Market View: Be a Myth Buster

Myths harm the food industry, so work to stop them.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

I was reading an article recently that discussed the myths of MSG. It got me to thinking about how these myths get started. More importantly, what keeps them going years after they first get media attention? I guess like most rumors there may be some morsel of truth to them initially but, just like the kids’ game "whisper down the lane," that morsel changes with each new iteration.

How many myths can you think of? I remember when my 85-year-old father started cutting the fat off his steaks because he had heard it was bad for his heart. That decision was made after he had had two eggs and bacon every day for as long as I can remember.

Food myths aren't funny. They hurt our business when people accept information from virtually any source and modify their eating habits sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The Internet exacerbates the situation. I just saw a video comparing the effects of sugar on the brain to cocaine’s effect. It looked very credible and I would not be surprised to see legions of people cutting out sugar. In fact, in a recent focus group I conducted, virtually everyone said they were trying to cut out sugar. They weren’t sure if it was added sugar or just total sugar but they “knew” sugar was bad. They were not very knowledgeable but they had that idea. They made decisions based on myths.

Many of the consumers I speak to think retail chickens were given hormones and antibiotics. Despite what you may hear, no artificial or added hormones are used in the food supply in any poultry in the U.S. Government regulations prohibit the use of such hormones. So any brand of chicken can be labeled “Raised without hormones” or something like that. Yet in recent focus groups, consumers consistently say they want "hormone-free chicken."

And who do you think is one of the biggest spreaders of myths? The food industry! In our efforts to find the differential advantage, we promote things that may not really be an advantage in the long run. If all chicken in the market does not have added hormones, a call out on the label expressing this may just lead consumers to believe that those without the call out may be tainted. Sound like good marketing? Only if you think helping to substantiate a myth is good marketing.

Who else is at fault? Government agencies. Government efforts are focused on telling consumers what might be bad for them. However, when there are obvious myths abounding, those agencies should be clear and assertive that the myths are not true or at least are unproven. I applaud the FCC for requiring a statement on "hormone-free" milk explaining that no significant difference can be found, but there should be more done to make consumers knowledgeable. Look at all the resources they spent telling consumers how bad fat was for them. Could they spend some resources telling consumers that drinking milk from hormone treated cows is not the source of teen early maturation?

But the worst source of food myths is the unnamed "they." Almost every time consumers quote a source it starts with “they.” “They” are the most insidious myth builders. “They” are on TV, radio and the Internet.

What is the solution? Be assertive as soon as possible. In days of yore, myths spread much slower and food companies could wait and watch. Many times it would just go away, but not today. In just a few hours, thousands can catch the "myth flu." Look at what happened with “pink slime.” The company went from highly profitable to bankrupt in a couple weeks.

The biggest corporate fear is that by reacting to the myth, you are drawing attention to the issue. Yes, you are. However it is attention that addresses the positive aspects of your products. Tell consumers that chickens that are sick are not just left to die, but removed from the food chain and given the same types of treatment you would want a humane company to do. Tell them you care about the animals that are sick and try to heal them. Tell consumers you don't sell sick chickens or chickens loaded with antibiotics. Tell consumers, and don't let whoever "they" are say otherwise.

Stop thinking in terms of press releases alone. Make a list of every source of information that today’s consumer may use to find out what "they" say. Use blogs, Yelp, Twitter and Facebook to develop a presence. Keep in mind consumers still will be skeptical, but it is the continued message, the constant response, that will lead to a change of beliefs.

Don't be afraid to be personal. Everything doesn't have to be a scientific report. Tell consumers that you give your children the food you make. I tell people my father lived to 90 and ate bacon every day. Be personal, because that's what "they" do.

One last caution. The millennium generation is armed with more information than any group in history, and they use it. Just like the old model was to compete for air time on TV, today it is competing for screen time on their computers, cell phones, tablets, etc.

Myths harm the food industry. Work to stop them.

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