Toops Scoops: Something to talk about

Word-of-mouth buzz can shift food industry policy; it did so on trans fats.

Buzz created by word-of-mouth and online discussion forums shaped one of the most notable food industry crises in recent times, according to New York-based BuzzMetrics, the leader in such word-of-mouth research and planning.

As far back as 1994, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) requested the FDA to take steps to list trans fats on nutrition labels. But when Ban Trans Fats, a consumer advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on May 5, 2003, against Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods over its use of controversial partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) in Oreo cookies, a frenzy of online discussion platforms erupted.

"...the Internet has enabled
to take a much bigger
and more public role
in society."

In fact, trans fats discussions increased more than eightfold during the month the lawsuit was filed. More significantly, long-term interest in the subject was maintained, as conversation during the final months of 2003 was almost three times higher than in the beginning of the year. Nearly 40 percent of Google search results for trans fats were consumer-generated sources such as weblogs, personal home pages and message boards.

BuzzMetrics analyzed more than 2.6 million comments on trans fats from more than 120,000 consumers. “The reason that we picked it as a case study is because it was a market situation where there was a clear and defined buzz leading up to an event, but the initial buzz was within an insular community of experts – dedicated nutrition, fitness and health forums,” explains BuzzMetrics CEO Jonathan Carson. “This lawsuit acted as a tipping point to lead the issue into the mainstream. All of the energy created by nutritionists, dietitians and nutrition thought leaders suddenly exploded with the lawsuit and subsequent media coverage that the lawsuit garnered. It turned into a long-term deep and complex interest in the trans fats issue among mainstream consumers.”

Trans fat use by Kraft/Nabisco was specifically mentioned by 17 percent and the Oreo brand by 26 percent of consumers, but other companies and brands were also targeted within online communities, including McDonald’s (8 percent), Doritos (16 percent), Crisco (16 percent), Skippy (8 percent), Cheetos (8 percent), Jif (7 percent), Peter Pan (6 percent) and Tostitos (3 percent). It’s notable that although three of Frito-Lay’s brands were mentioned, consumers did not link the company to trans fats.

“There’s a constant question as to whether word-of-mouth buzz determines what the trends are or what the trends are going to be,” says Carson. “The big shift that’s taken place is that the Internet has enabled word-of-mouth to take a much bigger and more public role in society.

“For one thing, people’s networks have gotten much bigger,” he continues. “Instead of just interacting with a couple dozen friends, family members and colleagues, individuals that choose to engage in these communities –- an increasingly larger portion of the population -– suddenly have the opportunity to interact with thousands of people. The spread of information happens in a much quicker, more efficient manner. Ideas that have a lot of talk value can spread very quickly.”

Another change is that influentials are no longer bound by geographic limits. “Those individuals have flocked online because they are passionately driven to spread information,” explains Carson. “Now they have the opportunity to spread the word to a much wider audience. At the same time, people looking for information from these consumer experts have a much easier time finding them.”

Carson says the business ramification of this is that all of the word-of-mouth that used to happen behind the scenes is now taking place in public in archived and recorded formats, so companies can actually engage in the dialogue.

“They can understand what consumers are talking about and get a better idea of consumer attitudes,” he says emphatically. “They can predict where the market is heading by watching how buzz is building around issues.” Even more important, they can enter into the conversations. “They can engage in relationships with influencers or they can participate themselves.”

Even though the lawsuit was dropped on May 16, 2003, Kraft, which is always on trend with consumer desires, responded -- quickly. In July, it began reducing fat, sugar and calories in its products, reducing portion sizes and expanding information on its labels. And that is buzz-worthy.

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