyalty will be to the values and not to the brand. I believe that values are going to be a critical aspect of how consumers choose from whom they will buy their food, and anything else. The combination of social media with heightened sense of individualism (some would say narcissism) and yet at the same time a strong trend towards polarization and tribalism around sets of values and beliefs means that food producers will have to navigate skillfully in the future.
Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.