What do consumers really want to know about food?

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.

How much do consumers really know about food?

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that they will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Regaining the consumer’s trust

I read many blogs, articles and opinions about food on a regular basis. Yesterday, I came across an interesting blog post on Meatingplace.com. Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, an authority in the US poultry industry, wrote the article, titled “Consumer trust” after she found out about a survey carried out by the Center for Food Integrity. Basically, the survey concluded that as farms were growing in size, consumers started to wonder if they still had the same values, and although small farms still have the public opinion’s trust, large-scale farms are looked at with suspicion.

That article brought me to think about trust, how it works, and what to do to win it back once it has been lost.

Instead of trying to figure out which group of the population to influence, as the author suggests, I prefer to go back to the basics. If I stop trusting someone, what would he/she have to do to convince me that he/she is trustworthy again? The empathic exercise is a much better way to find out what might work or not. In my opinion, that is exactly what the food sector should do first, instead of pushing the same message without much success.

First, people stops trusting when they are disappointed, when they feel betrayed or when they feel unsafe. By finding out which one of the above caused the loss of trust, and what more specific reasons made the public change their minds, the food sector will already make huge progress.

The second thing to keep in mind is regaining trust is even much more difficult than winning it in the first place. The baggage will stay in the way for a long time. Therefore, a lot of patience is required. There will be no quick fix. A cute video clip, well-thought press releases will not be enough. Far from it. Trust is not something that can be forced, it must be earned. Trust is the result of consistent and positive behavior that benefits the other party.

Once people have lost trust, per definition, they do not believe anything they hear from the distrusted party. In fact, they will hardly listen. Therefore, words will have little impact, unless they go along with actions that confirm that the message is true. If the food industry does not want to change and hopes that communication will be enough to change the public’s mind, nothing will change. When you want someone to prove to you that he/she is reliable, you want to see tangible proof that something is changing in your favor. The most powerful communication tool that really works for regaining trust is the non-verbal communication. The distrusted one must sweat to win trust back. This does not take away that verbal communication must continue. It will keep the relationship alive, but it will not be the critical part for turning around the situation.

Here is just an example to illustrate this. The US meat and poultry sector has undergone many recall procedures about bacterial contamination over the years, and at this day, this problem seems to continue. The industry takes measures to solve the problem, because such recalls are very costly, but as long as there will not be an obvious change in food safety, and recalls keep on happening, consumers will keep doubting how their meat is produced.

Food suppliers have no other choice than to listen to the consumers. The customer is always king. The customer is always right, even when he/she is wrong. A lot of this is about perception. Here is an example of the above. Last June, Greenpeace came with a ranking of Canadian retailers about their seafood procurement, and in particular about their sustainability score on seafood. Costco scored poorly, and their first reaction was to dismiss Greenpeace’s assessment, by basically saying that they are professionals who know what they do, and that they do not really need advice from Greenpeace. Yet, a few weeks later, Costco reorganized its seafood assortment from 15 species back to seven sustainably produced seafood species. That is successful non-verbal communication.

Regaining the consumers’ trust will require transparency, integrity, honesty, a lot of patience and communication, and most of all action towards change that meet the market’s demand. This does not mean that all consumers wishes can be met. After all, life is a continuous negotiation. Food producers and the public need to meet somewhere halfway. Market-driven always trumps production-driven.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.